Personal stories powerful in coronavirus narrative


July 27, 2020

I keep hearing, “These are unprecedented times,” which motivated me to do a little research. Armed with the understanding that history repeats itself, I Googled: Pandemic of 1918, and images of people wearing face masks were among the first to pop up. Some were of medical personnel, but others were street shots of people in the United States. 

The photos immediately triggered another popular phrase, “We’ve seen this movie before.” The implication here is that we know how this is going to end. Yet, regarding this pandemic, nothing could be further from the truth. COVID-19 is referred to as the novel virus because of its unpredictability, baffling scientists and challenging previous misconceptions. 

Not only has its etiology shifted over the months, but questions remain. Who is susceptible, how is it transmitted and do victims of the virus experience permanent damage after they no longer test positive? 

Problems with balance, speech and memory impairment, organ damage and muscle weakness are a few of the symptoms that have surfaced, indicating there is much to be learned about this virus.

Despite the high number of deaths from COVID-19, medical advances over the past century have led to far fewer deaths than occurred during previous pandemics. By contrast, the pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide and killed 675,000 Americans. Yet, news reports about it were scant, a stark difference from the way the virus is being reported today. 

While the media is often criticized for its seeming obsession with the personal lives of people, it has managed to do something right that was missing from other pandemics. They’ve been shining a light on victims of the virus, their families and people who are at risk, working in the in the front lines, helping others.

In reading several accounts about the pandemic of 1918, the absence of personal stories was lamented in almost every report. People were seemingly reduced to numbers. Therefore, once the pandemic was over, no one talked about it. It was a disease without a face or human story, which may account for its diminished role in history and the reason lessons learned were quickly forgotten.

The human face is what makes history memorable and life-giving. It connects humans beyond the boundaries of cultures and times, but more importantly human stories touch hearts and change lives. 

Storytelling is the most effective and universal means of communicating human experience, educating and grounding people in their common humanity. In an article about religious experience, Salesian Father Joseph F. Chorpenning, who holds a doctorate in historical theology, posited that theology takes as its starting point human experience because people are essentially story listening and storytelling human beings. 

No one understood this better than Jesus. His use of parables was the mainstay of his preaching, making them as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago. It’s been said that the best stories are the ones told after the storyteller stops speaking, which makes Scripture the greatest story ever told. 

Through the ages, Scripture has been proclaimed from the pulpit, studied by both scholars and ordinary people, and prayed over by the young and old, the rich and poor, believers and non-believers. 

Scripture never gets old because the Word of God is always relevant, for within every story are multiple stories, including our own. We don’t need to be a farmer to understand the parable of the sower, a doctor to appreciate the story of the Good Samaritan, nor be homeless to be touched by the story of the Prodigal Son. 

Whether we’re sharing stories about faith, family, travel or the pandemic, people listen. Over the years, I’ve learned that if eyes begin to glaze over when I’m giving a presentation, the moment I begin telling a story the audience comes alive. Stories invite people to change without lecturing or intimidating. Every movement has its genesis in a story — Black Lives Matter being the most recent example. 

No one knows how or when the story of the coronavirus will end, but when people look back, I hope the human stories will continue to be told because that’s where the dying and rising of Christ becomes real. It’s how we learn what it means to love our neighbor, to see Christ in the sick and the poor, the homebound and the marginalized. 

Today’s tears are dewfall that can water the soil of hearts for generations to come. In telling stories about the saints, the Church has been making the world fertile and fruitful. May the tradition continue, for we never know whose story will be among the stories about the saints of tomorrow.

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