Last Saturday my wife and I went to Trader Joes. We arrived twenty minutes before opening and were 30th in line. Everyone was spaced outside the store in six-foot gaps. Within ten minutes 50 people lined the street behind us. We strategized:
Split up. Get meat, we are low on chicken. And of course, get a lot of broccoli and kale. Important for the immune system…
A smiling TJ’s clerk walked up the line spraying waiting hands. Who would have thought that sanitizer could make us all feel so happy? They opened the store early. The line moved very quickly. And as we neared the door, other clerks sprayed our hands again (yes!) and wiped clean our shopping carts. Good morning! they said happily.
We entered the store, surprised, amazed: shelves overflowing with food and supplies. Gleaming vegetables and fruit — everywhere. Ice cream galore. And lots of room to move around. We said hi to neighbors (at 6 feet). Laughing could be heard in the aisles. Laughing! And so our plan fell quickly away. No need to hoard. We could just come back in a few days.
I returned home feeling at ease, appreciating Trader Joes, and Safeway, and police officers and people in general. I then I read a remarkable and hopeful article about COVID-19. The world was going to be okay! Until I opened the NY Times. An OpEd about best-case and worst-case scenarios. I’ll spare you the link (because who needs to read about societal collapse?) but the bottom line: we should all buy guns. Now! Actually, now may be too late.
I quickly did a Google search. Obviously, others had done it before me — as Google autocompleted the crazy sentence after a few of words. “Where can I buy a gun in California?” I scanned some articles. Oh jeez, so much red tape. I need a gun now. An image flashed in my mind: I’m sitting on my front porch, in a rocking chair, as my wife feeds our last can of beans to our kids, clutching my new gun that I have idea how to use.
I’ll tell you this: we’re going down fighting. No one’s going to take our fucking beans! We are going down fighting!
In normal times — you know, when there’s no corona virus — I live with some existential angst. My preferred flavor of this common poison is that I worry about societal upheaval. Artificial intelligence seems to me a staggering risk to humanity. Political polarization ultimately crushes democracy. And pandemics — oh shit show: dark ages, boils, bring out your dead!
But, like many who harbor subterranean fears, I keep my mind from prowling uncontrolled. I usually do not read the news. (That self-preservation strategy is sadly out the window for me now). I’d never watch a movie about a pandemic. (Who would?) And when I succumb to my proclivities, and thus my fears, I escape: I go biking. I help people with my work (peacemaking). I laugh with my wife and kids. I live on the hope side of the hope-fear teeter-totter.
But the truth is, for me and for many others who seem happy, normal, I’m never far from flipping. Existential angst has a high specific gravity, tugging body and mind imperceptibly into the abyss. And that becomes clear in times like this.
The problem with flipping from hope to fear is clearly in the personal suffering. Imagining myself on the porch pointing my gun at a hungry, sobbing neighbor (sorry Chris!) is a horrific vision. Will callousness be my lasting mark? Will my selfishness echo through eternity?
But the bigger problem is how fear sums to create societal collapse. In his frightening book of the London epidemic of 1665, Daniel Dafoe writes, “They had no room to pity the distress of others. . . The danger of immediate death to ourselves took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.”
No, I did not read that book. A vision so disturbing, painted in blinding hues of selfishness and tragedy, would too easily burn itself into my psyche. But aware of his account (and others), I find myself searching for evidence that this pandemic is not so bad. The plainest source of that hope might be our leaders — national leaders. If only they offered a clear and hopeful vision. If only they showed us that if we work together all will not be so bad. But alas, I have not heard a coherent message from, for example, our President.
In my moments of angst, I search Google news for a positive vision — or a negative one. Some vision. And so I, like many others, find myself on the psychological seesaw, flipping many times each day. Should I take refuge in the many postings on Nextdoor? A local doctor drives to any home to pick up N95 masks. Young and healthy neighbors deliver food to the elderly. Trader Joes imposes cleanliness, order and hope! Or should I ruminate on those ghastly triage decisions being made in Italy, and those that will soon descend upon New York?
In the early stage of this corona shitshow, fear has indeed been healthy — because its kept most of us at home. Individual interest and society interest have largely overlapped. (Notable exception: young people, convinced the disease wouldn’t kill them personally, headed to Miami and New Orleans for Spring Break. Fuck the corona virus!).
But the pandemic will largely run its course in months, and nearly all of us will be standing. As I see it, the enduring problem will be psychological. Economies run on hope. Without that hope, human beings horde. We hoard toilet paper. We hoard money. Effectively, we hoard love. So that we can keep all for ourselves and our families in the hard days to come.
Hoarding is rational. And yet, though I am nothing if not rational, my solution to our coming crisis is only spiritual. In my final hours, I want only to feel connected. And so, I will sit on my porch in my rocking chair not with a gun that I don’t know how to use, but with a bowl of soup, for the old man who lives up the block. The old man who has no one.
If I am going down, I am going down loving (GDL).
Of course, I know it is unlikely to come to this. My sacrifice will likely be called for in ways that speaks no heroism. That are mundane. Like buying less toilet paper. Like donating to shops in the neighborhood. Like spending when I think it prudent to save. Like speaking words of hope when I don’t myself feel very hopeful. Like laughing in the aisles at Trader Joes. Like telling people in my life, I love you.
GDL is not my inclination. It is my choice. So that perhaps I create the world that I long for, and not the world that I fear.