The world has gone both cacophonous and quiet, both chaotic and eerily still. Each person’s experience is wildly disparate. Contagion calls both for unanimity and for splintering.
If we are to live — not to stay alive, but to value life, not to test negative, but to live — we must all first decide that we are all worth saving; only then can we all reach a shared conclusion that sequestering ourselves is worth the effort. More than a median of us must agree that cottony muzzles cannot be avoided, that mouths must remain unseen, that breathing now requires a counterintuitive covering of our noses.
Those are our imperatives. For nine months, those have been our imperatives. But as a nation, as a culture, as a society, we are still too disinclined to meet them. It is difficult to reach the same conclusion — that we have some role in our own survival, that a force beyond our control may render our efforts moot, but we must still decide each day to make an effort — when the variables between us are so vast.
In the final accounting, I imagine we will not arrive at the same conclusion. Those of us who walk away will do so with far different precepts in their pockets. This is no fictive apocalypse where collective emphasis remains on survival. In a real population-altering pandemic, survival will not be lesson.
I know fewer than a handful of people who’ve tested positive. I know of people who’ve lost their parents and children and spouses. I have had the extreme privilege to work from home and supervise my daughter’s online instruction. And from home, for work, I have spoken with families who’ve sent their elementary schoolers to re-opened schools where teachers and children have contracted the virus and, in one case, where a principal has died. I have spoken to the custodial staff at colleges where adequate PPE was not distributed until COVID clusters cropped up on undisclosed patches of campus. I have heard the courage that crisis exacts from those already too accustomed to crisis.
The horror itself is a Rorschach. Our perception of what is inked individuates. For some, the blot is incompetence, an infection of avarice and callousness made sentient. For others, the blot is community spread, a natural disaster exacerbated by our bottomless craving for closeness. Long before this, we knew that we cannot exist alone. And now we know there is at least one circumstance where we cannot exist together. Not safely. Not without risk far too intense for the taking. The blot is an unending grief unfurled. It is carnivorous. It consumes futures. The blot is an instigator, an organelle of pointed fingers, an unending mitosis of blame. The blot is biological warfare or else a hoax; a conspiracy that mutates among the most dogged deniers, even as confirmed cases continue to climb past the millions.
We are told we have rounded a corner. Competing companies vie for bragging rights to the highest percentage of their vaccine’s effectiveness. We are told they will offer it at cost; that we can all begin to have it as early as March. I have little choice but to believe it, just as I believe that no plague lasts forever, just as I believe that as stubbornly as some humans have elected not to protect themselves and those they know, others are just as stubbornly committed to protecting perfect strangers.
That is the infuriating paradox of our species. At our most susceptible, we behave as though we are invulnerable. At the very moment when Life decides to prove that nothing we’ve amassed can protect us from its ravages, we intensify our sense of entitlement.
What I will remember was that no one protected us from each other. No one protected us but each other. What I hope is that when God created us, if indeed He did so in His image, then God contains as much contradiction as we do. And it is that contradiction, rather than any temporal consensus or uniformity, that will work to keep what’s left of us alive.