The Smallest Biggest Number
In this community, we hold hope close. We don’t
always know what comes next, but that cannot dissuade us.
We don’t always know just what to do, but that will not mean
that we are lost in the wilderness. We rely on the certainty
beneath, the foundation of our values and ethics.
—Rev. Theresa I. Soto, “We Hold Hope Close”
I serve as pastor of a 60-member congregation in Maine, and every time I help decide whether the weather's bad enough to cancel worship, I know that someone’s going to grouse: the same weather can elicit responses from “There’s hardly any snow!” to “I can't possibly clear my driveway!” Sixty people looking at the same roads don’t just have different opinions, but also a multiplicity of perspectives.
Most of the leaders I know are being forced to translate that decision-making pressure to an unknown, potentially lethal virus whose patterns we can neither predict nor fully yet understand as it makes its way through a country of nearly 330 million people. It’s no wonder that those leaders are crumbling—not because of overblown fears of COVID-19, but because it’s distressing to make decisions that have vast, nearly unimaginable consequences for the people we love.
Should we ask people to come to work? Should we still hold our event, knowing that participants will receive soul nourishment but risk physical exposure? Should our family take this once-in-a-lifetime trip? Every Should we? is haunted by the Ghost of What We'll Wish We Had Known.
Ethical Culture Leader Lois Kellerman has said that the smallest number in ethics is two. I believe, moreover, that the most ethically-driven decisions prioritize the most vulnerable members of any given community. Moral decision-making hinges not on the “I” and not even on the interconnected web of “we,” but on the most fragile strands in the web.
As our leaders make tough decisions—terrible by nature, because there are no “good” decisions in the chaotic fear of what looms—our communities are being tested for their tolerance for uncertainty, as well as how much grace they choose to extend towards the leaders making those high-stakes but values-driven decisions.
Our communities—bless them, hold them, keep them—are also beginning to absorb the lonely, painful cost of “social distancing.” If two is the smallest number in ethics, it's also the smallest seed of certainty; the way not to get lost. Because the ultimate test, when the fear and grief finally give way to clarity, will be knowing ourselves by how well we cared for one another.
We are hunkering and hoarding, Great Shimmering Goodness, though you call us to be better than that. Remind us that you delight, first and always, in showing up in the spaces between people—no matter how big those spaces are.