What's Tony Thinking

Coming Together to Keep Our Distance


The best thing I’ve read during this strange time was in a longish piece in the New York Times about the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. It was a whopper, 9.2 on the Richter scale. The author, Jon Mooallem, considers the way that the response to the earthquake defied pessimistic expectations. In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis experts had been studying disaster response, hypothesizing the worst about how people would respond to a full-scale disaster.

They imagined mass hysteria, people fleeing the hardest hit areas and predatory practices like looting. What happened was just the opposite. Ordinary citizens tunneled through the rubble to rescue victims. People organized into volunteer brigades to help the hospitalized. Lost children were gathered into protective care. Instead of a display of humanity’s worst, it was an outpouring of humanity’s best.

Mooallem goes on to consider our own time and the present crisis — quite a different one. No sudden and visible cataclysm, but something largely invisible and unfolding over days and weeks, not minutes. Here’s Mooallem:

“Watching the slow, menacing spread of a virus is altogether different from reacting to the obvious, instantaneous shock of a quake. For most of us, the danger of this unfolding disaster is still invisible and diffuse. And yet any resilient and successful response has to be rooted in the same profound feelings of interconnectedness that arose instantaneously in Anchorage, some pervasive and bracing obligation to one another and our collective safety.

“Washing your hands, staying home when you’re sick, limiting travel, keeping yourself healthy, not touching your face — little of what we’re being told to do feels particularly heroic or world-changing, or nearly enough to satisfy an anxious mind. But for a lot of us, it is, in fact, the job that’s in front of us right now — the role that these disordered circumstances are calling each of us, at a minimum, to play. (italics added)

“There are, and will be more, situations where helping more directly becomes possible and necessary — especially if we’re not getting coherent leadership, or even honesty, from those in charge. But we can’t afford to feel that canceling a school band concert, or suspending a basketball season, is a withering retreat; we must see them as parts of an empowered, collaborative undertaking. We are coming together to keep our distance. If we want to stop our world from shaking, we need to find in even the tiniest of these acts the same meaning and immediacy, the same togetherness and purpose,— that Mrs. Fleming felt, holding on to that little boy.” (italics added)

That line, “We are coming together to keep our distance,” catches the odd paradoxical nature of the present moment. By keeping our distance, we are expressing care. By doing the mundane things — washing our hands, staying home when you’re sick, limiting travel, keeping yourself healthy — we’re doing our part. It seems important to be reminded of this for as Mooallem says, none of it feels heroic or life-changing. Can we see these actions as “parts of an empowered collaborative undertaking”?

We went out this morning to go to the grocery store. As we left the store word came via Twitter from our Governor, Jay Inslee, instructing those over 70 — that would be us — to “stay home.” We felt chagrined. As if we’d been caught. Linda texted our son Nick saying, all this emphasis on age was “making us feel old.” I liked his response, “Well, the idea is for you to be old for a long time.”

So we’re trying to do our non-heroic part, “coming together to keep our distance.” And we’re thinking of those who are more on the front lines, doctors, nurses, people working in the grocery stores, police and emergency responders, whose job right now is more heroic. Apartment bound people in Italy and Spain have taken to their balconies at agreed upon times to sing, make music and applaud, as a sign of their appreciation for health care workers. A moving sight and a visible expression of “an empowered, collaborative undertaking.”

I’ve also been impressed with the response of ministers and churches. So many made the move to on-line services, connecting with people, and connecting people with one another via Zoom, or other technologies. Worship was different, but real and nourishing. People are stepping up.

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