In March 2020, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The two years since then have been full of fear and heartbreak — but there are also reasons to be hopeful.
To mark the anniversary of the shutdown, we teamed up with the University of Chicago to ask faith leaders from across the city to share short sermons reflecting on the pandemic for people of all beliefs.
Below are remarks from Pranati Parikh, a master’s student at UChicago studying South Asian religions. Press the “Listen” button to follow along.
I’m planning a trip soon to a college alumni event, and although the COVID scares have mostly died down — we’re all triple vaccinated — there are some logistical concerns: Where are people coming from? With whom are they interacting? You’ve probably made similar mental calculations while planning trips, even in hitching a ride with someone or removing your mask in a cafe. Then, of course, if you’re like me at this stage of the pandemic, you’ll brush off the worry and, reasonably, take a chance.
I’ve been thinking about how the pandemic has made a “friend’s friend” (maybe even a “friend’s friend’s friend”) all the more immediate, since it really does matter what a friend’s friend is doing. There is a sprawling web of in-person interactions between every single human, even if they are as fleeting as passing someone by at a cafe. I grew up in a sect of the Hindu tradition called the BAPS Swaminarayan fellowship, which has a lot to say about the friends of friends. People, really: the wider society you have reason to be concerned about given your own embeddedness in it — an embeddedness the pandemic has crystallized. The fourth spiritual head of the fellowship, Yogiji Maharaj, often said, “The tendency to fixate upon the flaws of other people brings sourness to an experience of the world that could otherwise be sweet like a ripe mango.” In other words, the freer of judgment one’s outlook toward others, the sweeter the world.
The problem is with many more reasons to consider what friend’s friends are doing, there come more opportunities to judge them. A photo of smiling faces around the cake that would ordinarily have passed unnoticed on my Facebook feed might elicit, at best, a transient observation that people are unmasked, and, at worst, a reckoning with the fact that they don’t even have their masks under their chins, so it wasn’t a quick pull-down-for-the-photo situation. It’s not fair that they get to interact with each other so freely while I’m alone in my apartment. It’s all the more terrible because I’m supposed to see one of them in a few days. Thus the anxiety — a strange bundle of judgment and jealousy and frustration — ramps up.
I do have trouble sometimes thinking of the world as a giant tropical fruit. It’s not difficult to justify my judgment of others with the thought that it has real epidemiological purchase. But I think the concept is beautiful, and in the context of the pandemic, quite apt. We are enveloped in the same skin, vulnerable to the same influences, ripening together or not at all. Second to the risk of contracting the virus is the risk that in being newly connected with more friends’ friends, I choose only to judge them, and to multiply my stress besides.
In pictures, Yogiji Maharaj was characteristically joyous. You can tell that the world as mango was not, for him, a silly thought experiment, but a true experience of sweetness. I have a part in creating that sweetness when I choose to see the good in people around me, seeing them as legitimated in their decisions and as stakeholders in mine. Perhaps as we approach the end of the pandemic, when judgments about masking and distancing are waning, we can preserve the awareness of friends’ friends that the pandemic has brought to us, but strive for sweetness above all.
This piece was produced for broadcast by WBEZ’s Adora Namigadde, together with The Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago. Follow them @adorakn and @UChiDivinity.