A Pandemic, the World in Lockdown, and You and Me
It was almost 8PM. The bittersweet of long, sunlit spring day — spent in lockdown. I couldn’t take it anymore, being cooped up, so I headed downstairs for a quick coffee and cigarette. “What I’d give,” I thought to myself, “to be able to spend a long spring afternoon doing nothing and sipping coffee outside my favorite cafe.” But such a day was nowhere to be found — so I’d have to settle for a streetside ciggie, underneath the great old trees stretching out across the avenue where I live.
The air was sweet. Night had just fallen. Everything was peaceful since lockdown. No more pedestrians, in the famous little neighborhood I live, where millions of feet from around the world — tourists, musicians, artists, poets — pound the streets. The quiet was unsettling — but as restful as hearing the ocean.
And then the street erupted in cheers. People began clapping, from their apartments. They leaned out of their windows, and whooped and applauded. I was confused for a moment — and then I remembered: they were celebrating doctors and nurses. Thanking them, for their service, in this time of crisis.
A fellow spied me from his window, and shouted, a grin on his face: “Oi! Why aren’t you cheering?!” “My wife’s a doctor!” I shouted back. He let out a whoop, and clapped harder.
A little moment of beauty. Can you imagine people clapping for doctors…humble nurses…any kind of public servant…anyone at all, except maybe a Kardashian…or the latest Marvel superhero…maybe a few months ago? And yet here they were, the eminently average people of my little avenue, applauding furiously. I felt a kind of happiness surge through me. Was this what it felt like to live in a decent society?
As I headed back inside, I remembered what my wife, the doctor, had said. When all this clapping had begun. She’d rolled her eyes, and told me: “I don’t want their claps and cheers during a pandemic. I want them to stop voting like dummies for sociopaths who don’t want them to have a functioning society or healthcare to begin with.” Fair point, I thought. (Let them get wifed on for a change, I also thought, sorry not sorry.) So I transcribed it and tweeted it, and it went super viral.
There was a hard and uncomfortable nugget of truth in what she’d said. She’d reminded me, and us, that while there’s great and improbable beauty in this of pandemic, so too, there’s ugliness. The pandemic is like a scalpel, cutting away the superfluous, and revealing to us the truth of ourselves. Do we like what we see?
The beauty’s easy to see. The ugliness is harder.
The beauty. Doctors and nurses who go on bravely treating the patients they’re suddenly overwhelmed with. Fashioning home-made masks from pizza boxes, perhaps — because our governments are too incompetent, too malicious, too vicious, to care much. But our healthcare workers still do: still care. They serve, at great risk to their lives. That risk isn’t a joke. They are beginning to die. I read the sad story of three residents dying. Residents: doctors beginning their professional lives. Snuffed out. Who’s to blame?
Let me ask that question another way.
Why isn’t our applause for our healthcare workers also coupled with a kind of fury at the incompetence and stupidity and malice of our governments? Is it enough to make martyrs of doctors and nurses? Don’t we fail, too, at the task of building a decent society, when we settle for that?
Beauty and ugliness, walking hand in hand, like lovers, like enemies, like friends. Was it ever any different? We make martyrs of our doctors, while applauding them. We go on voting against healthcare, while we cheer them. We make fools of ourselves, even while trying to give what thanks we can.
The pandemic is a scalpel that cuts away all the lies we tell about ourselves, to each other. There’s nothing left but the truth.
There’s another way that I’ve seen all that, too, lately. I’m going to put it a little brutally.
When a global pandemic broke out, the rich world was more concerned with what it was going to wipe it’s rear end with…than making sure the poor world survived it. That it had medicine, healthcare, food, and sanitation.
Think about it for a second with me.
What was the very first thing that happened when the pandemic hit? Something funny, strange, bizarre, surreal. The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020. Now, as anyone who’s ever gone camping can tell you: you don’t need a piece of shrink-wrapped tissue paper to clean your rear. In fact, most of humanity, I’d wager, simply washes to do its business. Do you think the ancients had toilet paper? Here’s a tiny factoid for you, toilet paper was invented in 1857. Take Japan — the toilet will happily robo-wash your rear for you, and in much of Europe, bidets are still a thing, and you’ll thank the Sweet Lord, if you’ve ever used one.
The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020. What does it really mean? Generously, we could say something like: people attached a kind oft oddly high symbolic value to their toilet paper. Like it was the pinnacle and linchpin of civilization. Like if it went — my God! What would be left? You might also say people suddenly had a kind of manic obsessive-compulsive craving for cleanliness.
But don’t you think there’s something wrong with the rich world caring more about toilet paper…what it was going to wipe it’s rear end with…during a global pandemic than…eliminating the global lack of healthcare…which caused the pandemic? I do. I think the fact that rich world erupted into a Toilet Paper Panic, instead of saying to itself, suddenly, ‘My God! If we don’t give those poor people healthcare and sanitation and food, it’s going to breed disease, and more and more pandemics will result! Let’s get on with it then, and fix the world a little!” — that reveals a kind of genuine human ugliness.
I think it reveals a profound and terrible kind of ugliness. If we, in the rich world, can’t learn from a global pandemic…what can we learn from? If the only lesson that we have been taught is about our own rear ends — not just metaphorically, but literally…have we learned anything at all?
We say, these days, fashionably, “we’re all in it together!” But do these words really mean much — or are they empty, “virtue signalling”, as a good alt-rightist might say? I don’t like that term much, but I have to confess that I think it applies here. The good Western liberal says “We’re all in it together!!”, while caring more about toilet paper than global poverty, healthcare, medicine, sanitation. Can anyone take such a fool seriously? I can’t. I can only surmise and conclude that such a thing is being said to prove a tribal boundary. It’s just a way to say: “I belong.” It’s doesn’t reflect any true understanding of “we’re in it together”, at an economic, social, or political level whatsoever.
If we really understood this catchphrase, “we’re all in it together”, we’d immediately begin to support healthcare, medicine, income, food, sanitation, savings, housing, for every single life on planet earth. Why? Because, of course, pandemics are one result of a lack of such things. That is why SARS and MERS and COVID-19 all began in the poor world. But they spread to the rich world precisely because there isn’t a wall high enough or boundary strong enough to keep us apart anymore.
We are one people. We share one planet. We live one life. One heart beats in us. One soul pulses through us. One river of love pours through us. When we fail to realize that, then we create a world which, in its arrogance, brutality, cruelty, stupidity, only falls apart. And we ourselves plunge through the fissures. We are being taught this ancient and beautiful lesson — taught to us by Jesus, Buddha, MLK, Rumi — again. The universe is trying to tell us this, with all its might. But are we learning it?
Beauty and ugliness, walking hand in hand. Like lovers, like enemies, like friends. They whisper to us. About the human condition. What it means to be a tiny, tiny thing, walking upon a mote of dust, lit by a ball of fire, spinning through the endless universe. Beauty is the recognition of me in you, and you in me. Ugliness is the alienation of you from me, and the excision of me from you. It is the death of the universal heart which beats in us all.
This great and timeless truth is eternal. And yet we have to learn it, over and over again. Each of us. In our own time. This is the cycle, the rhythm, the pulse of the ages. Ages in which we learn it faster are called golden ones, and ages in which we fail to learn it all are called dark ones. That, my friends, is who we are. We are pilgrims on the same road. Towards this knowledge, this experience, which is called grace, which is called enlightenment. Which is just called being a decent human being.
What have we learned from this pandemic? What should we have learned? We are walking beside each other, from the desert to the shore. That is all we have ever been doing. And unless we let the stars guide us, we will walk in circles, never finding our way home.