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The Long Road Back to Normal

“Hi Manny, on your way to church?”

My neighbor Tad sees me gesturing at my pet cat Kit Kat to stay put and wait outside my house while I take my early morning walk.

“Catholic churches in NYC are now open at full capacity.”

“That’s great news, Tad.”

“We’re almost back to normal.”

Tad lives a few houses away from me. Before this pandemic we used to meet outside St. Nick’s Church at the corner of Parsons St. and Union Turnpike after the 7 am Sunday service. This time we do a quick elbow bump before I walk on.

My daily early-morning walks are not only therapeutic; they are my “soft writing” moments. Walking, apart from improving my health, calms my mind, and allows me time to clarify my thoughts: I write (in my head) while I walk.

Tad’s last statement gives me pause. “Back to normal”?

I wonder what that actually means right now. People have lost parents, siblings, children, friends, relatives, loved ones. The fallout from this pandemic has left a trail of hospitalizations, absenteeism, economic and social disruption, lost jobs. It has devastated millions of lives the world over. How can people who have permanently lost their homes, their livelihood, and their health get back to normal?

Of course, Broadway plays will be performing again in September. The NYC Marathon will be on in November. Restaurants are actually back in business with most of them operating at full capacity. Street fairs and food festivals are set to be back in business this summer. In the international scene, the Tokyo Olympics are on schedule, the first event to take place on July 21.

I take another route and pass by St. Nick’s Church. Tad is right. The parking lot is full. I pause in front of the church and pray that this pandemic end right now. Right now. I have been importuning heaven for more than a year now, and I won’t stop until I see the end of this scourge. Never stop praying, counseled Thessalonians 5:17, and I’m doing exactly that for the sake of our suffering humanity.

But what exactly was normal when, in the opinion of Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg, “normal was a crisis”?

Do we really want to return to the way things were before the pandemic? If we picked up from where we left off, wouldn’t we be perpetuating the errors we’ve committed that brought this thing about?

Isn’t this thing a wake-up call for course correction, an opportunity to recognize that our conduct were not exactly in alignment with the balance of nature? Would business as usual mean more outbreaks, because we would be reverting to the way we were?

Let me be specific:

I have here a news item about a resident of Palawan narrating of the time her father bought a Dorado fish in market which when its belly was sliced opened they found it filled with garbage: bottle caps of softdrinks, plastic spoon, salonpas, etc. -- in a word, trash. We have poisoned the oceans with our garbage.

I think we have to make lifelong adjustments. Because of rampant greed, we have lost our sense of connection with the natural world. This is dangerous.

We kill the animals, we cut the trees, we burn the forests, we poison the waters. When nature goes on rampage, we suffer. This is not undeserved misfortune; this is poetic justice.

We kill gentle, innocent animals for profit and pleasure. An elephant is killed every 15 minutes and its tusk hacked off for its ivory. That is about a hundred elephants killed each day!

Again, what was normal: War? Corruption? Racism? Robbing the people blind? Mass shootings? That’s not normal, that’s abnormal.

I think the problem is our sense of separateness. Take our forests, for example. Trees are the lungs of the earth. Because of greed, there is wildlife destruction and deforestation. Viruses do not leave their places and the bodies they inhabit in the wilderness. Wild animals can withstand viruses; humans cannot. I just learned that sharks are practically immune to all viruses. And so with animals in the wild. But when you disturb the ecosystem and destroy wildlife habitats, they jump from animals to human.

“In order to change an existing paradigm,” wrote the American architect Buckminster Fuller, “you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.”

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago,” says a Chinese proverb, and further adds, “The second best time is right now.”

Enough of greed. In the words of a Cree Indian: “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”

I have always been impressed by Jesus’ deep respect towards the natural world, especially when He called upon his disciples to live lightly upon the earth. “Take nothing for your journey,” He told them--and us--in Luke 9:1-6, “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” Indeed, it was His journey in the desert in the company of wild animals that Jesus decided to embark upon His messianic ministry.

On my way home, I come across two cats playing hide-and-seek under the parked cars, before they race towards the trees. I envy their carefree lifestyle. They are one with nature. I hurry back home to meet my ever faithful, ever loyal Kit Kat sitting still, waiting for me at the main door.


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