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A Sidelined Awareness



All through residency I kept the words of a mentor in my head: “Residency is going to change you. Your job is to figure out how.” I think the same can be said for this pandemic season. We’re not there yet, but most experts seem to agree that we’ll see something close to normalcy return to our social lives within 2021. I started reflecting on how the pandemic changed me spiritually so that I can celebrate what was better and be prepared to maybe prune what doesn’t serve me or my community well. I want to share about one change in particular. The other day while driving I heard a few random lines of a sermon about how Jesus loved and cared for the poor. Something struck a chord and a little light flickered inside me. “Jesus really saw the poor,” the woman said. The simplicity of those 5 words stood out to me. What was it about her declaration — something I’d heard a million times — that caused me to pause? “Jesus really saw the poor.” I said it to myself a few times. What then seemed to stand out was how I had almost completely stopped “seeing” poverty, how I failed to notice it or let it affect me — both at work and just generally. Some personal questions started to bubble up… Why have I been so much less attuned to poverty lately? Before the pandemic I generally felt aware of my city’s latest poverty statistics, could have told you what a few inspiring organizations were doing, felt connected to where I was donating money, and was overall much more aware of my patients who were struggling financially. Why have I donated less money and time this year despite having more of each? Why is it easier for me to envision the petty crime I keep hearing about becoming the new norm than it is for me to envision sharing my resources? While I’ve felt a great degree of permission to be more inwardly focused during the pandemic, it is also true that I’ve subtly given myself permission to tune out the general hurt around me and across my city. Why did the unemployment numbers I saw on the news not penetrate me deeper? Why did those sad stories make me just blame certain politics and “the system’s” failings? During this pandemic season I’ve read more Scripture than I had in years, yet why was it so easy to glaze over the parts that used to open my eyes to the value of selfless acts of love? What had I missed out on by retreating inward in some ways? When I ask these questions I don’t hear heavy voices attempting to shame me. Part of that is God’s grace and part of that is feeling like I have legitimate excuses: Almost everyone is hurting in some way or another thanks to the pandemic. I had to narrow my focus to those closest to me — family comes first, for instance. The stuff that made the news was all-consuming and I was distracted. The national conversation on race and policing called for a different kind of inner work. I generally rubbed shoulders with less people. Opportunities to serve decreased as risk of COVID exposure increased. I felt inclined to save money for fear of more rainy days. Smart and well-intentioned people in finance said “if you have money to invest, well now’s the time to capitalize.” I was convinced the government’s stimulus checks would help people more than I could. Those may have been very legitimate thoughts, but they don’t change the fact that I disconnected from noticing the unique struggle of the poor at a time when all types of poverty were skyrocketing at home and abroad. It felt appropriately confronting to do my taxes recently and acknowledge not just my decreased giving but my increased yearning for security in scary times. I’m just acknowledging that, for me, a good portion of the inward focus that the pandemic season brought changed me in some ways that I won’t allow to last, now that I see it. Jesus “sees” me, too. He gets it. Things confront us, and he consoles. He knows the pandemic helped shape me in really great ways too, as I pursued better mental health, took more time for myself, soaked in time with Melanie, leaned on close friends, and ran in the woods a whole lot more. We don’t have to be dualistic in how we reflect on how the pandemic changed us — but it’s important to see if there are flickering lights within us which are ready to re-ignite, hopefully in very fresh and invigorating ways. Just to reiterate (because talk of poverty can so easily lead me to either guilt or achieving), the deeper and most true point of my reflection isn’t about combating poverty; it’s about acknowledging how this season has served me well while also sidelining a certain awareness in me. It’s that awareness that I sense God calling me back to right now. I can imagine others struggling uniquely with solitude, anger, indifference, or that phone in their pocket becoming a powerful distractor. I hope we can honestly and humbly seek out the places we’ve changed and keep our eyes out for those little flickers of light that will lead us forward into a new season. -Conor McWade

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