I always thought personal responsibility meant not just taking responsibility for how your actions affect you, but also how your actions affect others.
I mean, if you throw a ball and it breaks a window, you don’t just check whether any of the glass shards cut your own skin and then move on. You also apologize to the person whose window you broke. You especially apologize to the person whose window you broke.
You definitely don’t say the owner of the window is to blame for not using safety glasses or putting up shutters or for having the bad luck to live in a house within easy shot of a playground.
And okay, sure, there will always be people who hide or run or deny that ball was theirs. But they’re the ones who are failing to take personal responsibility. We all know that.
So how did we come to believe that, during a pandemic, personal responsibility instead means just taking responsibility for whether our actions cause us and our loved ones to become sick, disabled, or even die? How did we come to believe it only matters if the glass cuts our own skin?
That’s not how it works. If I willfully act in ways that increase my chances of infecting others, I’m personally responsible for that.
Even if the people I infect choose to be around me of their own free will. Even if they’re high risk or have comorbidities or are just in poorer health than me. Even if they seemed “healthy” but got hit hard anyway. I’m personally responsible.
Even if no one else around me was acting to protect others, either. Even if there’s peer pressure not to protect others, and I don’t want to speak up or say no or be the only person in the room wearing a mask. I’m personally responsible.
Even if the people I infect are fine but they go on to infect strangers I’ll never know and never meet and never hear about who aren’t fine. I’m personally responsible.
Even—yes, even—if they failed to get vaccinated, failed to protect themselves as fully as they could have. I still threw that ball through the window. It doesn’t matter if the window should have had safety glass in place. I’m still the one who broke it.
If we remembered what personal responsibility meant in other contexts, would we act to protect others during this pandemic, instead of mostly only acting to protect ourselves and those closest to us?
Or is that too much to ask, in any context? Have the stresses of an ongoing pandemic broken somehow inside us, making it too much to ask?
Leaving us unwilling to be personally responsible for our actions after all?
It’s been more than a year since I last believed in normal.
A year since the ordinary spring afternoon when we left our jobs and our schools behind for the weekend, not understanding, yet, that on Monday we wouldn’t return.
From the start, even as I settled in to remote learning and remote working, I knew, deep down, that this was going to last longer than we were admitting, but I didn’t know just how much longer. A month? A season? Surely by the end of summer, the beginning of fall, we’d be able to get on with our lives.
Summer and fall seemed such a long time to wait, back then. Three months. Six months. A lifetime. There was so much that we didn’t understand. How this new virus spread. How we could stop it from spreading. Whether the entire food supply chain was about to collapse, or whether a few short-term pasta and toilet-paper shortages would be the worst of it.
I learned to wear a mask and despaired as others refused to learn. I met friends outdoors, in socially distant lawn chairs, and worried even that was a risk best avoided. I watched as businesses closed, then opened too soon, then closed again and opened too soon again. It seemed no one wanted to admit that normal wasn’t coming back any time soon.
I watched as the cost of that denial came to be measured in human lives. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. I watched as too many people kept eating out, kept gathering with family, kept talking vacations, all for no better reason than that they’d always done these things before and couldn’t bear to live without them.
I’d always done these things and couldn’t bear to live without them, either, but somehow I lived without them anyway.
It wasn’t enough. Those who followed the rules still died because of those who ignored them. There was no longer any such thing as an action that affected only the person taking it. Everything we did now affected everyone around us, affected strangers we’d never meet, affected our entire community. That’s how pandemics work.
That’s how life works. It’s just that when everything seems normal, some of us have the luxury of forgetting that, some of the time.
Maybe normal was always an illusion. But illusion or not, too many people kept insisting on doing too many things, just to prove that no one could tell them which things to do. Our Covid numbers rose, then fell, then rose again and just kept rising.
Time blurred. A blistering, wildfire-fueled Arizona summer. An autumn overwhelmed by more remote learning. A careful, careful return to learning in person.
An election. A riot. A transfer of power that no one called peaceful, because free and fair elections had become one more thing to deny in spite of the evidence.
A winter spent feeling angry and helpless, despairing that it didn’t have to be like this. But it was like this, and nothing I did could change the fact.
When the first vaccines came, months and years ahead of schedule, I should have felt hope, even joy. But I was suspicious of hope by then, and scarcely dared believe in it. If this was hope, it was literally in short supply, anyway, as hope too often is.
So instead I argued with strangers who refused to wear masks at the post office and insisted on holding birthday parties in the park. I yelled at family members for eating out. I lost friends when I told them they had no business going on vacation, not now.
Yet in the end, despair had no more power to change reality than denial did. Spring came, because spring does, whatever we do or fail to do. Arizona’s Covid numbers started to fall again, first slowly, then faster. My backyard irises bloomed—a gift from a stranger I’d never met, the stranger who owned my house before me.
I began going for walks again, and wondered when I’d stopped. I planted more vegetables. I volunteered at a local vaccine clinic, and kept volunteering even after I was vaccinated.
I started to believe that maybe, just maybe, this hope thing was real after all.
I struggled–still struggle–with forgiveness. All the restaurants and other businesses who opened or re-opened too soon, because the rules said they could and they decided their economic survival mattered more than other people’s literal, physical survival. All the individuals who refused to wear masks or shelter in place because they decided their personal struggles mattered more those lives, too. So very many people who just decided they couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the same basic precautions I’m weary from following, and who with their refusal made this all last so much longer.
I tell myself their decisions came from weakness. not malice. I tell myself that carrying so much anger only hurts me, not them. Yet I wonder—how do we forgive when no one is sorry, when so many have made clear they would do it all the same way again? This isn’t over yet, and some days it seems that even after so much time, no one has learned anything after all. Even as I write this there are Arizonans pushing to relax the rules, too soon, yet again.
I see how you’re looking at me, your eyes and your Twitter feeds filled with hope. 2020 was a dumpster fire, you say. 2021 has to be better, you say.
I know you mean well, but that’s a lot of pressure to put on a brand new year.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been working hard, and I have big plans. Right off the bat in January, I’m rolling out a new president. Pretty exciting, huh? In March the economy will get a boost from my new infrastructure initiative, and in August, supporting teachers will officially become a national priority. Kids will get to go back to school; adults will get to keep working from home. By December, you’ll even be able to hug your children without setting off a deadly multi-state super-spreader event. How great is that?
And you guys are going to just love the new panda species you’ll discover next fall. Oh my gosh, those big brown eyes.
But I’m not perfect, okay? No year is. People are already saying I don’t have enough vaccines, and they’re probably right about that. Three hundred seventeen species you’ve never heard of and two that you have will go extinct, I haven’t fixed racism yet, and don’t get me started about global warming. With just hours to go I still don’t have a plan to reverse climate change, and as you like to remind me, time is running out.
I can’t do this.
Things have been rough lately. I get that. You need to believe it’ll all get better. You need less doomscrolling, more cat pictures.
I can’t give you that. I’m sorry, but it’s true. I’m just not the year you need right now.
2020, you’ll have to fill in for me. I know an experienced year like you will be fine. See you in twelve months, okay?
Confession: The first time I stepped outside wearing a face mask, I almost took it off again.
I try not to care what other people think, but walking through my neighborhood, mask covering more than half my face, it felt like surely everyone I walked past was staring at me.
I could have taken the mask off, if I really wanted to. Outdoors, it was easy to keep my distance from my fellow quarantine walkers, and the main thing my mask was protecting me from was probably seasonal allergies. But this was a trial run. If I couldn’t wear a mask now, out in the open, walking by myself, how would I wear it all the other, more critical, places I needed to wear it?
I kept my mask on. In the U.S. we were just beginning to understand how important mask wearing was in protecting our communities from Covid-19. I knew this was something I had to get used to.
I did get used to it, and now, a couple months later, it’s a habit. A couple months has also given me time to think about where my initial resistance came from.
Before Covid-19, I’d only very occasionally seen anyone wearing a mask in public before. When I did see someone wearing a mask, my first thought was, “I wonder what’s going on with them?” I would have denied it if you asked, but I realize now that masks were, to me, a sign of frailty, of physical weakness.
I didn’t understand, yet, what those in a great many other countries where masks were more common knew instinctively: that you don’t wear a mask to protect yourself, but to protect those around you.
Indeed, I also realize now that I thought of mask wearing as something that people did in other places, but not here, as if we didn’t all share the same biology, the same vulnerability to disease.
I wonder whether some of those refusing to wear masks have had similar thoughts, consciously or unconsciously, but have failed to recognize and push past them, and so have grown defensive instead.
In the end, knowing masks were necessary made me push past my own resistance, but it didn’t make me feel comfortable doing so.
It was seeing others wearing masks that did that.
On that first walk, mask wearers were few and far between, but I wasn’t the only one. Whenever I saw another walker wearing a mask, I waved, and they waved back, and as I walked on, I felt more at ease with my own mask, and less self-conscious. I wasn’t alone, and neither were they.
As masks have become more widespread, that feeling has grown stronger, and wearing a mask doesn’t feel all that awkward now.
There’s a need to for more messaging, more education, on why masks are needed, as well as more political will, in my community at least, to enforce mask mandates.
But I wonder whether, in the end, the most effective way to get others to wear masks is simply to continue wearing our own.
Of course, the burning mountains are only one of many things I’ll remember about this pandemic year. There’ve been so many changes, small and large.
Shortages of basic items. Hand sanitizer. Toilet paper. Flour. Minor inconveniences, which could mostly be replaced by other items. But the rationing demanded by earlier crises was slipping out of living memory, and we’d grown unaccustomed to minor inconveniences, to being unable to get what we want, when we want it.
Shortages of more critical items, of masks and other protective medical gear, shortages that left home sewers and crafters trying to fill gaps.
The fact that those homemade masks with their random prints actually were pretty charming, as well as a symbol of people pulling together to take care of one another. They were also more than a little dystopic, especially the kids masks, advertised as back to school items or made with cartoon-character prints.
Watching events get cancelled, one after another, conferences and community events falling like dominos. At last even the schools closed, something that had seemed impossible even a few days before, and then we understood that our world really had changed, that a sharp line had been drawn between then and now.
Things we’d done just a few short days or weeks or months ago seemed part of another world after that, things like shaking hands, or seeing a movie with friends, or making a grocery trip for just one or two items, or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake without worrying about germs.
The increased awareness of community, and the knowledge that you can be socially distant but emotionally close. More phone calls. Virtual happy hours. Outdoor meetups with neighbors and friends, our lawn chairs carefully spaced at least six feet apart.
The realization that all the remote connection in the world couldn’t replace a five-minute in-person meeting, or a hug.
Cooking. So much cooking. The combination of temporary food shortages and quarantine lockdowns meant we all did a lot more cooking at home, and for a while flour became another item that was hard to find.
Our attempts at hasty crisis homeschooling were much less successful that our baking. So were our attempts to replace our kids’ friends as their playmates. All the imagination in the world couldn’t make us play as well as a child could play, and all the good intentions in the world couldn’t make us teach even a fraction as well as our children’s teachers could teach. If we’d ever forgotten, no one doubted now that teachers were essential.
We realized lots of people we’d mostly been ignoring were essential. Those who treat the sick. Those who grow and distribute and sell our food. Those who package and deliver the mail.
Quarantine walks through the neighborhood, because you can’t stay inside all the time, each household keeping to its own group, crossing the street to avoid coming too close to one another. Yet also waving to one another, too, making clear that we’re still a community, that we still care about one another.
Painted rocks, left in front of our own houses or anonymously in front of neighbors’ houses, another way of saying that we’re still here, that we still care about each other.
The understanding that police brutality doesn’t magically stop during a pandemic, so fighting that brutality couldn’t stop, either. All the many layers of social and economic inequality that the pandemic laid bare.
Political campaigns run by phone, by text, by virtual town hall. It was an election year, after all. But also political campaigns run in person, as if nothing at all had changed. Somehow, the basics of public health had become as political as everything else, as if ideology could somehow stop viruses from infecting us.
Graduation ceremonies held at a distance, or not at all. Signs on lawns and stickers on cars congratulating recent graduates in place of graduation parties. Also, an epic senior prank.
The wait and hope for a vaccine. The attempts to navigate life without one. The loss of the comforting myth that we already had treatments for all the really bad diseases, that we were somehow ahead of science and history and the fears that had troubled the generations before us.
The longing to step back to the past, to the way things were, the way it still felt they should be. The need to appreciate the gifts of the present. The desire to find a way forward, into the future.
The knowledge that we’re not apart from history, but part of it, after all.
Subject line borrowed from John M. Ford’s “110 Stories,” written during another uncertain, challenging moment in history.