Ours is the first generation in history unyoked from the burdens that defined life for those who came before us.
Our generation, ushered into a standing civilization in which all life’s bounties are provided and none of life’s difficulties are required, lives at a time like no other.
FOOD so plentiful we could throw it away and we do, laughing and often. Not one of us has ever encountered a single person who has missed a meal except in service to vanity.
WORK, at least work within the understanding of the people who performed it through the ages, has disappeared. We no longer labor in ways familiar, or even recognizable to those who toiled in the past.
There is none of the straining, back-breaking labor of the kind common to our ancestors. The term itself has been transformed into “employment” and involves what would probably be viewed 200 years ago as pleasurable activities. We “work” with desks, buttons, keyboards and ergonomic chairs. The few remaining brutes among us occasionally wear protective yellow headgear.
TRAVEL no longer involves harsh journeys through hostile territory in the company of oxen or camels. We drive to an airport and wake up in Brussels, dine on a beach, visit a museum, take in an opera and return home that evening to note our paycheck has been deposited.
MEDICINE has improved more in the past 100 years than in the previous 10,000. The world’s richest man, King Tut, died of tooth decay. In 1924 Calvin Coolidge Jr., 16, played tennis at the White House, got a blister on a toe, was dead within a week.
MEDIA allows us to communicate instant vapidities effortlessly, gorge on soul-choking entertainments long on violence and pornography but short to the point of hostility on truth, faith or courage.
We have spent our lives in idle pursuit of goals unnameable and unknowable, even to ourselves. Our baths are always hot and our houses always heated though not one of us knows how these miracles occur, nor have we ever wondered. If they were to disappear we would be unable to duplicate them, and nor have we wondered about that.
Now comes COVID-19, a commonplace visitor among many others like it to have swept the world and its inhabitants a hundred times before. In 2020 it is merely a rumor of a panic that has not yet touched you or me in a meaningful sense.
We personally know of no one to have died or even been sickened. We live on the far fringes of Coronavirus and we perform elaborate pantomimes, as if a backup chorus in a stage production. We drape hankies across our noses as we shop. We pick through blood oranges and heave half a ton of toilet paper into the trunks of big vehicles.
We tell each other we are stressed and anxious, or else the media purveyors of instant vapidities tell us we are stressed and anxious. We fret. We plead.
We imagine ourselves victims struggling through extraordinary times, as if huddled under thin blankets in burned out vacant lots behind where the garage once stood, fearing roving bands of plundering gangs. Will tomorrow be the day we kill the neighbor’s dog and eat it?
We imagine ourselves at the center of a dangerous, meaningful world (at last! at last!) that will permit us to perform heroics and witness horrors, such as watching someone else eat the neighbor’s dog.
But we’re not heroes. We’re not Anne Frank and we’re not the Donner Party, although if we were the dog would have been eaten three days ago. For us, “anxiety” means we’ve already watched all Netflix has to offer and there’s no sports on TV. An incomplete jigsaw puzzle is spread out on the dining room table.
A brave, creative woman on the next block is scrawling sentimentalisms in colored chalk on her sidewalk, and a determined man in Calpella is muscling his way through these hard times by reading a book. Yesterday Uncle Charlie built a birdhouse in the garage and tomorrow he’s going to make some shelves to store our surplus toilet paper. It’s all so grim and stressy.
Americans, uncoupled from the existential struggles that have defined life itself for so many and for so long, have come to believe a coddled world is our due. We want to be swaddled in ermine while nibbling cherries and sipping champagne, immune from suffering, or even from work.
An unexpected echo of thunder has caught us off-balance and our response has been to flinch and tremble.
Future flames, earthquakes, wars and starvation will not be met with heroics by those whose lives have been stress-free, painless and far removed from the toils and triumphs that have made us strong, resilient and powerful. That have made us human.
Celebrities keep telling us we’re all in this together, but we’re really six feet apart.
(Tom Hine wears furs and a loincloth made of mastodon hide, and lives in a Ukiah cave with his pet pterodactyl, a blacksmith buddy named TWK. Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal.)