As a very young lass, I had the opportunity to live in a less industrialized country with a fledgling government in power, promising a new era of equity and social justice that had been a distant dream during years of puppet governments and foreign interference. It was all very exciting, from my point of view. Revolution! Yet there were mass shortages of basic goods and even electricity, and the water supply was turned on for two-hour increments daily. People started hoarding basic food and supplies, and profiteering occurred. The government responded with very strict rationing and other measures, but the shortages went on. There were trade embargoes in place and even things like glass soda bottles became precious. I had come from the land of plenty, where empty shelves were unheard of. I asked a respected local elder what she thought about the shortages. Her response surprised me.
“I think it’s great! Now people are more grateful for what we have. We don’t waste as much. We are more protective of our resources, like running water and electricity, because there has to be enough for all of us to share. ‘We are only as rich as the poorest person among us.’ That is our motto! So I do agree with the strict rationing of basic food items. When everything is run on money, the rich can pay starvation wages and hoard the wealth. Before, poor people could not get what they needed, because it was put out of their price range by profiteers. Now, everyone in the country has the right to the basics, like food, housing, even healthcare and schooling. Share and share alike. Then work hard for your luxuries, if you want them, but nobody should have to starve or steal to feed their children or take care of their sick and elderly.”
I don’t claim that I will revel in it if we get to a point of scarcity where we have to turn off our water for part of the day, or have regular electrical shutoffs, or food rationing. And of course it will be terrifying if people where I live get to the point of civil unrest and even starvation – and let’s pause and acknowledge that this is the reality today in many parts of the world, through no fault of their average citizens. But I do think that this slowdown and even partial shutdown that we are experiencing in an attempt to mitigate the current virus can be an opportunity both individually and collectively to take stock of how we want to live and what matters most to us. What are we working for? Where are we rushing to?
For those few who thrive best in the rat race, there seems to be an anxious urgency to get back to work, not just for food and shelter, but as their recipe for personal success and self-worth. I had a chat across the lawn recently with our new megacorporate neighbors who are both able to work remotely on full salary. But they are “going crazy” as they told me, with their own two toddlers underfoot while the daycare is closed. The little buggers need so much time and attention during Mommy and Daddy’s workday! “Expect to see arts and crafts displayed in the windows soon because we’ll have to find SOMETHING to keep them busy so we can get our work done! We might even have to take some vacation time, because it’s so hard to stay productive!” The gym is closed as well, so they just set up a treadmill in their driveway, and they take turns running in place.
And what about the rest of us, the many of us who don’t measure our success by money, and yet need money to survive and keep paying our bills? Natural to panic and wonder if we will go under before things improve. But I do believe that much of our money problems will resolve themselves. Money, after all, is simply a socially agreed way of owning property and exchanging goods and services, and as policies change, so will our money woes. Remember, the only thing that cannot be forgiven in our society is individual failure: “Don’t go under – or go live in a tent. Your fault if you didn’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps!” But if we all sink or rise together in a shared economy, then large-scale adjustments will have to be made to accommodate the changing circumstances. Dominoes will fall in all directions, and those living hand to mouth will fall first. But collective collapse means a collective solution, and that means our government will have to take action and readjust some basics. Lots to think about. Lots to process. And we have a wide variety of examples from around the globe of how different nations are meeting this challenge. Lots to learn.
In addition to the money woes that all contractors face, in common with the many employees without secure jobs or benefits, and our fellow freelancers and small businesses, those of us who are healthcare workers face a much increased risk during a pandemic that sends contagious patients to our hospitals. While others are ordered to stay home, we are ordered to go to work and care for the sick and dying. Fortunately, many of us have come to peace with death through our years of work. I have accompanied many people on their final journey, and I had the honor to be holding my own dear mother’s hand as she passed away. I can now see death for what it is: the natural and inevitable end to each human existence. And I can see grief for what it is: love that has nowhere to go.
Interacting with other cultures around death and dying has been illuminating, because in our dominant culture, people seem shocked and dismayed by anyone of any age in any condition passing away, as if we just never expected it – as if we didn’t know we are mortal. It is a shame that every death must be a shock and a tragedy in our eyes, rather than the natural next step, and one we can accept. It is enough to lose a loved one and grieve without being in denial and shocked at our mortality as well.
More relevant to me than the specter of death is that I still find great satisfaction in living. I truly treasure the opportunities I have been given to interact with and serve others. I value my health and strength. I am grateful for my home, and my several jobs – including the ones that are not paying me right now (I am a contractor for the bulk of my income). I appreciate the ocean, mountains and forests of my home. I am happy for art and music and learning. Grateful for my readers, of course. And I am most especially happy for the strong connections I have, for my social network, for the people who love me, and allow me to love them. Happy for the outpouring of love and offers of help during my illness. So many people encouraging me as well as offering direct, practical help. Even my childhood sweetheart got in touch, to my exquisite and unmitigated delight.
In all this abundance, all this safety, even in illness, my heart goes out to those who for whatever reason, do not have a soft place to land. Who truly feel that their missing paychecks will lead to economic disaster in a matter of weeks or months. Who are facing health challenges that mean exposure to the virus could put them on a ventilator. Who are isolated and alone in their lives, whether due to relocation, poverty, or family separation, to such a degree that they simply don’t have the comfort of close friends and family nearby who can and will check on them, help them, relieve them. Who don’t have enough people in their circle – even during illness or a crisis – to ease their weary hearts, and provide them with practical help.
Not long ago, someone in my family was asking me how we can best support another family member, a common question for us. What if this happens? What if that happens? How can we help then? I answered, we do what we always do. We run around like a bunch of firefighters with a safety net and we just keep moving it underneath them so they always have a safe place to land. That’s our job. On a small scale, and on a large scale.
As to looming death, speaking philosophically, I can truly die happy, if such is my fate, with renewed appreciation for all that is precious in my life. Hopefully much later, because I am not yet tired of this fragile, scary, beautiful world upon which I am destined to live out my life in this even more fragile, ephemeral and yet resilient snippet of human flesh. Wishing all my readers good health, long life, and lots of love.