Our War of Words

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Since Thanksgiving I’ve been mostly behaving exactly like I did before the pandemic arrived in my city three years ago. I have not worn a mask in many months now unless I have a medical appointment. I go about my daily routines mostly not thinking about the long stretch of caution and isolation that many of us endured over a very long period of time. I mostly lost contact with humans outside of my family during that time so I was amazed at how I seemed to get back into the swing of things quite easily. 

I’ve enjoyed seeing my students in person again. I find that they their learning accelerates when I am with them instead of just being a face on a screen. The holidays were wonderful with most of my old traditions once more in place. I felt a great deal of relief at finally enjoying those personal contacts that had been missing for so long, and yet now and again I’ll be somewhere and without warning I feel as though I am little more than a fly on the wall. I watch the people around me and if feels uncomfortably strange to be with them again. it is as though we are all forcing ourselves to simply move beyond the traumas and the losses of the past three years as if they never happened. Everything seems the same and yet is also feels terribly different. 

I sometimes wonder if others have the same experience of suddenly sensing that we are not yet as healed as we think we are. Is it just me attempting to reintegrate into the bigger world outside of the confines of my home, or is it possible that we are pretending that everything is fine when it actually is not? There has been so much loss for which we have not properly grieved because it was so overwhelming that it felt better to just keep moving forward without acknowledging the hurt that we were feeling. 

Our collective journey divided us based on our different reactions to the virus. I expected to see a global union of human compassion on display and instead we engaged in an angry argument that has resulted in violence and wars in some cases. It has been disturbing to see how quickly we devolved into a kind of worldwide civil war over our differing points of view. My Pollyanna outlook on life has been shaken and while I have mostly moved past the disappointments that surprised me during the height of Covid, I still sense that residual effects continue. The virus did great harm to good people but it also unveiled the reality that we don’t necessarily work together when times get tough. That has been difficult for me to accept. 

I suppose that we will slowly build back trust and goodwill in our society, but not without effort from all of us. I don’t think that we can just go back to where we once were without effort and a willingness to honestly talk about what happened and why we were so divided. Our true healing will only begin when we are willing to ask ourselves why a national emergency became so political and why we used the pandemic to launch a culture war.   

I always harken back to a metaphorical moment in my life. At the time I had a huge backyard filled with many trees whose branches touched the above ground utility lines that carried electricity to the homes in my neighborhood. While I was at work one day a crew from the power company removed many of the branches and left them in random piles in my yard. After many weeks and entreaties on my part that they come to clean up the mess that they had made I realized that I was going to have to do the hard labor of sawing the huge limbs into smaller segments and binding them for the trash. It was an overwhelming task that I kept avoiding even though I knew it had to be done. 

Then came September 1, 2001, and the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I remember coming home from work that day feeling numb, but also filled with anxious energy. I could not sit in my house. I had to have something constructive to do, so I began to work on the downed limbs in my yard. After a time I had managed to create my first bundle and I took it to the curb, nodding at my neighbors who were in their front yards. None of us said a word because there were no words for that day. Only those brief movements of our heads conveyed our feelings in that moment. 

I returned to my backyard to work on the next pile. Shortly thereafter the man next door came with his tree saw and some twine and began working next to me, again without saying anything. As time went by another and then another neighbor came and before long the onerous task was done even as none of us had spoken a word. It was as though we somehow knew what each person was thinking and utterances were unnecessary. We had all felt the need to do something in that terrible time, something constructive that would unify us in the fear and grief and anger that we were feeling. We came together as neighbors just as we would seem to do as a nation, but soon enough everything had changed even when we tried to pretend that it had not.

We have ignored the many wounds to our nation for too long. The unity of Sept. 11, 2001 has become a war of words, a choosing of sides, an unwillingness to work calmly and quietly together. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to face the task at hand and join in the effort to work together again to end our war of words.


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