It’s All Greek to Me

Pandemic. We have had so many things interrupted, shut down and put on hold. Schools are shuttered. But learning isn’t, and now students are turning to the internet via google classrooms to continue their curriculum. Adults too, are trying out new subjects—I saw a post on learning the Hebrew alphabet with a Lutheran pastor. 

I learned the Hebrew alphabet a few years ago, in graduate school. I also learned ancient Greek. I don’t remember much of it, but the Greek was simpler than the Hebrew because so much of the vocabulary of medicine and science is built upon Greek ideas. Pneumonia is from pneumon, lung. Pneuma is ancient Greek for breath, also used religiously for soul and spirt. The Hebrew ruach is often referred to as a Biblical term for breath or spirit of God—it translates in the Greek to pneuma.

Whether we want to or not, we are all learning a little more Greek these days, as well as science and math. Pandemics, viruses, immune systems and exponential growth are topics that cycle constantly in daily newscasts. So, here’s a bit of a tutorial (and some wondering) on the Greek root, pan.

Pan means universal, the most all of all. The Greek god Pan was the god of all the wild, the woodland, the goats and shepherds. He wasn’t exactly a benevolent god. Humans feared him, leading to the word “panic.” He caused sudden fear and terror, thinking it funny. Pandemonium, another word from the Greek, often follows panic. Look at its main root—demon. It is a spread of harm and evil caused by stress, terror and fear. The fear surrounding Pan, the panic, was understood as in some sense irrational, spreading into a situation that was losing the ability to control a response through logical means.

In what must be humanly understood as a fortunate thing, the god Pan was the only Greek god to actually die. Whew. Demic, the other root in pandemic, means pertaining to a population or a local group of people. Endemic illnesses are within a population as part of their typical lives—hepatitis is endemic in many countries. We don’t try to wipe it out there. Epidemic means over a population, with epi signifying on, upon or near. Basically, an epidemic is visited upon a population like a cloud over its inhabitants, difficult to isolate. As I write, New York is an epicenter—another Greek usage meaning centered over or upon.

Okay, that’s your Greek for today. But certainly, all learning is meant to have a life application? What else could pan signify right now? (And not bread, that is from a Latin root, though it does conjure up Christ as the bread of life and our own desire to feed the world in this time.) What would be the opposite approach of the god Pan? How do we say pan-love? Panagape? Sounds like an exotic appetizer. 

One of my dearly loved relatives stated this pandemic shows how important science is and how ridiculous a religious belief is. If there is a god, why doesn’t she/he respond? Why pray when we see the catastrophe unfolding? (And I did speak to him of the evidence that thoughts and prayers have healing powers, but he wasn’t having it.) That of course, the question of suffering, is the ancient question of all questions. The pan-question. While I can’t answer it satisfactorily, I do recall something said to me once when I was dealing with PTSD from a long ago incident. I wanted to know, if God were with me then, why didn’t he rescue me? Why did he watch, allowing the terror to proceed? I could hate him for that, if he did exist. My counselor, not with any religious affiliation, asked—“What did you expect him to do?” Hmmm. 

I’m not much for sci-fi and action movies. But during this strange time, one of my daughters has me watching all the Marvel movies. I had never seen any. So now I know who Captain Marvel, Ironman, Hulk and The Avengers are. I think we often wish God were a superhero. But he isn’t made in the image of those guys. He isn’t going to swoop in and save the day with a flashy suit and special effects. Many of us though, hold that he already has swooped in, just more quietly and completely than an epi-hero might. He has come in a pan sort of way, not needing to swoop again and again and again. It doesn’t look like the movies. It looks like Good Friday and Easter Sunday. 

Maybe that answer still angers and frustrates some of my friends and relatives. But the pan-God I lean in toward doesn’t conjure up fear, terror and demons. The pan-God I think of universally makes available a love that transcends populations, geography, language, sexuality and even scientific understanding. Yet, it is compatible with all those things. We get love distributed through every cell and every breath. That is how this God showed up for me long ago. Presence in my suffering. An idea that there was more than this awful moment. A hope for peace and joy and light. And a deep sense that it was possible and even a pan-truth.

So many have shared that love and light with me in their actions and words through the years. They may not have used the same words I use or expressed a certain belief system, but their kindness had the feel of pan-kindness. We recognize it when we see it. Maybe this is how we overcome a pandemic and put it to death with its terrible Greek god. We cover the world with the love of God, however you name it. 

This is more vulnerable a blog than my usual, but we live in vulnerable times. Pan-Shalom be with you all.

Published by jenniemclaurin

I'm a wonderer and a wanderer who likes to think about the intersections of science, faith, culture and the natural world. Hiking, family, medicine, travel and a collection of writers and mystics inspire me. I make my living in the land of public health, as a pediatrician. I live my life in the Pacific Northwest.

3 thoughts on “It’s All Greek to Me

  1. “What did you expect him to do?” That one made my thoughts start tumbling around in my noggin. He’s given us HIS way through pain and suffering. The problem is that I want to take charge.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What complicates things is that God *does* sometimes appear to swoop in and save the day, much like an action figure.. in miraculous and often unexpected ways. So it’s easy to wonder why he chooses to do so at times and not at others. I’ve mostly learned to be OK with the mystery in that…. grounded in a trust that He is still good, is still loving and is still present through the hard times. But it isn’t always easy…


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