Neighbor Love Through Fearful Days: Finding Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis
For anyone familiar with the scholarship on vocation, Frederick Buechner’s ubiquitous definition that “the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” is hard to miss.1 Those of us engaged in the teaching of vocation have often implicitly or explicitly favored the “deep gladness” angle, encouraging students to discern what they are passionate about and what they might do with their “one wild and precious life.”2 The trick is to identify where this “deep gladness” intersects with the “deep hunger” of the world, and consequently how we can shape our lives and our work to serve the common good.
Achieving this difficult balance is hard enough in the best of times. It is exponentially harder in the context of a global pandemic that ravaged vulnerable communities and exposed the deep racial and economic divisions that persist in American society. During the early stages of the pandemic, there were many calls to unite around a common goal of eradicating the pandemic, accompanied by what turned out to be rather hollow assurances that we were “all in this together.” A summer of devastating loss, racial conflicts, and economic uncertainty led to serious retrenchment and an atmosphere of hopelessness and isolation in which any kind of communal vocation felt fleeting.
Against this bleak backdrop, Jason Mahn took up this formidable challenge. This book comprises a series of journal entries composed in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when the entire world confronted a “new normal” of social distancing, the mortal threat of a virulent new pathogen, and a summer of racial strife. With candor and erudition, Mahn reckons with individual responsibility, shared purpose, and what theologian Deanna Thompson might call “vocations we don’t choose.”3 Indeed, Mahn meditates on how he “oscillates between minimizing human control in the wake of tragedy and maximizing individual responsibility, even for that which one didn’t choose” (134). Yet as Mahn observes, the call to neighbor love and responsibility requires the recognition that “we are now almost always responsible, at least in part, for the tragedies responsible for hurting us, the coronavirus included” (135).
Mahn divides his letters into three sections that correspond to different stages of the pandemic’s fraught early days. The first section, “Who is my neighbor?,” finds Mahn struggling in the first two months of the pandemic with the tension between intimacy and isolation, with trying to live a “summoned life” at a time when social distancing was a public health imperative. In the second section, “Strange Fruit,” Mahn grapples with cascading racial strife wrought by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, and George Floyd. Here, the author interrogates his ingrained sense of white privilege, the systematic injustices that prevent the flourishing of communities of color, and the responsibilities we bear to those who are unlike us. In the final section, “These Three Remain,” he anticipates his college’s return to in-person learning while living through a mini climate crisis in his own community, prompting reflection on how our collective welfare is intertwined by our relationship with the natural world.
Neighbor Love sets a high bar for vocational discernment with an eye towards the common good. It is not enough to make empty gestures of solidarity with essential workers if we do not sustain support after the immediate threat has passed. It is disingenuous and insidious to acknowledge white privilege without repenting of the “soul sickness” of racism.4 It is not enough to reduce our carbon footprint without engaging in the “humbling, humanizing work of reconnection with the life of the soil (humus) and with the whole of creation” (157). Throughout, Mahn ponders, “Why do we become neighborly only in the wake of pandemics, infernos, and raging storms? Could we keep it going after the debris is cleared?” (159).
Although the chronology of the book covers a short and tumultuous time, Mahn displays equanimity and grace in discussing the painful, often bewildering, sometimes embarrassing, but occasionally joyous moments of the early pandemic. In his style and content, Mahn resembles Marilynne Robinson’s memorable narrator from Gilead, John Ames, for whom “writing . . . always felt like praying.”5 Mahn similarly notes early in his letters that “my contemplation and writing this morning feel especially like prayer” (13–14). His prayerful writing is an attempt to attune to the magnitude of the moment, which takes a level of attention and “eyes to see” (21). One must be willing to pay attention, which often reveals some difficult truths, like one’s own complicity in the racist superstructures that subjugate people of color in America.
Perhaps what is most laudable about Mahn’s project is that he composes the different sections of the book in the moment, when many of us could scarcely comprehend the gravity of the pandemic and its irrevocable effects on our society. As someone engaged in the teaching of vocation to undergraduate students, he knows how difficult this is. He likens the task of “reflecting on one’s life while living it” to “holding a mirror while biking in order to see and improve one’s peddling.” As he observes, “it’s difficult, although necessary and humanizing work” (xxx).
Much like St. Ignatius, Mahn engages in the reflective act of writing as a way to make sense of his active life; contemplation, in turn, informs his active life. For instance, in his chapter “Dear Amy,” Mahn addresses Amy Cooper, the infamous Central Park dog walker whose white privilege and racist fear was laid bare when bird watcher Christian Cooper filmed her manufacturing a narrative of victimhood to police. While many viewers recoiled in disgust at Amy’s behavior, Mahn goes beyond idle critique and recalls a time in his own past when he acted impulsively and with bias against a Black member of his community who stole a bike from his neighbor’s yard. Mahn confesses that his behavior “felt” better because he was just protecting the property of his neighbor, but he is self-aware enough to perceive the movements of privilege and exclusion in his actions. He realized that what the woman needed was not a harsh rebuke, but the sincerity and empathy of a neighbor. In a subsequent reflection, Mahn describes how he had a much different reaction to a panhandler in his community. Instead of avoiding contact or, worse, reporting the man to the police, he broke bread with him, doing “nothing more” and “nothing less” than being “polite, kind, and neighborly” with one another (151).
There are many other virtues of this thoughtful book. Educators will relate to the fear, uncertainty, and hope that swirled as campuses returned to in-person learning in the fall of 2020, as well as the narratives Mahn includes about dedicated students navigating these transitions with impressive maturity. Readers across different religious traditions will resonate with his discussion of the biblical stories of Job and Abraham, as well as references to the Qu’ran, Buddhist teachings, and Jewish texts to make sense of senseless suffering and to keep faith and trust when great sacrifices are required. Even casual readers of no faith tradition can relate to Mahn’s fear, expressed early in the book, about what this pandemic will do to him. Mahn asks, “What will become of me, morally and spiritually, and what will become of my Christian calling to love and serve the neighbor?” (6)
Many of us had this same fear about how the pandemic would transform us for the worse, sending us into a spiral of selfishness and contempt for those making different decisions, taking different risks with respect to public health, and responding quite differently to the colliding pandemics of racial injustice and environmental crisis. Ultimately, Mahn’s disarming candor summons us to radical self-reflection that will make us all more “‘response-able’ in a primary sense–able to respond to new circumstances, open and responsive to others” (xxiii).
He ends his writing at the onset of the 2020 academic year, then follows up with an epilogue composed on New Year’s Day 2021. As we know, the hope of the vaccine coincided with new COVID-19 variants, a violent insurrection in our nation’s capital, and continued racial conflict. Readers would benefit from Mahn’s continued reflections on these difficult topics, though it would be foolish to expect even a writer as perspicacious as he to somehow decipher the meaning of and appropriate response to our collective challenges. As he confesses at the end of his reflections, “I have not told many clear success stories of certain redemption in these pages” (199). What he offers is not an ironclad solution to “finding purpose and meaning in a time of crisis.” Suffering will continue, but he shows how one can thoughtfully, sincerely, and faithfully seek more understanding and practice more generous and compassionate responses.
- Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABCs (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1993), 118.
- Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” Line 14.
- Deanna A. Thompson, “Beyond Deep Gladness: Coming to Terms with Vocations We Don’t Choose,” Paradoxum 1 (June 2022): https://paradoxumjournal.com/ beyond-deep-gladness-coming-to-terms-with-vocations-we-dont-choose/.
- Bryan Massingale, “The Assumptions of White Privilege and What We Can Do About It,” National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2020, https://www.ncronline.org/opinion/ guest-voices/assumptions-white-privilege-and-what-we-can-do-about-it.
- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York, NY: Picador, 2004), 19.