Does this annoying experience sound familiar? Just yesterday, I headed to the basement to get the last ingredient for dinner. I grabbed a couple things to put away in the basement in an effort to be efficient, and—after putting them in their place—returned to the kitchen. Without that last ingredient.
If researchers are correct, forgetfulness is increasing in this pandemic. But why? Why is it so hard to remember right now? Since memory is deeply contextual and socialization helps us consolidate memories, this COVID-induced isolation can also induce forgetfulness.
Se Kim mentioned this to me as we were working on our Thanksgiving week piece. Our surroundings help us to create memory; rituals provide contextual clues, encoding them in the synaptic connections that embed memories.
But this is about more than just a forgotten dinner ingredient. If you are anything like me, you are feeling a general uneasiness as we enter Advent. We’re still isolated and facing the likelihood of a virtual (or at least socially distanced) Christmas Eve. How can we remember when we are not gathered, telling the stories of young Mary and John the Baptist? What is lost when we don’t light candles and sing Silent Night, Holy Night?
Remember, We Are Social
For those of you who have been reading each week since the beginning of this pandemic, you have heard this refrain before: human beings were knit in our mother’s wombs to be in relationship. We are social animals, molded for and by community. Wherever two or three are gathered, not only will Christ be there, but we are more likely to flourish. This has been validated by multiple health and well-being metrics. Long-term, sustained loneliness correlates with adverse health effects.
Given the importance of relationships, it should be no surprise that memory formation, including the long-term memory that Se helped us to understand a few weeks ago, is strengthened by social context. Memories form when we share stories at the water cooler or during coffee hour. Remember, it is the replaying of what we experienced, through each retelling or reenactment, that strengthens the neuronal connections that encode our memories.
This is at least part of the power of rituals—those acts we repeat in the rhythms of the church’s liturgical season. Some are weekly—like confession, or a creed, or the Lord’s Prayer—and others are annual, like the candlelight Christmas Eve service. Nearly all are both social and repetitive in ways that deeply embed them in our memories.
When we are isolated, interacting with the same small circle of family and friends, new memories are less likely to form and old ones are not reinforced. Perhaps all those extra Zoom gatherings and virtual services help a little bit, but most of us are tired of virtual church. We were made to pass the peace with handshake or hug, not via text or a screen. We were made to pass the flame of the Christ candle from person to person as we shine light into darkness singing, “Jesus, Lord at thy birth.”
So, what can we do this Advent as we wait and prepare ourselves for Christmas Eve?
- Lockdown has negatively affected our ability to remember.
- Early in this interview with Krista Tippett, Augustin Fuentes summarizes research on the human need to be social.
- This Q & A with a pioneering loneliness researcher might explain some of what we are experiencing today.
- Thousands of Christian health professions are calling on churches to stay home during the holidays.
- Grieving in isolation may be taking a toll on us as this pandemic continues.
- A tension between grief and gratitude will continue to be with us throughout Advent.
Preparing the Way
Here are two ways we can prepare for Christmas morning. First, we identify and attend to the grief associated with the losses of 2020 as we wait for the coming of the Christ child. And second, we anticipate the hope and gratitude that is promised each Christmas morning.
These will be the themes of this newsletter the next two weeks—you might call it our COVID Christmas series. Next week, guest author David Wang, a pastor and psychologist with expertise in trauma and grief (as well as spiritual formation), will walk us through science, Scripture, and the practical realities of our grief.
The following week, Greg will take a more devotional approach as our Advent expectation nears the source of all hope and gratitude—that is, Emmanuel, God with us.
Let’s be honest: This season will not be easy. Grief may flood our hope with tears. Losses may overwhelm our gratitude. Memories may fade in our interminable isolation. COVID-19, according to every expert I have read, is only getting worse.
The season of Advent is about waiting and preparing. Our memories of Advent allow us to wait together, lighting candles and telling the stories that prepare us for Christmas morning. But this year many of us will wait in isolation. Advent always includes grief. But this year may sting with fresh and raw traumas, as we remember all that has been lost in 2020, and especially as more and more people (including some we know) find their lives permanently altered by COVID.
The deepest truth of our Advent waiting is that Jesus will always appear in the manger on Christmas morning. To paraphrase the Gospel of John: the light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it (John 1:5). However dark, however sad, however lonely this season may be, Emmanuel is coming to dwell among us. Whether or not we light candles and sing together Silent Night, Holy Night, the promise of Advent is that Christ is coming.
This is what Incarnation means—God dwells with us in whatever state we happen to find ourselves. It is this good news we must proclaim. Perhaps this year, we need it more than ever.