Originally published July 20 on Medium
Once upon a time there lived a family in a lovely village with lovely people. They enjoyed going to school and seeing their friends and playing outside.
One winter, the family heard all sorts of rumors about an invisible bug that floated in the air and was making people sick. Sometimes even killing people. The family wasn’t too scared because the bug was in a faraway land. But the rumors kept coming. More and more people talked about the bug and how quickly and easily moved. But when the family looked outside, it was clear and blue and breezy.
As winter faded into early spring, the mom went to school to pick up her kids. The school said, “sorry, they can’t come back. It’s the only way to keep them safe from the bug.” All the kids ran around the playground celebrating the unexpected vacation.
The parents shared confusion and questions and reassured one another that the leader of the village and the Great Leader of their land would have some answers. So all the people collected their kids and their worries and went home to listen to the Great Leader and bug experts.
The leaders and the experts said to stay inside and not let anyone in or out. They said the bug was in their land and the only way for everyone to stay safe was to not leave their houses. The kids asked, “what if you don’t have a house?” The parents said, “be thankful we do.” The kids asked, “What about my birthday party? What about my baseball practice?” The parents said, “postponed.” The kids asked, “until when?” The parents said, “we don’t know.”
The leaders and experts said you could buy necessities like food and medicines. The family watched as people bought mostly toilet paper. The kids asked, “why toilet paper? Does the bug hurt your butt?” This made the kids laugh and laugh. Their laughter made everything feel ok.
The mom wore special clothes to go grocery shopping and came home with strange things because it’s all she could find. The kids asked, “how come the grocery store workers can leave their houses?” The parents said, “because we need them to survive. All the villagers, in all the land, are working together to get rid of the bug.”
The mom and the dad listened to the leaders and experts to try to find better answers but there were none. The kids stayed home and watched the world from their lonely window.
The Great Leader said the bug would disappear one day and never come back. The experts said it wouldn’t just disappear but maybe the bug couldn’t move as fast or as far in summer. They said maybe people could go out in the summer.
So the family waited.
The Great Leader said there would be medicine to fight the bug very soon. The experts said not very soon. The Great Leader said the bug wasn’t so bad. The experts said it was still pretty bad. More and more the Great Leader and the experts couldn’t seem to agree. The more they disagreed, the more people in the land and the village started to take sides.
Instead of finding more answers, there were only more questions.
The kids said, “Can we please go outside? Can we please see our friends? Look, there is no bug outside!” And the parents said the bug was invisible and that’s part of why it was so hard. So they stayed in. They stared at screens and though she didn’t say, the Mom started to wonder if the bug was worse than watching her vibrant kids grow listless.
Weeks passed and the leaders said it was time to let people outside. It was almost summer and the people were tired and frustrated. They wanted to get back to their old lives.
The experts said the bug was still outside. They warned people to not be fooled by the sun and blue sky. They told people they were helping to slow the bug by staying in. “We know it’s hard,” the experts said, “so wear special clothes and don’t get too close to others. The bug loves a crowd.” The experts said, “If we all do this, the bug will have nowhere to go. But if only some of us wear the special clothes and avoid crowds, it will be worse for all of us.”
But the Great Leader never wore special clothes and liked to talk to big crowds. All the people in the land could watch the Great Leader and the crowds on their screens. Some people began to wonder if he knew something the rest of the land did not. Maybe there was no bug. The crowd on TV looked healthy. The Great Leader wouldn’t want to hurt his own people.
The experts said he was acting foolishly. So the Great Leader stopped letting the experts talk to the people.
The two sides grew further apart.
That summer, some people went out. Some wore the special clothes and stayed away from others. Other people hugged their friends and held parties and wore their own comfortable clothes. And the bug moved faster and farther through the splintering land.
In the village, the Mom watched it all. Some days she took the kids out to see their friends. She started weighing her decisions on when and where to go out based on a “what’s worse” scale. Is it worse to go to a crowded beach, play in the waves and maybe get bit by the bug? Or worse to let the day pass without laughing but knowing you did not get bit by the bug?
She asked other moms, “are you worried. Where and how do you let your kids play?”
“Everywhere and with everyone. I’m not worried about the bug,” said one Mom.
“Nowhere and with no one. The bug could kill us,” said another.
“I have been worried about my child playing outside every single day since he was a baby. He’s always a target. If not for the bug, then for someone else. Even the protectors.” Said the mom who was a different color than the people in the land. “My family and I are used to never really feeling safe.”
The Mother looked up into the endless blue sky for signs that the world was unraveling. There were none. The sun still warmed, the trees still blew. She looked back down at the legs scurrying, dogs barking, buildings choking, wheels turning, machines screaming, invisible bugs circling. She began to wonder if this is exactly what unraveling looks like.
The children were supposed to go back to school in a couple of more weeks but the bug was moving viciously across the land. The Great Leader said the children would go back to school. The village leaders said the children would continue to learn at home.
All those weeks of isolation — to make the bug slow down and go away — felt useless. All those weeks waiting for clarity and still there were more questions than answers.
The Mother began to see the bug as a light, reflecting all the injustices and selfishness in the world. People were looking out for themselves or only the people on their side. It was harder and harder for the mother to see the village and the land as something shared. It felt useless to wear the special clothes and useless not to. It felt terrible to think of her kids learning at school and terrible to think of her kids learning alone at home. The Mother was tired of playing “what’s worse.”
So she didn’t.
The Great Leader was right! The bug just disappeared, racial and social injustice disappeared, the kids went back to school, everyone lived forever AND happily ever after.
It’s hard to know what’s fiction and what’s real these days, isn’t it? My story reads like fiction but sadly, it’s mostly real. The reality is, I don’t know how this story ends. But I am really tired of thinking in terms of “what’s worse?”
If the world is unraveling, I can’t save it. But I’d like to be written as the Mom who at least tried.
I once had a boss who was a former four star military general. He was always eerily calm even when the rest of the office seemed crazed. When a colleague asked him how he always stayed so calm and effective, he said, “well, no one is shooting at us.” When things get bad, I think about this perspective.
The world is unfair and unclear and on fire. But I am not. Now is not the time to lose perspective. There’s still time to finish the story without devolving into to a magical, it-was-just-a-dream ending. There’s still time to try to write a decent ending.