How to act when you’re downstream

Guess how I spent my morning? Making phone calls, and worrying.

Well, first I got up, got dressed, made coffee, fed the cat, woke up the kids, crammed breakfast into them, and accounted for everyone’s backpacks and lunches and shoes and masks and reminded the kids at home that they had a dentist appointment later. Then we piled in the car, I dropped off one kid at work, and I dropped off one kid at one school. Then we drove to the other school with the other kid, and then . . . I had doubts. 

Last night, my son said a co-worker at his restaurant casually mentioned she had had COVID symptoms for four days, and she had also been exposed to someone who had tested positive. And she kept on coming to work! So my son told his manager and then went straight into isolation at home until we get more information. 

It’s a fairly distant level of exposure, and there may not even be a virus. No one in our family has symptoms. So I read a few guidelines and I thought it was okay to bring the kids to school? But then I started tracing a hypothetical in my head: Server takes her mask off to vape, and breathes a virus cloud at my son; son comes home and grabs some crackers from the family box; other kids also eat crackers, then go to school and accidentally drool on a class ruler or something;  classmates use the ruler, then go home and kiss their parents; parents need toothpaste and go to Walmart, where they paw through the $2.88 DVD bin without wearing a mask because last they heard, they woke up in a free country . . . yeah, that’s what a pandemic looks like. Even with hand washing and sanitizer and masks and temperature checks. Some people are responsible and some are not. Some get away with it and some don’t. 

So, holding my masked kindergartner’s hand, I stood on the playground six feet away from the school’s director and described the situation, to get her verdict. Then I called the dentist; then I called the pediatrician, where we are supposed to be headed for check-ups with three kids tomorrow; then I texted another mom, whose house one kid was supposed to be going to after school for an outdoor, socially distanced birthday party this afternoon.

I can’t even tell how worried I’m supposed to feel right now! I can’t tell if I overreacted or under reacted. At least I work from home and don’t have to deal with daycare or complicated commutes, so it could be much worse. We just have to wait and see whether the gal at work actually has COVID or not.

But it’s almost noon and I haven’t gotten a damn thing done today, except make a bunch of phone calls for what may or may not be a problem, just because some waitress I’ve never even met apparently just opted out of taking a pandemic seriously. She wasn’t even going to tell anyone she had symptoms! She happened to mention it to my kid, and he’s the one who had to tell the manager. She was completely irresponsible, and that means that all the rest of us have to go into responsibility overdrive. I guess I still have to call the health department and make a report. I can feel myself returning again and again to a well of annoyance at her, and at everyone like her who isn’t taking this stuff seriously. That’s what a pandemic looks like: People who are PROBABLY NOT EVEN BAD PEOPLE are also PROBABLY RESPONSIBLE FOR PEOPLE DYING. And I can’t even tell how worried I’m supposed to feel.

So. What we have here is one of those “two job” situations. The first job we have is to be as responsible and sensible as possible, according to our abilities and circumstances. Make all the phone calls, change all the appointments, disclose all the situations, wash all the hands, etc. This is going to be everyone’s lives for the foreseeable future: Doing the best we can after someone else didn’t.

The other job is to guard our hearts. This is the hard part. This is always the hard part. 

We can keep ourselves and everyone we meet as safe as possible, but still allow our hearts to be completely overcome with resentment, rage, and disgust for the people who put us in this position. And it’s reasonable to do so! And it’s so easy! But it’s the part that can really hurt us. This is the part that will linger with us forever, making us weak and compromised long past this virus season. 

I can’t control anyone else’s behavior. I can’t make people take something seriously if they don’t want to take it seriously. All I can do is control my own behavior to try to mitigate the spread caused by careless and selfish and foolish people. In a pandemic, all I have is my own little portion of the river that runs through my property, as it were. I can’t control what kind of risk and contagion come to me and my family from upstream, but I can control what goes downstream from us.

And while I do it, I can control what I allow to happen in my heart. I have a choice to be as safe as possible while being angry, or to be as safe as possible while . . . being like Jesus, a little bit.

That’s really what it comes down to, you guys. This whole original sin thing? And all the actual sin that happens every minute of the day and night? Not His fault. Not His deal at all. All the muck and disease and pollution and contagion that came to Him from upstream was from other people. None of it was His. It was all from careless and selfish and foolish people like you and me. He was absolutely safe in Heaven from contagion. But He deliberately parked himself mid stream and let himself be exposed. Then, being Immaculate, He not only purified what came out of Him, He looked with pity and kindness on the people upstream, the ones who screwed everything up and hurt Him. That’s what He did. That’s who He is. 

THIS IS THE HARD PART. And . . . this is what we’re supposed to do. 

Can we do this? I am trying. I fail every day, even while the stakes are relatively low, and we’re mostly just dealing with hassle and anxiety, not ventilators and organ failure and financial ruin. I still get so mad. But I am trying. When I start to ruminate on other people’s lousy attitudes, I can take a breath, let it out slowly, and come up with something else to think about, because other topics besides COVID are still important. When the news is making me dig my nails into my palms with frustration, I can turn it off and put on Schubert, instead, because Schubert is real, too. When I realize some rando on Twitter is not interested in having an honest conversation, I can step away and mute him while there’s still some whiff of civility in the air. And I can pray, not only for health, but for peace. And I can make an act of faith that prayer is efficacious even when I don’t see it. 

This is the hard part. Trying to be like Jesus is always the hard part. But when you consider the alternative, what else can we possibly do? We can’t step out of the stream, but we can stand with Him.



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9 thoughts on “How to act when you’re downstream”

  1. I really like this article and this attitude! Somehow the whole idea of loving your neighbor as you love yourself hasn’t carried through to protecting your neighbor from serious illness, for too many people.

    I wonder, though, what you mean by, “there may not even be a virus.” Do you mean that there may not be a virus spewing from your son’s co-worker? Or do you mean that you doubt whether the novel coronavirus exists at all, but you’re still behaving as if it does because that’s the right thing to do?

  2. Simcha, I love the way you portrayed Jesus here. I, like most humans, need to keep hearing what The Real Jesus is like because I’ve still got a somewhat distorted view of our loving God.
    I’m also continually blessed by the authenticity you keep showing in your writing. You don’t pretend everything is, or you are, perfect — and *that*, I can very much relate to.
    –Thank you.–

  3. This. One of my coworkers came to work after having symptoms and getting a test — which is completely against our rules and we have an extraordinarily generous remote working policy so this person wouldn’t have even had to use a paid vacation day — and I only found out a week after I had been exposed. I never had any symptoms, but my husband is a Type I diabetic and my sons live at home with us now. I was not happy about the Plague Rat.

    That said, I can’t go on calling a fellow human Plague Rat, especially since this person has the disease and may suffer permanent injuries from it. Be careful and be generous.

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