Are we?

Photo by Stephen L. Syverud

Whenever I hear someone assert, “We are better than this,” I wonder.

As much as I want to believe that people are basically good at heart, I’ve seen too many act out of self-interest, rather than a common good, succumb to the reassurance of herd mentality, rather than strike out against it, follow unethical orders, rather than defy them. There are always exceptions, but often, not enough. It feels as though people will defend their behavior, no matter how inconsiderate, corrupt, or simply petty, if they feel it’s in their best interests to do so.

It’s easy to blame one person for causing the assorted manifestations of ugliness that emerge from self interest, but to do so ignores what has been both our greatest strength and fatal flaw since humans walked upright, perhaps even before: the instinct for self-preservation. This instinct can drive people to excel, create masterpieces, eradicate diseases; but it can also drive them to oppress, amass power at others’ expense, take pleasure in, or blame people for their pain and misfortune. The ugly side of self-preservation, indeed, survival, existed long before the current administration, and will continue long after it is gone….

***

So, are we better than our primitive survival instincts?

The current expressions of ugliness on both sides of the ideological spectrum would lead me to believe we’re not.

And yet, there are the thousands of people who put themselves in harms way every day to provide necessary services to those at risk, or work under the most physically grueling and emotionally wrenching conditions to care for those who are ill, or dying….

And there are the simplest expressions of selflessness that say, “I care….”

***

When my mother-in-law died, the distribution of many of her treasures fell to my sister-in-law and me. One by one, we went through them, with my sister-in-law choosing which pieces she wanted, and the two of us offering the rest to our children. Because I wanted the process to be as amicable and stress-free as possible, I refrained from asking for anything. After almost an hour had passed, and we’d gone through a substantial number of possessions, I held up a plate that was one of my mother-in-law’s favorites, and asked my sister-in-law if she wanted it. She took the plate in her hands and eyed it lovingly, remembering, I’m certain, as I did, all the homemade cookies and sweets that were served on it, then looked at me, a bit wistfully, and said, “Don’t you want anything?”

I said, “She was your mother, their grandmother. Her things should go to you and them.”

She sighed, and set the plate in front of me. “You take it. I want you to have it.”

***

So, are we better?

On most days, I’m doubtful. And then I think of all those selfless souls who shop for, and tend to, and care for us, with not nearly enough recognition and appreciation for their heroism, or enough patience to do what’s needed to make their jobs, their lives easier. And I think of that day so many years ago, in view of another loss, and the gift that was given so generously, with so much love, and I think, maybe, maybe, we can be….

***

Rest in peace, sweet sister. Rest in peace.

Photo by B. Froman

©2020 All Rights Reserved

2020

“…in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort….” (From The Republic, Plato)

It’s hard to avoid the irony—the titular year of perfect vision, the unraveling of once reliable norms, political structures, checks and balances, civility in all arenas, the losses of loved ones and heroes to injustice and disease.

And it’s equally hard to avoid the comparison—between that titular year of sudden perfect vision, and the years of blurring and distortion, loss of sight preceding it.

That loss creeps up on us slowly. Colors lose their intensity, fading from brilliant to dull, letters spread into each other across pages and screens as poetry and prose and road signs seem layered with petroleum jelly. For a while, it’s easy to grow accustomed to, and comfortable with changes, a world smearing out of focus, and accommodate them with sharper lenses and adjusted habits. It’s easy to say we can deal with things as they are. We’re not missing anything truly important. We can still make out the big picture.

But then, one day, those street lights that come on at dusk glare at and confuse us, make us misread road signs. Or, the newspaper goes untouched because it’s too taxing to decipher small print. That’s when we realize how much of the big picture we’re not seeing.

I’m getting to that stage with my own vision, which has been on a steady decline for years. And I’ve been through enough cataract surgeries with friends and family to understand how startling sudden clarity can be.

More than one friend has related how shocked she was by her first look at herself after surgery. “I walked by the mirror, not intending to stop, then did a double-take after I caught sight of a strange image moving across the glass. I couldn’t believe the woman’s wrinkled up face was mine.”

For many of us, the severely clouded lenses that enabled our old lives and habits and beliefs have been stripped away, and we aren’t quite sure how to process and respond to the stark and painful clarity of new vision, or function with it. No matter which way we turn, no matter how well we think we’re adjusting, there’s always another flaw, another act of cruelty, corruption, injustice, bigotry, stupidity, selfishness, and there’s always another loss—of a loved one, or hero….

I wish I had words to ease the pain, fury, and helplessness over being assailed with such clarity, the harsh reality it exposes. But all I have is an increasing sense of urgency to more actively care for those I love, impress upon them the necessity of taking care of themselves and their loved ones, paying attention to persistent symptoms, scheduling life-saving tests, looking both ways when crossing the street, wearing a mask…wearing a mask….

That, at least, is a start.

Stay safe. Be well.

©2020 All Rights Reserved

Notice

So, COVID-19.

It’s enough to drive us out of our heads. I fully appreciate the need for hand sanitizer and soap and wipes and alcohol and hydrogen peroxide and pasta and rice and canned tuna and toilet tissue and and and…

We need to stock up, the experts have said, and I’ve taken them as seriously as everyone else who is freaked out by the virus, but….

Lately, against my own self-interest, I’ve ventured out of my head in a way that’s brought the number of seniors in my life into sharp focus, and I started wondering if they had enough hand sanitizer and soap and cleaning supplies and non-perishable foods and personal hygiene products to last for a couple of weeks, since I know, as I know for myself, spending time in a crowded grocery store, on line next to someone who is coughing or sneezing, would put them at risk. So, I started checking in with them.

I don’t generally like to give advice. My mother, may she rest in peace, used to say, Advice you give for nothing is worth exactly that. Judging by how many people have taken my gratis advice over the years, she had a point. But, because she also taught me the value of sharing, and being of service, I would like to offer the following…

If you have people in your lives—parents, relatives, neighbors, or friends—who are at high risk for serious infection, take a minute or two to see if they need anything. And if they do, and it’s within your power to help them get it, please do.

Thank you.

Stay well.

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