A woman in our local supermarket verbally scorches the deli worker for not putting on a new pair of latex gloves before touching her groceries. Passengers on a flight from Colorado to New Jersey become disruptive because a man is coughing and sneezing. The flight has to be diverted. The man is tested. He has allergies. A New York teen screams at a man of Asian descent — “F— you, Chinese coronavirus!” — kicks him to the ground, tells him to go back where he came from. The victim has lived in the U.S. for 35 years. Unfortunately, in times of high anxiety the ugly side of human nature often surfaces. Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” are shoved aside, and fear of the unknown and unseeable morphs into hostility that is unleashed on the innocent. There is an irrational assumption behind the wheel, driving the violence — that lashing out will somehow make things better. It doesn’t, of course; instead it makes things worse. But as Lynn Ungar argues in her beautiful and powerful poem, “Pandemic,” there is another way to respond to the uncertainty and fear we are now facing. If you haven’t read it yet, here tis. Digest it slowly. Let it sink in bone deep. And when your “body has become still, reach out with your heart.” Add your voice to the “tendrils of compassion.” Who are we? How do we cope? This is a test.
What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of times? Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling. Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is. Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life. Center down. And when your body has become still, reach out with your heart. Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. (You could hardly deny it now.) Know that our lives are in one another’s hands. (Surely, that has come clear.) Do not reach out your hands. Reach out your heart. Reach out your words. Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch. Promise this world your love– for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, so long as we all shall live. –Lynn Ungar 3/11/20