Guest Post: Mistaken Enemy #CopingWithCOVID19

By Brita

When I went on a mission to South America over 20 years ago, I knew that I would learn things there that would stay with me throughout my life. But I had no idea that one of the most important lessons I would learn would apply to a pandemic in 2020.

The city that my mission was based in had two missions headquartered there: the North Mission and the South Mission. Both mission offices were housed in the same office building, and the respective office Elders sometimes interacted with each other. My zone leaders told me that the two mission presidents had very different styles and approaches to missionary work, and as a result their missionaries reflected those differences. I didn’t think much about these rumors at the time. All of the areas I was assigned to serve in were far away from the city, and I would never even see missionaries from the other mission. Or so I thought.

But one day our mission was turned upside down. One of the two mission presidents was abruptly pulled out of the country and reassigned to a different mission. (“He was getting death threats!” the mission gossip said.) Now 300+ missionaries were combined for the foreseeable future under the leadership of the remaining mission president. He had only a month left of his three-year assignment, and he wanted to have us prepared to serve as one united mission under the new incoming president, so he made an executive decision: he reassigned every missionary to a new companionship with a missionary from the other mission. Perhaps he reasoned that we would quickly learn to work together in spite of our different backgrounds.

Sadly, that was not the case for many companionships. It turned out that there was more than just a difference in style. Many missionaries had a great disdain for missionaries from the other mission, and they quickly mobilized to try to make sure that the missionary from their “team” had the upper hand in all companionships. Those first weeks together were really rough. Arguments broke out in zone meetings. We heard of Elders who got in fist fights with their companions. P-day activities with other missionaries grew to be a source of tension instead of a time to relax, as missionaries from the other mission said and did things to provoke their “rivals.” A full six months after the missions combined, I watched missionaries arrive at the Christmas mission conference and abandon their companions so that they could run off and gossip about them with their old friends.

I was very fortunate with my companions and mostly avoided any conflict related to mission “team” loyalty. But it hurt a lot when I was transferred to a new area and immediately felt hostility from my new zone leader. We had never even met before, but I was from the other mission and was therefore the enemy. I just didn’t understand the rivalry. Weren’t we all supposed to be on the same team? Didn’t we all have the same goal as missionaries—to bring people to Christ? And yet here we were treating each other as enemies. The number of baptisms in our mission plummeted. I was sure it was because of the contention between missionaries. How could we teach by the Spirit when there was so much anger? I imagined Satan laughing at the situation. He didn’t have to work on our investigators; we had done a great job of sabotaging the missionary work on our own.

At the end of my mission I returned home a bit stunned by what had happened. Over the years as I reflected on my mission, I started to notice how similar things were happening all the time in my wards and in the Church as a whole. Sometimes we were quick to demonize other members simply because they didn’t believe exactly the same as we did, or because they had a different approach or style. Were we forgetting that we were all on the same team, with the goal of following Jesus? And what was all this talk about “The World,” turning people outside the Church into enemies? Isn’t one of our important doctrines the idea that we all—every single person on earth—chose to follow Jesus in the premortal existence? Shouldn’t we be trying to help others on their journey instead of labeling them as enemies? It was so easy to fall into the trap of vilifying others. Mosiah 3:19 says, “The natural man is an enemy to God.” Yes. “An enemy to God” . . . and to people, I thought. I had to work hard to resist the tendency to turn others into enemies, too.

I have always loved reading inspirational accounts of what happened during World War II, how regular people united and sacrificed together to defeat an evil man who sought to destroy lives, cultures, goodness and freedoms. When COVID-19 turned our lives upside down, I was so hopeful that it would be a time to finally set aside differences and unite against a common enemy—a dangerous virus that kills vulnerable people and causes suffering and long-term health problems for many more. At first I was very encouraged. People all around the world quickly made big changes in their lives in order to slow down the virus. But in the United States, where political polarization has been extreme for several years now, many people have already turned on each other instead of continuing the fight against the virus. Some people on the right have taken to calling mask-wearers “sheeple.” Others accuse the left of being happy about the virus and the high death count because they make President Trump look bad. There are accusations from the left, as well, with many accusing the right of caring more about money than about people’s lives.

The most troubling accusation I have heard is that we are overreacting, that the virus really isn’t that bad. With my background in infectious diseases, and from reading the news out of New York City, I can tell that the virus is bad, really bad. I worry that many people have given up the fight against the virus altogether, because they would rather fight other people. Does the virus laugh at this? Of course not. Viruses don’t laugh. But you’d better believe that SARS-CoV-2 is taking advantage of our fighting with each other to fulfill its own mission, which is to make as many copies of itself as possible.

To be sure, bad policies, bad leadership, unpreparedness, and lack of tests all contributed in a major way to the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. But the chaos and confusion caused by fighting in my country have without a doubt already contributed to many deaths, and the pandemic isn’t close to being over.

Maybe I am naïve, but I still hope that good things can come from the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. Perhaps people will look at countries that did a remarkable job in their fight against the virus, like South Korea and New Zealand, and they will learn that unity is more important than partisan politics. Perhaps when we return to church, we won’t care so much about our differences. Perhaps we will be more aware of the vulnerabilities and suffering of others, more willing to help in hard times. You know, a little closer to Zion.

 

Brita spent five years of her career working on experimental new vaccines, and she is cheering on all of the people who are working so hard right now to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

[Image: Three Little Girls in a Room Arguing and Spitting by Lorenz Frølich]

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6 Responses

  1. Brian G says:

    This was so insightful. I recently wrote as well what I learned about pandemics from my mission in Central America. But that was really more about learning to live with disease and the impacts.

  2. Chante says:

    Profound! “I worry that many people have given up the fight against the virus altogether, because they would rather fight other people.”

    I’ve thought about the “us vs. them” mentality before, sometimes stumped by my own default reactions. Apparently it’s part of how we’re wired, but thankfully it can be overcome with conscientious effort.

    Your mission experience is a perfect illustration of what happens when we fall to the level of our basic biological programming instead of rise to the insights of the Spirit.

    The last paragraph actually made me tear up a bit. I worry about the different approaches of political leaders on many levels, the tribalism poisoning our political conversations, and the increasing difficulty of discovering truth in an ocean of information. It feels insurmountable.

    Your final words renewed my personal resolve, however, to weed where I stand and make sure my own thoughts, words, and actions inspire collaboration instead of contention. Then hope this helps others in some way. Like you have helped me today.

    “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” — Mother Teresa

    Thanks for your water ripples, Brita.

    (Reference: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-our-brains-see-the-world-as-us-versus-them/)

  3. Jacob says:

    A wise analysis and call for unity. Appreciated!

  4. Josh Wouden says:

    The division and partisan politics in our country have become distressingly polemic. Both parties are to blame. The two party system is broken. We need to come together. Remember our shared humanity and that we are all Americans. We are all in this together.

  5. el oso says:

    Good post and great mission story! Rancor among the missionaries is very counterproductive to their common goal.
    I wonder if the multiple sides of the current Covid-19 debate share many common goals at this point. The only one I can think of would be to not die of the virus and not see close relatives die either. Back in March, there was far more alignment of goals wrt the virus.
    If your personal “common” goal is to get your life back to “normal” as quickly as possible you need lots of cooperation from others. If you got laid off or have reduced earnings, you need most other people to go back to work and spending money like they used to. If you perceive that many around you have overreacted to a new. but low-risk virus threat, then reducing the perception of that threat in other people’s views is probably the fastest way to get what you want. Masks may be appropriate for health care workers and people riding mass transit in NYC, but they do “little” for everyday interactions. The original goal of not overwhelming our healthcare system has clearly been achieved, the restrictions on public life are no longer needed.
    Once a working majority of people start acting like “normal” again, most of life will return to “normal”, provided you do not get sick and die. Of course if you insist upon attending indoor concerts or NBA games with 10,000 of your closest friends, even the most libertarian of public officials will probably not allow it.

    On the other hand, if your personal “common” goal is extremely low spread of the virus to minimize public health threats even more public cooperation is required. Social distancing, hand washing, and other measures need to be practiced voluntarily by 80% or more of the public to really keep the spread of the virus down. On a personal level, public shaming of non-mask wearers in outdoor parks is very counterproductive. They will probably get more friends to go out with them tomorrow. A small minority can unintentionally sabotage the goal, and if they are young, they may not even get sick.

    If the government closes businesses in low threat areas, resentment and mistrust will build after a month or two, especially among the newly unemployed and young people. If health experts exaggerate the threat (especially initially) like saying the IFR is 2% and then do not just as publicly correct their mistakes public mistrust will elevate. Government officials who do not change their restrictive policies when their initial rationale for massive restrictions is gone and health risks clearly have gone down also lose the public trust. Interaction among essential workers and essential business people will keep the virus going at some low level in most communities. Having the goal of zero infections when there have been 100,000 infected in your city or state is an impossibility in the short to medium term. Getting a large majority of the public to go along with annoying, yet useful restrictions takes lots of care and openness in the decision making process over the long term. Getting people to give up their livelihood for many months due to a public threat that is not greater than driving a car is impossible. Trust will be gone.

  6. Em says:

    I made a post on my facebook page a few weeks ago suggesting that Americans of 2020 would never survive the Blitz. “My lights my rights!” But… the bombs? “If you want to turn off your lights and sit in darkness for hours then that is your choice, but I don’t choose to live that way.” “But if your house gets bombed mine will too!”

    A member of my ward with whom I strongly disagree politically said something to the effect of if we were faced with death people would change their tune pretty quickly. I didn’t want to get into it with him online, something that isn’t very effective anyway, but I thought “we are faced with death. That is the exact thing we are facing. And it isn’t pushing us to unite or put our neighbor’s safety above our own convenience.”

    But I have seen a lot of self-sacrifice. And I have felt a lot of unity. Unfortunately it may take a second or even a third wave to finally push us all onto the same team. Then again, Americans were very reluctant to fight the bad guy. Hitler was being bad for quite awhile before the United States finally joined the war, and it was only because Pearl Harbor finally pushed us over the edge. I hope that someday future generations will (misguidedly) feel nostalgic for 2020.

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