Ramon Presson

The tornadoes touched down in middle Tennessee early in the morning of March 3.  There was very little warning. Not that there weren’t any weather alerts or sirens, but even for those who heard the warnings there was not much time. Some came within just minutes of serious injury and probable death, but for others the margin to reach safety was mere seconds. 24 men, women and children did not make it to safety.  

For some in the tornado’s path a mile made all the difference between a home or business being left intact or being completely destroyed.  For some the distance difference was a less than a football field.  

Whether we are under a tornado warning or a tornado watch, there is at least some measure of being alerted, and the opportunity given to flee or to prepare and brace for impact.  

There was nothing in the clear blue skies on the Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001 to warn of us of impending evil and tragedy. No text alerts or distant sirens to prepare us for the shock, panic, confusion, fear, and chaos that was just moments away.  

The earthquake of 9/11 versus the hurricane of COVID-19 

September 11th was more like a massive earthquake than a tornado or even a hurricane.  Earthquakes come with no warnings. On a sunny day, and when the one thing you assume that you can count on without even thinking about it—that at least the ground you’re standing on is stable—the earth’s rug is pulled out from under you.  

In contrast, we could see the Coronavirus coming but couldn’t seem to get out of its way. In some ways it feels like we were sitting on a beach and watching a huge tidal wave slowly forming off-shore and hoping maybe it would fizzle out or perhaps change direction so we wouldn’t have to move our beach chair and umbrella. At times this crisis has felt like being in one of those elaborate layouts of 100,000 dominoes. The first domino has been tipped and the wave of falling dominoes is heading your way but you can’t move.   

Unlike when under a hurricane warning, we could not evacuate. We cannot even evacuate now. Besides, where would we go?  We are currently being called to do the opposite of evacuate---stay in our homes.  (I’m not disagreeing with that call, by the way. I’m just pointing out the irony.) This leads me to another major difference between 9/11 and COVID-19.  

Social comfort versus social distancing  

The virus is pressing us to do the very opposite of our nature and our need when in a tragedy or crisis. Instead of being able to gather in small groups and large groups, formal and informal, for support and encouragement, we are being forced to isolate in "social distancing."   

The horror, grief, and uncertainty of 9/11 saw us gathering immediately and frequently for support. One of the insidious features of this virus is not just the physical effects and health scares but the social and relational consequences of it.  

In a time of needing each other and needing to be together, because of the very real danger of contagion, it is being requested of us and in many cases being required of us to isolate ourselves. This is unprecedented in our lifetime. But we're in uncharted waters.  

The writer of Hebrews urged his readers not to "forsake the assembling of ourselves together..."  I doubt he foresaw such a time as this when our "forsaken assembly” would be involuntary.  Even during times of persecution, the church has found ways to meet.  But a virus is an invisible enemy, making us vulnerable to unknowingly wounding or being wounded by someone we know and love.   

In Part II of this column I’ll present three more key differences in the emotional and social impact of two catastrophic events in our nation’s recent history--the terrorist attacks and aftermath of September 11th and the current widespread danger of the Coronavirus.  

Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) and the author of several books. Reach him at [email protected].