The World at a Distance

From a distance the world looks blue and green
And the snow-capped mountains white
From a distance the ocean meets the stream
And the eagle takes to flight
From a distance there is harmony
And it echoes through the land

You may remember this song, made famous by Bette Midler in 1990. In our current “distanced” world-so characterized by social distancing and all-distance learning, it came to my mind recently. The more the song stuck in my head (one of those times where you can’t seem to get rid of a tune lingering there!), the more I realized it spoke in remarkable ways to the current, surprising condition of our world.

Since we have all been at home, some unintended consequences have been taking shape in our environment. The air is cleaner, thanks to the absence of automobiles and airplanes, mountains have made shocking appearances in places where they are rarely seen in normal times, and there have even been reports of dolphins in the canals in Venice. While we have retreated inside our homes, the environment is experiencing a reprieve, the world looks at least a bit more blue and green.

The human response to COVID-19 is nothing short of remarkable. Indeed, it is a tribute to human agency, what we are able to do when we summon our wills, move beyond self, and look out for the well-being of others. We see it in what our faculties have been doing for students these past weeks, the daily, uncommon courage of health care workers and those employed by essential services, and now we see it, in unintended ways, in the manner in which the world around us has undergone a brief moment of healing as our carbon footprints have been drastically reduced.

There is one way in which Bette Midler’s song has never rested well with me: the refrain that “God is watching us, from a distance.” The spirit of human agency which we have witnessed so splendidly these past weeks is a tribute, in my mind and heart, to the immediacy of God at work, not to a God that simply watches from a distance.

A reminder: we have struggled and worked very hard over the past years to instill in our students a spirit of agency, to give them a sense, in spite of their reluctance, that they have the capacity to influence the world into which they are entering. These past weeks alone have given us a most poignant example of just that: we can make a difference.

What’s more, just as we have managed to make a difference-albeit indirectly-in our environment through our inaction, consider how we might take that depth of human agency, going into the future, and make a more direct, intentional impact on the well-being of our planet.

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D., Executive Director
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