Reflections on the 1980s and COVID-19

Just before the COVID-19 tsunami hit the United States, I spent a restless and sleepless night with general disquiet. Normally, I like the night for the quiet and peace that it usually brings. While many faith traditions seem to associate the night with Darkness or Evil, I find peace in the night. The Bible also speaks favorably of the stars and the night. So, I enjoy the night (albeit with some trepidation due to the nagging association with evil.)

On that sleepless night, I watched two movies: The China Syndrome (1979) and then The Day After (1983). Both still haunt me and launched me into several weeks of deep melancholy as yet another contemporary disaster unfolds around us in COVID-19.

Despite the melancholy, each movie offers some hope. The China Syndrome addressed the near-meltdown of a fictional, nuclear power plant set in California. The movie illustrates, through an excellent performance by Jack Lemon, the tragedy of corporate-greed (perhaps redundant terms), government ineptitude, and a cover-up that placed the fictional community at-risk.

United States Department of Energy - http://ma.mbe.doe.gov/me70/history/photos.htm Copyright status: Identified on DOE page as "DOE photo", i.e. not copyrighted.
Three Mile Island Disaster Source: Wikipedia. Government DOE source.

I lived through the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster and lived not too far from the plant. At the time, the projected radioactive plumes assuming an explosion would have affected our home. I recall vividly the fear, uncertainty, terror, and worry—fear and terror as you perceive through quiet voices from adults. I recall, even as a child, WGAL news (Dick Hocksworth and Bill Saylor?) anxiously reporting about a potential hydrogen bubble in the containment building, a possible explosion, and a subsequent nuclear meltdown. (Our naïve perception of the situation was that the equivalent of a nuclear explosion would occur.) I remember classmates at school suddenly disappearing as their families fled. I remember the raw fear and worry of parents and grandparents. I remember talk about fleeing to our family-cabin in southern Virginia. I remember whispers of the China Syndrome. (The movie, was released just a few weeks before the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island.)

The Day After appeared as a television movie in 1983. I recall watching parts of it surreptitiously even as a youth. I recall, as a elementary and then middle school student, the persistent and genuine fear of sudden, nuclear annihilation. I recall thinking at night, for years, about my childish plans to survive. I thought that 30-minutes seemed a long-time then—about the time that it would take for nuclear warheads to arrive. While we never had duck-and-cover drills at school that I recall, we did regularly talk about nuclear war. President Reagan talked often of the threat of the USSR.

Seeing The Day After, today, brought even more horror for me. Perhaps with adulthood comes a different understanding of the magnitude of the dread of such events. No food. No medical care. Vigilante “justice.” Quarantine. I don’t think I have ever watched a movie more tragic, disturbing, or likely, accurate. Society largely collapsed the day after. Only post-human shells remained walking and living, for a time. The movie closes by offering a short paragraph suggesting that the movie likely underplays the outcome.

I do not recommend either movie—not because they are not well done but because they likely will leave deep wounds and long-standing scars on the psyche. But coincidentally, each movie, for me, offered a morbid, disturbing, and unexpected, quiet hope for today.

COVID-19 dominates the news. Fear, uncertainty, horror, empty store shelves, changed schedules, death, and unsettled anticipation of a changed future loom. But, we got through Three Mile Island (and Chernobyl and Fukishima). Thankfully, we have not (yet) experienced global, thermonuclear war.

So, what does this have to do with quiet worship? God can speak in the quiet provided by these apparent disasters and troubled times.

A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.

When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there. A quiet voice asked, “So Elijah, now tell me, what are you doing here?” Elijah said it again, “I’ve been working my heart out for God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, because the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.” 1 Kings 19:11-14 (The Message)

Even amidst the figurative maelstrom that we are experiencing, and will likely continue to experience, growing quiet to listen to God, even in the face of a noisy clamor of “news” about COVID-19, may be a way to calm our hearts and our minds. We cannot lose sight of the power of the Source-of-All-Quiet, both external and internal—but also eternal.

So, grow quiet. Listen even in these fearful times. Perhaps God is ready to speak.