The Lucky Ones
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
These days, gratitude and guilt can feel like the same thing. Read the news for five minutes and right away I know with certainty that several billion other people are far more vulnerable than me. But hasn't this always been true? Apparently it takes a pandemic to both cherish and abhor my privilege. After all, my suffering is partly just inconvenience. Sure, a packet of yeast costs $32 on Amazon and will arrive sometime in 2023, but it was only a month ago when baking a loaf of bread was the last thing most of us would choose to do with a couple hours of free time.
And yet we're all living inside vulnerable bodies and jittery minds, grappling with the terror of something a thousand times thinner than a human hair. We're desperate, really, for anything that works. A vaccine in the next year, and yoga for the next twenty minutes. Facebook is wondering if I've hugged myself today. Why, yes, I have. Did hugging myself make the horrors of mass unemployment, overrun hospitals, bodies piling up in morgues, not to mention the foreboding conviction that the strange tickling feeling in my throat might end up killing me three to four weeks from now any less terrifying? It did, actually, just a little, and my nose got close enough to my armpit that I realized it would be a good idea to take a shower.
As luck would have it, I started taking an online Mindfulness for Educators course five weeks ago. The instructors keep reminding me the present moment is the only moment we really have. How can a moment when nothing is going on also be the moment when everything feels like it's disintegrating into chaos? How can a global crisis sometimes feel so terribly boring? Is it selfish or enlightened to just focus on my breathing and listen to the birds? How loud they are today! Apparently, listening to birds is what happens when you stop obsessively listening to NPR. The recycling truck just passed with its cacophony of shattering glass: thirty seconds of distracting bliss. If happiness is having something to look forward to, then I'm thrilled to report the recycling truck will make another pass next Tuesday.
Of course, we are suffering in genuine ways too. Yesterday, my daughter was tearing into her older brother every chance she got: enraged at being confined at home, missing her friends, and taking it all out on him. By evening, both my wife and I felt unhinged. It may be a life of relative privilege, but it still feels like a surreal hell some of the time. And when will it end? Schizophrenic leadership whiplashes us into more and more uncertainty. It's embarrassing, really, how unprepared we were for something like this: as a family, as a country. The ambivalence penetrates deep—so deep that it doesn't feel like ambivalence anymore, rather like a cleaving: should I navigate this by laughing or crying? Should I wear the mask outside when I'm taking a walk, or should I just enjoy the fresh air? Should I try to keep us all in a good mood most of the time, or should I let things fall apart and see where we land? What if there's no bottom? What if we just keep falling and falling, like so many of my apocalyptic dreams of late, riddled with floods and high ledges.
And still, gratitude surfaces in the unlikeliest of moments. In the middle of the night, our carbon monoxide detectors went off, their high screech waking us all in a panic. We head outside in pajamas, coats, and huddle on the front porch. Should I call the city services line or 9-1-1? I think of what's going on in the world, and 9-1-1 seems overkill given it's probably just a faulty detector. City services is closed. The 9-1-1 dispatcher asks if any of us has a fever or dry cough, and I say no. When the truck arrives, two firemen don masks and go into the house. What are they touching? Should we be worried about that too? It's impossible not to reflect on the irony of us working so hard for the past month to keep out the dangerous world, yet what's inside could have have easily killed us in our sleep. The firemen emerge after a few minutes, and let us know everything is fine. They are calm and patient with our questions, and I am filled with gratitude, not just for the risks they endure, but for the very system that allows me to make a phone call in the middle of the night, and thirty minutes later have the world righted on its axis. This is the America I believe in. Soon enough we are asleep again, and in the morning the sun is shining, and I make bacon and eggs.
I'm on a video conference call with this year's senior class. Just an hour ago, they learned there will be no returning to school for the rest of the year. No prom, no graduation, none of the events our Creative Writing department holds to celebrate their work. They are in schock, and just beginning to grieve the losses. Each of the eighteen students takes a moment to talk about how they are feeling. One student, Anne, remarks that usually when bad things happen in her life, she figures out how to grow from them. "I don't see how I am going to learn anything from this," she says. The other students nod in agreement, eighteen faces all lined up in neat rows on my laptop screen. I don't know what to say to make any of them feel better. All I can do is offer my love, acknowledge their broken hearts, and keep reminding myself that we are the lucky ones.