We must get better at staying connected in our separateness. The events of the past few weeks have numbed me in some ways, and in others, launched me into action. I sit alone in my home watching evening news trying to make sense of the ever increasing numbers of assaults on normalcy, and hope for a change in the ways we live and work together.
It is impossible to not be questioning what horrible terrible thing will happen next, when in truth, all these things have been going on for decades, many just under the surface and others blatant in their execution, successfully ignored by some or enabled by others. I recall the scene in Casablanca watching as Bogie and Claude Rains conduct business as usual, knowing that things are changing, but not wanting to admit that we will need to change also.
The murder of George Floyd, loss of life due to SARS-CoV-19, and the collapse of our democracy are frightening reminders of our vulnerability. Pressure, fear, and constrained movements due to the virus have paused our routines and required changes in how we interact on every level. Some of these changes are exhausting. Some have brought out righteous indignation in me that was probably always there but now is freely shared. This information is frequently not appreciated by the receiving parties, who now eagerly and more energetically share their opposing perspectives with me. I find myself impatient and irritable, with little relief from either state.
I am a cisgendered, White, aging, adult female. All those descriptors carry meaning and potency far beyond how I was taught to think of myself. Each of these adjectives separates me from the collective sense of “humanness” I yearn to connect with. Still, individuality lifts us up and claiming one’s identity is an essential step in cultural and biologic development, at least in our industrialized, Western country.
My preference would be to drop all descriptors and just exist in mutual adoration and acceptance. This is naïve and does not begin to address the generational trauma experienced by those who look different, act different, speak differently, or do not worship the same God or gods that I do and who have been singled out for these very differences. The concept of “other” seems to be hardwired into our limbic systems, resulting in the neurologic ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response when we identify ‘other’ as a threat. How do we overcome biology? How do we find ways to soothe and calm the response so that we can connect our humanness?
I share the pain of those who are marginalized, although I do not bear their pain. It is much easier to acknowledge someone’s suffering than change the conditions that caused that suffering. I suspect that there are many who are capable of understanding someone else’s plight, but have no insight or inclination to go the next step and see what can be done about alleviating that person’s suffering.
As a result, I believe I have a greater responsibility to my fellow beings to take actions that provide comfort and care for those who are hurting, and confront those who have caused the hurt. White privilege has been called out for centuries by those who have been oppressed by it. Today, it is being explored by those who have it. I suspect it will be a while before change is seen in the behaviors of many of us, since our motivation to confront our transgressions is still relatively low. It is here that the SARS-CoV-19 may be the great leveler.
A cisgendered, privileged White male who writes opinion columns for a respected newspaper suggested, albeit quite awkwardly, that the pandemic had created circumstances similar to the limitations felt by marginalized people in terms of having to watch where he goes, what he must wear, and how he is perceived. I say awkward because this minor inconvenience is nothing like the conditions in which so many Americans live and work, yet he was seeking to bridge the divide.
What will accomplish this? In my time on this planet, truly successful and measurable change has come about through government enacting laws and regulations that force people to change behavior. For example, environmental laws have resulted in behavioral changes where people separate paper and plastic and manufacturers improve their machinery and systems resulting in better air and water quality. Health and safety laws have been passed to insure that people wear seat belts, drinking water be tested, side effects of pharmaceuticals be made known, and food labels list ingredients, all of which benefit our health. There are other examples, of course. And still, these are not sufficient to change underlying beliefs and strongly held prejudices that people seem reluctant to give up.
I would like to believe all people are capable of sustained change. Sadly, this has not been my experience. So I stand for compassion and tolerance. These two values appear in every faith and most founding documents of democracies on this planet. They are the equivalent brown gabardine suit of values. Not flashy, but trustworthy and dependable. I have seen people change their behaviors when they have been on the receiving end of compassionate acts or have had sustained contact and interaction with individuals who are different. If only there were opportunities for such experiences to happen.