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

No, No, No, and No

Photo Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures

One day, I threw some slightly stale bread into the yard for the birds that love to forage there. Within minutes after I got up the back porch stairs, and into the house, a critter, much like the one in the photo above, its cheeks stuffed with as much of the bread as it could gather, was on my porch scratching at the back storm door.

I rapped gently on the glass, hoping to scare it off, but it wasn’t fazed. It lifted onto its haunches, begging for more.

At that time, our Sheltie-Cocker-Beagle mix was queen of the yard, and went after squirrels with a ferocity that never failed to surprise, as she was affectionate to a fault with all humans. As soon as she caught sight of the critter, though, her predatory instincts went into action, and she started to bark. That ended the squirrel’s greedy campaign.

***

I stopped signing petitions in 2016, after I realized none of them accomplished anything, except providing the host organization with enough data on me to become a pest.

Despite checking all the “No emails” in my email settings, repeatedly, I should add, and unsubscribing to future emails, also repeatedly, the requests for more signatures and donations kept pouring in.

That’s when I marked all of them as Spam, and let my email software do the rest.

This year, conditions being as they are, my husband and I decided to give additional support to our favorite charities and candidates.

That’s when this happened.

Phone: Ring, ring.

Me: Hello?

Male: Hello, is this Barbara?

Me: Who is this?

Male: I’m with ****, and I’m calling because as you know, we need your help more than ever. So, could we count on you for a monthly pledge of $1,000?

Me: I’m sorry, but I gave what I could give. So, no.

Male: But (prepared blather…).

Me: I said, no. I wish I could help, but I can’t.

Male: I hate to be persistent, but…

Me: (Interrupting) This is a difficult time. There’s a pandemic. Everyone is hurting.

Male: I realize that.

Me: Then you should also realize there’s a limit to how much people can give.

Male: (Blather blather blather, gimme gimme gimme, shameless attempts at emotional manipulation…)

Me: (channeling my mother) Listen, honey, I know you need funds. That’s why we gave you as much as we did. But now, rather than showing respect for that generosity, you’re badgering me, and addressing me by my first name when you don’t even know me, an assumption of familiarity I find frankly insulting and offensive.

Male: But…

Me: NO. ENOUGH. All I want to hear from you at this point is, Thank you for your support, Ma’am.

Male: (hesitating, a few seconds, then) Thank you for your support.

Me. Ma’am. Say it.

Male: Ma’am.

Me: Thank you for calling. You have a nice day now.

***

Sometimes, the only way to deal with troublesome critters is to bark at them.

©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