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From the Chapel — May 14: Herd immunity

Our Sunday Visitor chapel. Scott Richert photo


“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.

“Daddy, I wish we had a hundred dollars!”


“Because then you wouldn’t have to work, and you could play with me all the time!”

Children are full of wishes. Some are funny (see above); some are heartbreaking (ditto); some are downright cruel (“I wish the cat would die so we could get a dog!”). Wishes are so identified with children that they’ve long been the stuff of fairy tales.

As we grow up, our use of the word wish changes: “I wish!” “Don’t you wish!” We may still wish for a windfall, but we’re a little more realistic in our financial needs and usually more cynical in our desires (“I wish I’d win the lottery so I can tell my boss to take this job and shove it”). But the older we get, the less often we even use the word, much less in a positive sense.

But that doesn’t mean that we quit wishing. Instead, perhaps recognizing that wishes are for children, we shove them down to places where we no longer have to acknowledge them, even though they still affect us.

“Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought,” the dying king says to Prince Henry in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” Part II. The thought that Henry had expressed to his father was, “I never thought to hear you speak again.” The king’s words were a rebuke to his son for what we often call “wishful thinking.” And such wishful thinking is really just our desires affecting our thoughts and even actions, without us being consciously aware of them doing so.

One of the hardest things about growing up is getting to know oneself, to question oneself, to come to grips with and to tame our childish desires. If we don’t, we can end up in a place of self-delusion, letting the wish become the father of the thought, and taking action on thoughts that aren’t really rational but stem from our will, twisted in selfish ways by our fallen nature.

And then when those actions fail to accomplish what we wished, we can’t understand what happened. “No one could have known that it was a bad idea to go to war with Iraq!” said many people who supported the war in 2003 when they had changed their minds a few years later, as more and more Americans died and the costs of the war took a toll on our economy. Except, of course, that some people, such as Pope John Paul II and the future Pope Benedict XVI, did know, because they hadn’t let the wish of a quick, bloodless victory become the father of the thought.

We see a similar phenomenon occurring today with COVID-19. We don’t wish to believe what the data is telling us, so we think that it’s “no worse than the flu,” that “the numbers are inflated,” that we don’t need elaborate procedures when our churches open back up for Mass in order to protect ourselves, our priests, our fellow parishioners. We listen to other people who have also let the wish become the father to the thought, and we develop a sort of herd immunity to reality.

“I’m done with the doom and gloom!” a friend wrote on Facebook today, after I noted that an article he posted in a comment on a post of mine was literally just a summary of the article I had posted. The difference, as he noted, was all in how the data was cast: The original article I had posted was just the facts; the one he had posted had tried to make the data appear to be trending in a positive direction, even though the author did note that it was too soon to come to that conclusion.

I write this not to belittle my friend; I don’t like doom and gloom, either. But if we let the wish become the father of the thought, if we let our unhappiness with the ways in which this virus has affected our everyday lives blind us to the reality that we’re not going to return to life as it was — in work or in worship, in play or in prayer — for a long, long time, we’re in for the kind of disappointment that the little girl had when her father gently explained to her that a hundred dollars just isn’t what it used to be.

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.

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