What Have We Become?

He drops our groceries on the front porch, like he has almost every Saturday since the world shut down. We’ve already had one hospital scare and we’re doing what we can to avoid another. As such, our friend takes our order every Friday and delivers the goods the following morning. In times like these, it’s a godsend to have a village, even a socially distanced one.

This Saturday drop-off is different though, and instead of the routine give and go, our friend lingers on the front step, mentioning that tensions were running high on this particular shopping trip. “Tension?” we ask. “Like the overall bad vibes that live ‘out there’ right now or did something happen?”

“Well, actually both,” he says, and I grab my mug of coffee, eager to hear something new, something from the outside. Even grocery store gossip serves as entertainment these days. “There was the standard leeriness of fellow shoppers that is the new normal,” he begins, “but there was also…a confrontation.”

We lean in to our six feet of separation, intrigued. Diplomatic and quiet, our friend is not known for conflict. Was this some yet undiscovered symptom of the virus, turning usually genial ladies and gentlemen combative? A case could be made from the recent snapshots of Lansing, citizens literally up-in-arms over middle-class conveniences like professional hair coloring and motorized boating (and the right to work, the root of so much fear and frustration, but that message was eclipsed by intimidation tactics, sexist slurs and weaponry).

My friend continued. “I was trying to follow the new arrows taped on the aisle floors when the guy in front of me – no mask – starts coughing everywhere. I’m not going to walk through that, so what do I do?”

He does what most folks would do and turns around to avoid the cloud of potential COVID-19 up ahead. Then, escaping to safety, he glances up to find a look of pure panic on the face of an approaching shopper, a shopper who was, of course, following those non-negotiable arrows.

“She shot daggers at me the closer I got, but where was I supposed to go? She stared me down, so I stared right back, and then…”

The woman, whom my friend described as small in stature and well into retirement, confronts him. She scolds him for ignoring the arrows to which he replies that these arrows were, unfortunately, pointing directly into a germ-infested haze caused by the unmasked man at the end of the aisle. He tells her that he will not, in fact, be following said arrows. The shopper then steps toward him and threatens to kick his 40-year old ass.

“So, you almost got beat up by someone’s grandmother?” He nods, still in disbelief and disgust. His face reveals the same question I’ve been asking for the past few weeks, “What have we become?”

It seems that in our isolation we have forgotten that everyone else is afraid, too – afraid for their lives and their livelihoods, scared they are losing their access to food and to freedoms large and small, terrified that everything they are hearing is a lie…or worse, that it’s all true.

In this current state of public safety meets paranoia, we are all afraid of something and this fear disguises itself as many things, anger seeming to be the most prevalent. What else drives a woman to threaten assault on a man twice her size and half her age because he’s walking in the wrong direction? A biological response that has been embedded in her, one that says “Danger! This slight, baby-faced man out shopping for groceries every Saturday for himself as well as a family of six that is not his own – his mere presence is a threat and I must attack!”

Common courtesy and compassion are dying right alongside the bodies that accumulate on the television screen each night. Our natural instincts are taking over, and in the absence of rational thought, we are nothing more than animals, tucking and running or puffed up and on the offensive. Some of us fear the virus itself while others fear the economic fallout that follows the pandemic-induced restrictions – and a lot of us fear both. Some of us flee to our homes, worried for our own health or, if we have any compassion left, worried for those in our communities who are the most at risk. Others parade in public, thinking fear can be camouflaged by rounds of ammo strapped to a barreled chest.

But even those inclined to fight, shouting demands and exerting their glaring privilege, even the loudest and most aggressive can’t hide the panic in their eyes. It is the same panic that my friend saw wash over the woman’s face at the grocery store. It is everywhere, and until we begin to reconcile that the fear I see in your eyes is the same fear that you see in mine, until we can respond to this fact not in kind but with kindness, we have no hope of moving past this moment in time, no hope of becoming human again. We are locked in a devolved state of animalistic behavior, fight or flight, holler or hide – and next to complete respiratory failure, it may be the most frightening and irrevocable symptom of this very scary virus.

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