After this is all over, if all I can say is, ‘I got through this,’ it will be a waste, a colleague said when we were talking on the phone a week and a half ago. During our conversation, I was out with our dog; a dog who has never once in her life been walked so long and so frequently. Our dog is not simply “getting through this”. She is winning.
Harder to say how the humans are doing. Initially, I lived into my colleague’s words, because I, too, was going to do more than ‘get through this’. I was going to make a difference! I flitted from moment to moment with incredible energy. I invoked a pulse of loud and frantic clicking on the keyboard of my laptop. Again and again, I was rewarded with the satisfying “woosh” of an email sent: Another connection created! I made phone call after phone call. I led conversations and resolved conflict. I even got to play Robin Hood for a brief moment at the food bank, when I snagged that large box of N-95 face masks to distribute to caregivers. I was sure that I would accomplish something more than mere survival.
I was still riding high on productivity when I drove to a parishioner’s house on lastTuesday night. I loaded the 175 brown paper bags of burritos, chips, and fruit she and her family had prepared into my car, and I went to set up in the church parking lot. Folks were already gathered, though I’d arrived early. Several people asked if they could help me unload, and I flinched as I said, No.
Let’s try to maintain distance, I said almost regretting my words as I watched people back away. I spaced out the brown paper bags in pairs, and invited folks to take two. I apologized for not inviting them inside, for not hugging them, for not gathering for a time of worship. I kept trying to move them along, but they wanted to linger.
Everyone has forgotten us, a young man said. That’s not quite true, but it must feel that way. How could he not resent a shelter-in-place order, when he’s been trying to find shelter for more than two years, and has yet to placed? Our mayor addressed the irony by issuing a statement that homeless people were “exempt” from that order.
Like that’s some kind of f—ing privilege, a woman commented as she bit into her burrito. And now, they’re saying that they’re not going to tear down our encampments. Like, they’re doing us some great service
I remained almost ten feet from her, and I struggled for words to offer in response. She interrupted my train of thought to comment on the food. Holy s—! This burrito is still warm! I told her I would pass her compliment on to the chef.
I stayed in the parking lot for an hour. I heard about the inaccessibility of showers, though I had been working with folks around the county to make more stations available. People told me about those who had relapsed, and those who were in a bad way. I witnessed folks adjust their dirty suitcases, and then wipe their noses and eyes. And when the evening was over, I watched them head back to encampments where they are packed into tents with each other.
In my house that night, I was dejected. The adrenaline that had appeared so quickly a few days before was suddenly gone. And all that was left was a shell of my former self, standing alone in the kitchen, eating peanut butter with a spork. Because in that moment, spreading it upon any carbohydrate required too much effort.
And in that moment, I began to resent my colleague’s words. If in that moment, all I could say was, ‘I got through this’ it would not be a waste. It would be an aspiration.
It would be an aspiration, because of how many people will not be able to speak those words. I won’t share any stats on the mortality rates of COVID-19. I don’t know which ones are accurate. But I know that there are things we are supposed to do to protect ourselves – wash our hands and stay at home. And I know for some people those things are impossible. And I know that for many others, following those directives will mean financial ruin. ‘Getting through this’ may require everything they have.
It took me several days, and an entire jar of peanut butter, but slowly, I began to see the error in my initial impulse. Because early last week, I got caught up with thinking about what I alone could do. And the truth is, there is an unfathomable enormity to this global pandemic, and so, this is not a time for any one of us to be heroes. This is not a time for us to practice silo-thinking. This is a time for remembering how intricately connected we are as human beings.
This is a time to remember how dependent we are on each other. We are dependent, not only on doctors and nurses, but also on migrant workers and janitors. On delivery carriers and pre-school teachers. On grocery store clerks and daycare workers. We have been dependent on them all along, and so now, perhaps we ought to ask, Why are these “essential service providers” living so close to the poverty line?
This is a time to remember that we are each vulnerable. Each of us is vulnerable, but some of us are more vulnerable that other. People who are elderly, or chronically ill are most at risk, along with those who are experiencing homelessness. These people have been vulnerable all along, so perhaps now we ought to ask, Why doesn’t everyone have health care? And why are there any homeless people at all?
And this is a time to remember that each of us can be responsible. We each of a crucial and difficult role to play. Because it is difficult to stay in place, and yet we need each one of us to do this in order to protect our community. Each of our actions can have such dire impact on others, so perhaps now we ought to ask, Why are we not always so aware of our responsibility to each other?
When I remember all these things, I realize that my colleague is right. If, when this is all over, all we can say is, ‘We got through this’, it will, be a waste.
Indeed, it will be a waste if we go back to spending as we used to, driving as we used to, flying as we used to, and consuming as we used to. Because this crisis has the capacity, in so many ways, to change us for the better. We could become more aware of our interconnectedness. We could be more caring to those who are vulnerable. We could realize anew that each of us has a great responsibility to each other. And, like during a shelter-in-place, if we each are willing to treat each other and our planet with more care, we have the capacity to shift our collective mindset.
We could, when this is all over, find ourselves completely transformed.