By Andrew Campbell
This past week I’ve been updating the website for the nonprofit where I work.
Since I work outside the United States, we’re not exactly on stay-at-home duty, but we have reduced our community outreach, with the threat of COVID-19 looming in every dark corner and every developing country across the globe. We’re just starting to see a more serious outbreak of the deadly virus, so we are on alert. Health services are much more limited in forgotten places like these and a massive spread could be even more devastating here.
The truth is, developing countries are always hanging by a thread, always immersed in chaos, always one disastrous event away from total collapse.
As I have watched the corona crisis develop in the U.S. from afar, in the back of my mind, I keep thinking that it’s practically what we live with every day in this land of tropical turmoil. Shortages, limitations, impositions, unreasonable deaths, uncertainty, insufficient services, confusion, neglect and death.
When I opened my laptop this morning, the first thing that popped onto the screen were my notes from the website renovation, with these provocative words at the top of the page: Who We Are (Update). Every organizational website in this elusive, digital world we have created, has that page where you try to describe to your potential clients and donors who you really are and why they should give you their money or buy your product. It’s not nearly as easy as it sounds, though there is ample room for creativity.
But, as I saw those words on the page, I was immediately struck by the irony of who we are and how that definition will be updated with the existential threat that the world is currently facing.
How will we update that page in our collective history, since life went rogue on us a few months ago? That is a question that we will need to ask individually and collectively.
The first news that we got down here about the spread of the virus in the U.S. was the shortage of toilet paper and other essentials in the grocery stores. I think most of us are still baffled by the initial wave of hoarding. Toilet paper? I suppose there is a logical explanation, if we couple that with the perpetual addiction to junk food. It is, however, the sign of an unbalanced society. It’s possible that, at this stage, some products have become scarce because of supply chain limitations, but in the early days of the virus, there were no problems with production or distribution.
The only plausible explanation is greed. The once touted American dream has been reduced to that simple and grotesque concept. With the media playing up fatality rates every few minutes, most people became immediately concerned with their own well being. Images of kilometric lines of potential shoppers, overloaded shopping carts and the ensuing empty shelves spread across social media faster than the spread of the virus itself.
Is that who we are? A culture of selfish individualists?
Fortunately, after the initial shockwave, some folks started to realize that a free market economy does not have to be a free for all, where the elderly and less privileged are trodden and left behind. Over the past several weeks, we have also seen extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity. People have begun to share, to care and to consider a world beyond their own, miniscule existence.
Is that who we are, a culture of naïve, but awakening souls, realizing that we are each responsible for one another?
We have also seen the protests. Sad, frightened people crawling out of their homes with guns and flags to demand their rights, while leaving their responsibilities locked in their survivalist bunkers. When did it become acceptable to permit armed citizens to force their way into public buildings, demanding freedom when so many lives, at this critical juncture, depend on rule and order? The irony of conservative Republicans carrying placards with “My body, my choice” and a mask slashed with red almost made me bust out laughing, except that it’s too sad to be funny.
Is this who we are, a culture of frightened hypocrites, wading through the madness of our own contradictions?
I keep reading comments and posts about what will happen when this crisis passes. What will we do when the world gets back on track? What most people do not yet recognize is that this crisis will not disappear into the biased pages of a middle school history book. This has become a part of who we are and who we will be from this point forward.
A few weeks ago, on an impulse, I started listening to that iconic REM song from the 80s. “Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I de-cline…it’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine.” The world as we once knew it really has ended. Who are we now? Who will we become?
The time will come to update and define our landing page: Who We Are. The truth is, it could go either way. It’s possible that the gun-toting, flag-waving protestors who are storming government buildings, demanding the precarious reopening of their states, may prevail. I try to look at them compassionately, I don’t think they are bad people. I think they are scared. So many of us have become too used to comfort and privilege and the possible loss of either or both terrifies us. Why else would you strap yourself with guns of all sized and flavors, just to go stand on the steps? I remind myself often that 62,984,828 people voted for Donald Trump.
The other possibility is that we will take advantage of this portal, as Arundhati Roy has described it, to enter into a new world order. Perhaps we have all really been asleep and COVID-19 has come to awaken us. Perhaps we will open our eyes to see that the we must control our insatiable hunger for consumption. The earth has been much healthier since we have begun to consume what we need and not what we desire. Less consumption means a more rational and responsible use of our precious and limited natural resources.
We could also wake up and notice that we have not been taking care of one another properly.
We have not been sharing all that we could for fear that we might end up without. In reality, the more we share, the more abundance we will enjoy. When generosity replaces avarice, there will be enough for everyone.
We may also wake up and discover the true value of each individual, now that we have divided the world into essentials and nonessentials. In reality, each of us has a specific function in the grand scheme of things and it is our interconnectedness that allows us to survive and prosper. We know now, more than ever, that it is not the billionaires and their wealth that make the world go around. Money means nothing when you can’t breathe. It is the complex web of the world, each of us doing our part, at the right place and time, that keeps us going. We might wake up and see that interdependence is not a threat, but a comfort.
This past Monday I did a devotional with our staff to start the week. I read a few paragraphs from Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart. The world really has fallen apart and there is not much that any of us can do about it. Accepting this, is the first step in answering that enormous question—three words, eight letters, immeasurable possibilities.
Then again, we might wake up and realize that love really is the answer, no matter what the question.
Andrew Campbell loves to write, take photographs, cook and putter in his woodworking shop. He lives with his family in one of those tropical countries that are hard to locate on a map. His main goals in life are to minimize his karmic and carbon footprints.
Photo: provided by author/pixabay
Editor: Dana Gornall
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