A neighbor on Facebook, listing the joys of lockdown.
“No school shootings,” she begins. “TRAFFIC is gone, GAS is affordable, BILLS extended ...”
She goes on, quite a bit. Air is cleaner. “The world quieter.”
The list ends with this confident assertion: “I’m pretty sure this was God’s way of telling us to slow down and focus on what is important!!”
That old trickster, God. He does have His mysterious ways, doesn’t He? Setting the lives of millions on fire, just so we fortunate few can enjoy the warm glow and toast marshmallows on their burning homes.
Unlimbering the rhetorical bazooka I always keep conveniently slung over my shoulder, I squinted into the gunsight, seeing the tiny figure of my neighbor, smiling over her freshly-coined public wisdom. My finger tensed.
Then I sighed, lowered my weapon, and decided to demonstrate my wit and humanity in a novel fashion: by saying nothing.
Sure, I could have archly pointed out that hiding in the basement could be fun, provided you have a comfortable, well-stocked basement. But not everybody does. These are excruciatingly tough times, and if the scythe hasn’t swung in your direction, yet, the least you can do is not crow about it.
But you can’t scold a joyful person into silent gratitude. Just as you can’t shame a sad one into abandoning their sorrow as insignificant. It’s graduation time. My neighborhood is festooned with college flags, congratulatory signs, balloons, big orange and blue Illini I’s painted on lawns. Online, bursts of milestone festivity, shadowed with a definite sense of loss. No commencement. No prom. It’s not fair! After seeing a few, I considered creating a meme: a soft sepia passport photo of Anne Frank, with the tagline, “Not every teen got to go to prom.” That’ll show ‘em. Think of the retweets! Dozens!
I also held that back. I’m not the coronavirus mullah, wandering cyberspace in my long white beard and black robes, taking a reed switch to the legs of anybody who dares be too happy or too sad. I don’t want to show up at the virtual wake for high school life and castigate the mourners.
People should be allowed their joys and sorrows without strangers whipping out a tape measure. And if they celebrate or mourn a bit too much, well, maybe the sin of pointing it out is worse than either supposed wrong that’s being reprimanded. When the boys were small, and the cat knocked over the younger one’s goldfish bowl, I didn’t harangue him about The Six Million. I dried his tears and presided over the toilet-bowl-side funeral service. It was his fish and he loved it.
Here is the deep, rare and hard-won insight I’ve discovered and want to share, because I find it useful during this crisis, as useful as hand sanitizer: it isn’t all about me. Or you. If you want a clear picture of what it’s like not to grasp this, look to our president. His life teaches many things, but the central lesson is the corrosive power of ego. Ego poisons. It ruins everything, and the more you make every situation about yourself, the worse your life will be. You can be president of the United States, rich, famous, and beloved, in certain quarters, but if you can’t sympathize with anyone, can’t perceive people who are not yourself. then you’re pathetic.
I was griping to a friend last month about the difficulties of living with two men in their early 20s, law students whose schools are closed, who now spend all day lounging around my house, learning to argue incisively when a bell rings. Young men who, I discovered to my surprise and horror, seem to have been raised by a sharp-tongued, not-always-kind individual. Guys who don’t hop to their feet whenever their father shuffles into the room, nor exhibit kindness, or even attention, should he speak.
I expected her to sympathize. She did, but not with me.
“Imagine how hard this must be for them,” my friend Barbara said. “Yanked out of their schools, apart from their friends, stuck with their parents.”
Well .... yeah ... there is that.
I’ve been rolling that phrase around a lot lately. “Imagine how hard this must be for them.”
It’s yours to use as often as you like. Keep it handy, along with your mask.