We weren’t sick very often in my family when I was growing up. Long before it became television lifestyle expert truth, my parents believed that a reasonable exposure to the residents of the microscopic world via puppies, toad frogs and good honest dirt, would lead to a robust immune system.
More importantly, they stressed hygiene where it mattered, especially when it came to the microscopic passengers carried and distributed by humans. I rarely saw either of my parents touch their faces when we were in public or traveling. They washed their hands frequently and required us to do the same, and if anything above the neck needed maintenance, there was always a tissue at hand. To this day (especially this day) I still use a bandana or, in a pinch, the inside of my shirtsleeve to wipe the corners of my eyes.
The hygienic discipline of my parents was purchased at some cost. Both worked at Battey State Hospital in the 1950’s. Battey was a tuberculosis sanatorium, and hygiene was paramount. Discipline was draconian. All employees were tested regularly for exposure and infection.
Battey was almost a city unto itself, and for the residents of nearby Rome, Georgia, it might as well have been on another planet. Employees of Battey were feared by local residents, and ostracized, so most of the people who worked there only socialized with other employees.
There was good reason for fear, especially in the living memory at that time of the early 1900’s when tuberculosis killed one out of seven people living in the United States and Europe.
TB has been contained, though not eliminated in the United States, but it remains the number one cause of death by infectious disease worldwide. In 2018, 10 million people contracted tuberculosis and 1.5 million died from it. New strains of drug resistant TB have briefly made the headlines before being overwhelmed in the collective consciousness by other matters.
Lately I’ve thought often about what my folks experienced and how the forgotten echoes of the recent past could better inform our attitudes today. We have never been too far away from epidemic or pandemic, either in distance or time span, and a fifth-grade knowledge of history reveals a long, unbroken planetary experience of adversity. HIV is a quite recent pandemic that is still with us. The Spanish Flu, Cholera, Yellow Fever, Malaria and Polio are all within living memory. Our parents and grandparents experienced them all with a depression and two world wars to boot.
In a remarkably short time span when measured against the backdrop of history, it seems we have developed a habit of feeling put upon, singled out, victimized when adversity enters our lives, and as a nation, we have zero tolerance for uncertainty. I’m reminded of the words of an early mentor who walked across Holland alone when he was 14 to escape the Nazi occupation and find safety behind American lines. After living in this country for 40 years he observed, “Americans are living in the eye of the storm and they don’t know it. One day they will.”
We breached the eye wall in September of 2001, and we may be approaching it again as the pandemic shows no clear sign of subsiding. South Korea contained the virus in 20 days, but here, the death toll continues to grow. We are divided once again along the same old fault lines as to how best to cope with the problem. Which will do the most harm, a paralyzed economy or a resurgence of the virus? Our “experts” don’t agree. Our leadership is divided against itself and celebrity politicians try to grab the spotlight as they call each other out.
Our celebrity-media and Madison Avenue television commercials tell us, “We’re all in this together.” No. We’re not. None of the famous faces attempting to remain relevant are waiting for a $1200 government check and worrying about how they’re going to pay the mortgage in 90 days.
All too soon, our attention will be forcibly diverted to politics again and we’ll be told that by voting right, or left, we can fix the problems we face and, by the way, we could have avoided them altogether if we had voted correctly the first time. The fate of the world will once again hang in the balance, and there is no one more gullible or easily manipulated than someone who is afraid or convinced they have been treated unfairly.
I can’t tell you how not to be afraid if your Faith is not already sufficient to that end. I can’t tell you how not to be angry with or suspicious of leadership that seems to be perpetually untrustworthy and unreliable. I can tell you that our parents and grandparents survived much worse, and they did it without losing hope or their sense of humor or their enjoyment of life.
In fact, there is a phrase that comes to mind that I think might be useful for anyone who is feeling like the universe has singled them out for special inconvenience, and it applies mainly to people with a lot of extra time on their hands because they haven’t figured out how to put their shoulders to the wheel and be of some service during these times. The phrase was born somewhere in Iraq among soldiers and marines carrying 40 lb packs in 130-degree heat. They would encourage each other with the phrase, “Embrace the suck.” Now it’s our turn.