Some of us have heartburn. Others feel nauseous or sick to their stomach. A few experience a chronic pain in the neck, while sleep escapes us and night terrors abound. We are irritable and angry, sad and scared, quietly terrified, and decidedly depressed. We weep easily and work to keep anxiety at bay.
These are just a few of the somatic and psychological symptoms our shared stress serves up as we try to survive in an era of COVID isolation, massive political crime and corruption, the unimaginable possibility of living in a dictatorship, and natural and man-made disasters, all of which suggest a doomsday future and an atmosphere of lonely despair.
I simply cannot fathom losing one’s home and possessions under an ominous orange sky amid encroaching showers of sparks, on top of our shared calamities. I can’t imagine living in Beirut, or a refugee camp that disappears overnight, or a detention center defined by inhumane loneliness. It’s hardly bearable to forgo seeing one’s children or hugging a friend, or losing one.
Nor can I begin to know what it feels like to be a doctor, nurse or other health care provider, hospital worker, ambulance driver, EMT, “essential worker” putting herself on the front lines day after day after exhausting day. What does it feel like to watch a person die alone, with only your gloved hand to hold? What goes through your head when you drive a refrigerator truck to a funeral home?
Moving stories of courage, creative interventions, and acts of love, even among strangers, abound to counteract these experiences of human suffering. We need that antidote. That’s why it is important that we share the stories of both those who succumb and those who remain strong, and that we put a human face on this time of trauma and tragedy.
We need to know what the lost child looked like, what the grieving spouse said, what the lover feels. Their lost loved ones are not simply statistics. They were real people with real life stories whose pain in this moment is more than anyone should have to bear. Like the fallen on 9/11, their lives had meaning, promise, hope. In their memory, we need to offer acts of kindness every day, and to receive such acts with grace. It’s also why we need to share our own emotional suffering with those who can offer us solace and validate the normalcy of our emotions in this oh, so trying time.
It would not be quite so difficult if it were not for the fact that thousands of lives were needlessly lost, if we were not a leaderless nation on the brink of collapse, if there were less hatred and violence in our midst, if the natural world were not screaming for help, if we had reason to believe that current events were a bizarre anomaly, a blip on the screen, a fluke. But sadly, the convergence of events feels like foreshadowing. It’s a clarion call, and if we don’t respond quickly and appropriately, there will be no turning back, no end of suffering, no metaphorical blue skies, no more time.
Still, if we are to defeat the fires, real and symbolic, destroying our world, and overcome the fires burning like brazen acid within our breasts such that they rob us of peace of mind and threaten our remnants of hope, we must carry on, together and alone. Each of us is called upon to rise every morning, to give solace where it is needed, to ask for help when that is needed as well. We must do what we can to save each other from the flames of despair, whether that be carrying water from the well, climbing the mountain of Martin Luther King Jr., caressing a frightened child, cooking for the homeless, casting our vote no matter the obstacles, marching and making good trouble in memory of John Lewis, in short, being fully human in a seemingly inhumane and inhospitable world.
Although things have never seemed as bad as they are now in this confluence of tragedies, we have come through hard times before. We have survived them, flawed and tattered, but ultimately and fragilely intact. Now we are called upon to do more than survive. We are called to rebuild, restore, reimagine, not just in the space we occupy, but in all the spaces of the world.
We must understand that we are all part of the family of humankind, and that it falls to our generations and to each of us to care about that family, to honor and respect it, to join in its hope and possibility, to open doors to our shared future as we close the portals of past pain and degradation.
It starts now, for time is running out, and “if not us, who? If not now, when?”