The world needs us to be good people right now. Can we rise to the occasion?
Sunday mornings, I usually get a short chirp from my phone that’s different from all the rest–it’s my weekly pop-up that tells me how much time I’ve spent with my head down, looking at its tiny screen. I quietly celebrate the weeks when Apple tells me I’ve used its miracle box less than the week before. In the wake of a pandemic and our national pleas for quarantine, I’m guessing those streaks are coming to an end.
Lots of people have spilled lots of ink collectively worrying out loud that our obsessiveness with social media, apps, and the like drives us apart. We are isolated by our devices, self-sorted into silos and echo chambers, spared the humanity of having to look each other in the eyes and come up with something to say. The internet has ruined us, they cry. God save the Millennials!
As the phrase “social distancing” no doubt battles for contention as Webster’s word of the year, isn’t this what we’ve all been preparing for?
In the coming days and weeks, the abiding wisdom will be to hunker down. Stay home. Wash hands, wash hands, wash hands.
And in preparation for what is perhaps the largest, most unplanned shift into the digital realm, the corporate guardians of the digital ether are ramping up, fast. Spectrum is offering free internet to any family with a K-12 student who otherwise lacks it. Online curriculum programs are opening up their premium content to parents, gratis. Disney Plus performed a Tinker Bell-level miracle and granted the world early access to Frozen II.
The story isn’t only about big business and its capacity to quietly suck us in during times of duress. In the absence of live sports, a group of St. Bonaventure fans programmed an entire Atlantic 10 conference championship tournament into the NBA2K video game, then simulated the games in real-time while broadcasting them live on YouTube. While real sports channels struggled to come up with anything other than last year’s game/race/tournament to show, hundreds of people were watching an XBox play itself.
Which is another way of saying that in these very strange times, the human spirit will continue to blossom. In Italy, they’re singing from their balconies. Houses of worship, emptied of their congregations, are live streaming their services, urging us to pray.
There is darkness, of course.
In this great disruption, there are masses of people who aren’t getting paid. Friends and neighbors, whose livelihoods are dependent upon gigs, shows, part-time shifts, and so forth are left wondering how they will pay their bills.
Humanity’s selfishness flourishes, too: empty toilet-paper aisles, crowded bars in spite of pleas to avoid large gatherings. We recoil at being told what we can or cannot buy, where we can or cannot go, and how we can or cannot live.
And then there are the afflicted. Though the cases in North Carolina still count in the dozens, that number is multiples larger than it was days ago, and the common sense math of COVID-19 tells us that soon the number will be hundreds, then thousands. Maybe millions. And though the mortality rate remains in the low, single-digit percentiles, the devastating casualties of this virus will soon follow.
We are entering into a time in which we learn a lot about ourselves. It had been a good run–aside from the localized throes of natural disasters, it has been nearly two decades since our nation was rattled from its sunny slumbers to face a collective threat. Now it is time to test our mettle.
I admit the idea scares me a little. We’ve spent a lot of time separating ourselves from one another. Something about the little silver screens in our pockets makes it easier for us to vehemently absence ourselves from empathy. And yet in a time of quarantine, those little aluminum and glass wonderboxes may very well connect us in ways we desperately need.
If nothing else, the frantic pace of our lives is due for a slowdown. We can only play ABC Mouse for so long before the natives boil over, their kinetic mania demanding space to run. So, then, the common salve from our newsfeed angst: fresh air, walks, springtime. Can we remember how to find time to breathe without feeling as if we’re missing out? Time to read, time to listen?
We’ve told our kids about the Coronavirus, about why they won’t have school for the next two weeks. We’ve said these things calmly, matter-of-factly, even as we admit to them that nothing like this has ever happened in either of our lives. We don’t know all the answers. We try to keep calm.
Because, my friends, this is what’s required of us right now. Our world is asking us to care for one another, to be gentle, to be helpful, to share an abundant compassion. This call has been issued many times before–in ages of war, of terror and economic devastation. It’s time for us to rise, once more, to answer.
Author’s note: The image at the top of this post is an old, old photograph of distant relatives of mine. My understanding is that it was taken in the early 20th century in Texas. If I can summon a fraction of the grit these women display here, I’ll be just fine.