I’m in southern New Hampshire, visiting my brother at his new house – he’s just retired from the Army – and helping him put in a new vegetable garden. It’s a beautiful time to be in New Hampshire: temps are in the mid 70s to low 80s, and it rains about every other day. My sister-in-law is a great cook, and I get to hang out with my awesome nieces and nephew. This feels like a magical oasis in amid all the crises and chaos of the world.
Meanwhile, my work – writing for GMT and producing summaries of books and articles on business and world events – brings me into contact with the realities of the larger world. As I read about the worsening pandemic situation, continuing protests over structural racism, distressing political news, and, last but certainly not least, the accelerating environmental catastrophe, I can’t help wondering if I could – and should – be doing something more. Or living differently in some way so as to make sure my impact is positive or at least a little less negative. Things are bad enough without my adding to them.
Life is always presenting choices and sometimes dilemmas. Sometimes it’s “should I snack on cookies or carrots?” But now, issues and events of the day seem to be becoming more and more insistent, more and more personal, more and more unsettling. And constant. And difficult. And sometimes revealing of who I really am – and therefore uncomfortable. Is it okay to break my quarantine to go to dinner out with the family (it seems safe)? Should I drop everything and risk losing an eye, or worse, to join a protest I claim to believe in? Should I go ahead and buy the three-quarter ton truck I want, or stick to my little fuel-efficient Nissan?
I’ve always been, in my own mind, a live and let live person. I feel we all should be free to make our own choices, without pressure or shame. I don’t tend to raise issues or call people out even when I deeply disagree with them. As the issues and questions escalate, though, it’s becoming more and more clear that I’m really just conflict avoidant, and I often don’t push my opinions or desires because I’m afraid to make waves.
I’m also afraid to find out that my opinion doesn’t count, doesn’t actually matter.
Only it’s become more and more obvious, in a hundred ways, that it does. That all of our opinions and preferences and desires matter. They’re matters of life and death – literally.
A couple of months ago, an authority on public health – I wish I could remember the person’s name; it was a former European health minister, I think – called the new coronavirus “the virus of truth.” He was referring to the way the covid-19 pandemic is revealing politicians’ true colors, as well as structural weaknesses in national societies and economies.
Whether the topic is covid-19 or tearing down Confederate statues, reducing carbon footprint or speaking up about abuses of power, or a thousand other questions, we’re all undergoing daily litmus tests that reveal what’s really going on behind our altruism and accountability. Often it turns out that all of that is only a facade, and the truth is much darker.
I say this with awareness that I’m not exempt. While I was double-digging a new garden bed Monday afternoon, I had time to think, and realized, I’m doing this gardening because, even though it’s hard work, I enjoy it. I love being outdoors, digging in the earth, getting dirt on my hands, watching plants grow and nurturing them, and then partaking of their bounty. Those are all good things, but they’re not unselfish. If I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the process, I realized, I wouldn’t be doing this. My brother would have to put in his own darn garden.
I do feel that I’m usually a generous, empathetic person – but nevertheless, you won’t find me exerting a lot of effort to do something that doesn’t benefit me personally in some way. Either through enjoyment or inflating my ego a little bit, or subtly creating obligations on the part of the person I’m giving to, or helping me feel a little less remorse about not doing what I could be doing, but won’t.
Although I’m not living in Arizona right now, I understand that masks are a highly polarized issue. I’m one of those people who wear a mask every time I go out. I was an early adopter. The second week of March, when the virus was just starting to hit in Italy, I flew from Boston to my favorite place, the Azores. I was headed to an island with a small, mostly elderly population. I would have been devastated if I’d been the one to bring the virus to the island and possibly hurt these people I was beginning to think of as friends.
As it happened, Santa Maria remains virus free, and there hasn’t been a single case on the island. Flights connecting the island to the rest of the world were suspended in late March. So throughout April and May, there was practically zero chance of the virus even being on the island. Still, you saw pretty much everyone there wearing masks and social distancing. Whether that was out of simple obedience to the law or a strong sense of community responsibility and care for others, it would be hard to say. But either way, it was a stark contrast to images I saw online of Americans intentionally coughing on produce cases or even in other people’s faces.
Life puts us to these tests every day. It’s always been happening, whether we noticed it or not. It’s always been the case that we have the choice to make each moment holy. Life is sacred – not because of what we’re doing with it, usually – but because of what we could choose to do with it. That’s always been true.
The difference now is that more and more, it seems the tests are becoming clearer, plainer. For one thing, other people’s character, their true colors, are becoming easier to perceive. Sometimes it’s as easy as noticing if they’re wearing a mask or not.
But more personally, as we absorb the events of the world and respond to them one way or another, it’s as if a mirror has been put up to each of our faces. And at the same time, it’s as if someone’s turning the lights up, brighter and brighter. It’s becoming harder and harder to avoid seeing the face that looks back from the mirror.
Sometimes that’s good news – you find out that you’re a person who doesn’t mind enduring a little discomfort and inconvenience for the sake of protecting strangers from harm. Sometimes, you find out you’re not quite the person you’d like to be. You break quarantine to go out to dinner with the fam. You fly across the ocean, even though you know Greta Thunberg’s right. You realize you’re not about to go to a protest and put your own body on the line, at least not yet. You realize you have some work to do to develop more empathy, compassion, generosity, integrity, and courage.
That’s the blessing of these times, as I see it. And it’s a huge one, a life-changing and world-changing one. We’re like people with poor eyesight, and with these crises it’s as if God is giving us spectacles – along with the mirror and bright lights. We can finally see who we are, warts and all, and that gives us the opportunity to change who we are. It’s on us to open our eyes, to be willing to see the uncomfortable and sometimes regrettable truth. And then do something about it.
It’s not easy or comfortable to witness your own selfishness, distrust, and fear. That clarity brings remorse and sometimes shame. But seeing the truth also brings a new level of self-respect, and the possibility of change. Rural Arizonans, with their history of hard work and toughness and their git-er-done spirit, know that building a good life in a difficult environment means enduring discomfort and risks – and that you won’t get anywhere by pretending facts aren’t facts.
The secret to being willing to face the whole truth about yourself is knowing that you can change it. I can work every day to be a little more considerate, a little less self-centered, a little more generous.
And, even more, it’s knowing that this daily progress is in many ways what life is all about. God is an excellent gardener. (I think he invented it, actually.) He knows sometimes you have to rain down a pile of – let’s call it fertilizer – to get things to grow.
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.