The Good, The Bad, and The Coronacoaster
“Where there are humans, you’ll find flies. And Buddhas,” wrote the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa. The pandemic seems to have sharpened the divide. Here are photographs of men sporting swastikas and toting long guns and Confederate flags, protesting government safety measures in Michigan’s state capitol. But here is the 28-year-old paramedic in Westchester, New York, who has been wearing the same N-95 mask for two weeks but who makes sure to rub patients’ backs and try to talk them out of their terror en route to the crowded emergency room.
Rebecca Solnit wrote a wonderful book called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, describing the extraordinary solidarity that tends to emerge after hurricanes, earthquakes and even terrorist attacks. Were Solnit to write about today’s state of affairs, she might include the Italians who sang from their balconies to lift each others’ spirits, or the half million people who answered the British government’s appeal for volunteers to help support its National Health Service.
Still, you can’t really generalize about something as complex and idiosyncratic as human behavior. Especially at a time when fear, anxiety and anger are incontestably rational responses to the present day mix of a rampant life-threatening illness and a negligent—at best—federal government. The result is what has been aptly described as the coronacoaster: that dizzying up-and-down constantly changing perspective on our prospects.
Each day’s news offers more and sharper contrast, more reasons for outrage or reviving hope. The grocery store employees in Boston who called the police because a 10-year-old child with Down syndrome and sensory problems wasn’t wearing a mask. The fitness teacher in Seville, Spain, who held an exercise class for people quarantined in their homes, leading it from the roof of a nearby apartment block where they could watch from their windows. The Seattle dentist who spitefully set fire to boxes of protective masks and gowns after being evicted from his office for not paying rent. The Massachusetts non-profit that gives free wedding dresses to brides who are also health workers and first responders.
My own faith in humanity ebbs and flows from moment to moment, but it did that before the pandemic, which is why I’ve always liked that Kobayashi Issa quote. The moral of the story, I suppose, is that we must keep our eyes out for the Buddhas amid the flies, because, thank goodness, they keep turning up.
Copyright © 2020 Katherine Ellison
Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author and co-author of ten non-fiction books. Her op-eds and news features have appeared in major media including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and the Atlantic. She writes mainly about mental health and climate change and has a niche ID as a public-speaking advocate for de-stigmatizing ADHD. She lives in Northern California with her husband, dogs and now, thanks to the coronacoaster, their college-going son. Her most recent book is Mothers & Murderers: A True Story of Love, Lies, Obsession…and Second Chances