As a child, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her life as a pioneer living on the prairie. In the summer of 2010, after a particularly stressful semester of college, I even re-read them. After reading scholarly articles and textbooks until my head hurt, there was something comforting about returning to a childhood favorite, and reading them from an adult perspective, I also noticed things that I had never paid attention to as a child. Today I want to talk about a passage I found particularly poignant as an adult, and which I found myself thinking about again in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic.
The passage is found in The Long Winter, the book that chronicles the brutal winter of 1877 when the family almost starved to death and had to resort to twisting hay into sticks for firewood because they had moved into town and became dependent on the train for food and supplies. But the train could not reach them for months due to continuous, relentless snow storms. One warm, sunny autumn day before that brutal winter, Laura is helping Pa bail hay, and thinks he missed a haycock, but Pa tells her that is actually a muskrat house. This is the first foreshadowing of the brutal winter to come as Pa shakes his head and says he had never seen a muskrat house with walls that thick. The thicker muskrats build the walls of their houses, the colder winter will be.
Laura who would have been nine or ten years old at the time, asks Pa how the muskrats know, to which he responds “God tells them somehow, I suppose.” Then Laura asks why God doesn’t tell us these things, to which Pa says it is because we are not animals. We are humans, and just as the Declaration of Independence states, God created humans to be free, which means we get to do as we please, but it also means we have to take care of ourselves.
Religion does not play an overt role in these books, partly because living away from civilization as they did for many years, it wasn’t always possible to attend a formal church regularly. But the family observed the Sabbath, which is discussed in Little House in the Big Woods, and throughout all the books, the importance of Christian principles like hard work and integrity are emphasized. When they fell on hard times, they recognized and gave glory to God for small miracles like a visit from a generous stranger which allowed them to get by another day, survive another season.
“I thought God takes care of us,” Laura says.
“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what’s right. But He leaves it to us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”
I have often found that the best Christian literature isn’t what is marketed as Christian literature. I have nothing against Christian literature. In fact, in high school I was absolutely hooked on the Left Behind series, a fictional depiction of what the end times might look like. This series definitely had the impact its two authors, both pastors were hoping for, causing myself and millions of others to think more seriously about our Christian faith. In this series, characters quoted scripture often in conversation, especially with nonbelievers. But thinking about this series as an adult, I can understand why the heavy-handed, agenda-driven manner in which scripture was woven into the story might turn some people off. Pa doesn’t quote scripture, but in this poignant and natural conversation with Laura, he illustrates multiple Christian principle so relevant to the crisis we are living through right now. We are not animals. We are humans, created in God’s image. Unlike animals where God directs every detail of their lives via the natural instincts He plants in them, right down to the type of house muskrats build, humans are given free will to do as we please. God does care for us to an extent, but He also expects us to use the brains and conscience He has given us to care for ourselves.
This passage first came to mind Friday March 13, the day after the surreal experience of learning that pretty much every aspect of daily life would be cancelled indefinitely. Every Friday on this program, New York Times columnist David Brooks and syndicated columnist Mark Shields analyze the news of that week. That day, David Brooks observed that the 1918 flu left no lasting impact on our culture, and even those who survived that pandemic really didn’t talk about it. He found that the reason people didn’t talk about it was because they were ashamed of the people they became during the pandemic, and he warned we might not like the people we become either. In an editorial that gave me chills, David Brooks wrote about how pandemics kill compassion. During the plague that struck Europe during the middle ages, infected people were permanently sealed into their houses and just abandoned to die. In other pandemics through history, people were shipped off to hospitals on remote islands where most died. In 1918, women whose hearts would normally be moved to help children in need refused to step forward and care for children whose parents were sick, causing some to die of starvation because there was no one to provide for them. Given the fear and panic pandemics trigger, it is all too easy to think only of our survival, to forget about compassion and conscience, or put another way, to let animal instincts take over.
In fairness to people of ancient times, they did not have the scientific understanding of viruses we have today. In fact they wouldn’t have even had the equipment to know that their illnesses were caused by a virus, so it is understandable why they would have resorted to superstition, such as believing that afflicted people were cursed by God. Although every virus behaves differently, meaning scientists are learning as we go with this coronavirus, much of the fear of ancient peoples has been mitigated by the scientific advances we have made. We can identify the virus causing the illnesses, and we know how to reduce risk of contracting the virus by washing our hands and hard surfaces, practicing social distancing and wearing personal protective equipment. (Of course, whether personal protective equipment is available is another matter.) We know how to quarantine people while still treating them with compassion and providing for their needs.
In every pandemic David Brooks cited throughout history, there were people who resisted falling into animal instincts, who reflected God’s image and treated the sick with compassion. In this pandemic too, there have been plenty of incredible examples of humanity and compassion, from the healthcare workers on the front lines, but also from ordinary citizens donating personal protective equipment, caring for the children of healthcare workers, even serving free breakfast and lunch to children who normally qualify for free meals at school which is now closed. And yet for some people, David Brooks was right. When they look back on this pandemic, they may not like the people they became.
Despite our scientific advances with regard to viruses, fear is still evident in this present pandemic. I speculate that although we have vanquished superstition regarding viruses, our fear is now fueled by 24/7 media. Although hoarding is an animal behavior, I can understand the anxiety that 24/7 news coverage of the virus could trigger that would lead people to hoard N95 masks needed by health care providers, as well as hand sanitizer, even toilet paper. I didn’t feel compelled to hoard face masks or hand sanitizer, but on March 13 when I realized this quarantine was for real, I started getting anxious about running out of gluten free, healthy food. On March 14, I ordered two cases of dried beans. (I was so tempted to order four, or six, or ten cases, but since I really am trying to work on trusting God to provide, I resisted this temptation and only bought two cases, still enough to last me about three months). I panicked a little when for some reason, Bob’s Red Mill, the site where I usually order beans wouldn’t work for me, but I was able to buy them at Eden Foods which actually gave me a larger quantity than I would have gotten from Bob’s Red Mill, so given the unprecedented quarantine we were about to embark on, I was actually glad the Bob’s Red Mill site didn’t work. But the next day when it occurred to me I should re-stock my Lundberg brown rice as well, as I had about a package and a half left. I like to eat it for breakfast sometimes, and also share it with my parents, so that could go fast. But when I went to Amazon where I usually ordered it, it was out of stock as was every other brand of brown rice I tried. Seeing the online equivalent of the bare grocery store shelves being reported on the news sent me into a bit of panic again, which didn’t fully subside until to my relief, I found brown rice at Meijer’s a couple weeks later. So while we all should work on trusting God to provide, anxiety that leads to hoarding is behavior I understand. What I don’t understand is the callous remarks a small but vocal minority have made about the most vulnerable among us, rhetoric I never thought I would hear in this country in the 21st century.
These days, the hysteria isn’t as much over the virus itself, but the economic devastation it has caused. In late February or early March when people were starting to hoard things like hand sanitizer, but the coronavirus still seemed far away, I read a compelling Huffington Post essay written by someone who was immunosuppressed and also has other disabilities. She was troubled by the fact that media coverage of the virus, in an effort to prevent panic, kept emphasizing that the virus is dangerous “only” for the elderly, the immunosuppressed or those with underlying medical conditions. The writer of this essay felt as though in using this language, the media failed to consider that people in these vulnerable categories would hear this rhetoric, and that this is just the latest of a long history of behaviors with the underlying attitude that vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities are disposable. I am blessed because although I have encountered a little bit of discrimination from people ignorant of the capabilities of blind people, overall I have always been surrounded by people with high expectations for me who were more than willing to accommodate me. I have never gotten the vibe that people think I am disposable, so at first, even after reading this essay, I gave the media the benefit of the doubt when they used such language. I even used it a little myself when trying to put my family at ease when the pandemic was starting to get serious and I was still going to work, until my parents reminded me that because of my underlying pituitary damage, I may be more vulnerable than I thought. But then a few weeks later, I read this article written by Shai Held, a rabbi shocked at the cruelty being displayed in some circles toward the elderly. Some dress up their statements about the elderly with moral indignation, first dehumanizing them by lumping them together as a faceless mass, rather than treating them as individuals with their own distinct faces and voices, hopes and dreams, and then saying that “the elderly” are getting what they deserve if they die of COVID-19 because of the way they have denied climate change, subjecting future generations to hardships they won’t have to deal with themselves. But beyond that, this rabbi lamented that we live in a culture that puts too much emphasis on productivity, economic worth.
“If there is one thing we ought to teach our children,” he wrote, “it is that our worth as human beings does not depend on or derive from what we do or accomplish or produce; we are, each one of us, infinitely valuable just because we are created in the image of God. We mattered before we were old enough to be economically productive, and we will go on mattering even after we cease to be economically productive.” People with disabilities were beyond the scope of this rabbi’s editorial, but I have no doubt he would also say that people with disabilities or underlying medical conditions that may limit their economic productivity, or preclude them from being economically productive at all, also matter.
Even after reading this article, I wanted to believe this Rabbi just had the misfortune of interacting with a couple extreme outliers, that our society didn’t really measure the value of human lives on the basis of age or economic productivity. And then over the course of just 24 hours, I saw this article in which the lieutenant governor of Texas, said he thought that many elderly people would be willing to die to preserve the economy for their grandchildren, and this article talking about how disability advocacy groups were filing a lawsuit over guidelines released for hospitals that in the event of a shortage of ventilators that required rationing care, ventilators should be given to younger, healthier people. A chill swept down my spine as I read this article and realized that due to my blindness and other medical issues, combined with the fact that my family who would normally advocate for me would not be able to accompany me, this country that I always thought valued people like me might now determine I am not worth saving.
That summer of 2010, shortly after reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, a duck who only had one leg showed up in our garden and chose our garden to lay her eggs. Mom scrapped plans to plant in that area so as not to disturb her. For weeks, she diligently sat on her eggs. My heart was touched by this duck, and I had visions of writing a children’s book about this handicapped duck overcoming adversity and making her way in the world. Our whole family was excited about the prospect of baby ducks. But then one morning, we woke up to find the eggs abandoned, the mother duck nowhere to be found. The duck never returned, and her eggs never hatched. We never found out for sure what happened to her, but my dad said he had seen a fox prowling around, so we are pretty sure the fox had her for breakfast. We were all a little sad, but we recognized that in the wild, that’s the way it is. Animals don’t have eternal souls, and are not created in God’s image. They live only by animal instincts, under which the survival and health of the herd is all that matters. If a puppy is born with a birth defect, the mother pushes him aside and does not feed him because her instincts tell her he wouldn’t survive long anyway. Animals that are sick or injured, or who cannot keep up with the herd are eaten. That’s just the way it is.
But as Pa said so eloquently, we are not animals. We are humans, and as humans with eternal souls, created in God’s image and given free will and a conscience, we are supposed to live by higher principles in which all lives have value. My hope is that long-term, people who have made callous statements regarding vulnerable populations will repent and that our society will emerge from this pandemic with a deeper respect for all lives, and that short-term, we will all, especially political leaders who purport to be Christian, will stop pushing to re-open the economy when COVID-19 cases are still rising. Ideally, the wealthiest country in the world should have been better prepared for a pandemic, with a much better stockpile of hospital beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment. But that aside, given reality as it is, as humans, we must continue social distancing for as long as recommended by health experts, so that doctors aren’t forced to make decisions only animals should have to make.
I understand the anxiety people are having about the economy. In fact, I am worried about my generation’s future economic security, as for millennials like me, this is our second major economic downturn, when many of us never fully recovered from the first one. We are earning much less than previous generations were earning at our age. I have heard the argument that we should re-open the economy because the effects of poverty will kill more people than the virus. But again I argue, we are not animals. We are humans. Instead of accepting that no matter what, people are going to die, let’s stay home for as long as it takes to contain the virus and protect the vulnerable, and then when it is safe to re-open the economy, we can enact reforms that distribute wealth more fairly and ensure all have access to necessities like food and healthcare. We are not animals. We are humans. We don’t have to choose whether we sacrifice lives to the virus or the economy. With the brains and conscience God gave us, I think we can figure out how to ensure that vulnerable populations survive the virus, and the economic downturn.