Who Is My Neighbor?
In November in Portland, the sky is dark around 4 p.m. and the dreary, pelting rain feels incessant. After a blazing summer — sometimes actually ablaze with nightly protests for Black lives and with wildfires that burned almost a million acres of Oregon — the weather outside is now in sync with my internal barometer.
In Moby Dick, Ishmael describes a particularly depressing season of life as a “damp, drizzly November” of the soul. Finding himself “involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses,” he struggles to resist the urge to step into the street and knock people’s hats off. This year, I have also found myself resisting antisocial impulses, and doing the 2020 equivalent of hat-knocking: yelling at people online. Ishmael escaped by taking quietly to his ship and going to sea. We can’t exactly travel right now, so I did the next best thing: I deleted my social media apps.
My fuse is particularly short because I’ve been fighting Covid-19 since March. I was infected early, before tests were widely available in Oregon, but the severity and specificity of my symptoms — and the fact that I’d been in close proximity to a sick woman who’d just traveled from the Covid hotspot, Milan — allowed doctors to diagnose me. I still suffer shortness of breath, fatigue, and myriad other bizarre symptoms. Occasionally I wake up and my back feels inexplicably sunburned. Often, I feel like someone is compressing my windpipe or shivving my kidneys. My inability to resume my normal stress-reducing activities, like running or drinking alcohol, without afterwards suffering a week-long Covid relapse in bed, have left me cranky. Instead of pounding the pavement, now I pound ibuprofen; instead of sucking down a nightcap of bourbon, now I suck down Alvesco and Albuterol inhalers.
I include my Covid story — and mine barely registers as misfortune compared to the tragedies so many are enduring — to give context to my visceral reaction against people who are dismissive of Covid safety measures. I have to fight against becoming apoplectic when people say, “Yeah, but 99.9% of people with Covid survive.” Over 1300 Americans are dying from Covid every day and that number is quickly rising, but only discussing fatalities is misleading. It implies that all the people who survive Covid are okay, and not drowning in its wake. We know this isn’t true for tens of thousands. There aren’t official numbers yet, but early research and reporting (coming primarily from Europe) show that long-Covid, which leaves people sick for months, is far from uncommon. We are dealing with a mass casualty event, where many victims are left dead and many more are left injured.
To avoid hat-knocking, I have also been steering clear of incendiary news articles. Occasionally a baiting headline sneaks through my firewall, challenging my desire for equanimity. This week, for example, I took the clickbait and read about a woman from a neighboring county, Clackamas County Commission Chair-elect, Tootie Smith. She had gone viral for tweeting her proud defiance of Governor Kate Brown’s recommendation that people not gather with anyone outside their household on Thanksgiving.
Smith announced that she was going to invite “as many family and friends as she can find” to her Thanksgiving celebration. Unsurprisingly, this proclamation landed her an interview on the Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight where she defended her decision as an act of “independence” and Carlson congratulated her on her “bravery.”
You can imagine how this triggered my hat-knocking impulse, but rather than indulging that instinct, I chose to shut my computer, take a breath, and think through what exactly was making me so angry.
I generally avoid listening to Tucker Carlson, but I do know that he has regularly told his viewers that the Judeo-Christian values of the country are under attack. I was raised in far-right evangelicalism, so I can speak on this. While I am no longer affiliated with any church, I still feel attached to some of the lessons I learned in Sunday School. Jesus’s most important command was: Love the Lord your God with all your heart. I’m agnostic, so I’ll skip ahead to his second most important command: Love your neighbor as yourself.
In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus commands his followers to love their neighbors as themselves, a lawyer, clearly uncomfortable with the enormous implications of this command, asks Jesus to clarify: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers in the form of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Many know this story, but to briefly summarize, the parable teaches that loving your neighbor can mean loving strangers, loving them in practical ways, and loving them to the point of personal sacrifice and cost.
The villains of this parable are the people who ignored a suffering man and passed right by him. Maybe they had big holiday dinner plans they didn’t want derailed and stopping would’ve thrown off their whole day. The parable doesn’t explain their reasoning, but their lack of empathy is jarring. The hero of the story is the person who stopped to help the injured man, going to great lengths to get him medical attention. “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus.
Loving your neighbor is not easy. Loving your neighbor is inconvenient.
Earlier this week, Dr. Sky Blue, an infectious disease specialist in Idaho, urged people “to follow the biblical principle of ‘love your neighbors as yourselves’” to protect loved ones and healthcare workers as the Covid surge threatens to collapse hospital systems across the country. More than one thousand healthcare workers in the United States have already died from Covid, and the worst stage of the pandemic is just beginning. Healthcare workers are bravely loving their sick neighbors – even their careless neighbors – at great personal risk.
In the context of the pandemic, loving your neighbor means following Covid containment measures.
Who is my neighbor? Tootie Smith is my neighbor. (I live just a few miles from Clackamas County.) In an effort to humanize her rather than fume at her visage on Fox News, I went to her personal website to learn more about her. Last week she posted a personal essay on Thanksgiving. In it, she shares a touching story of her father’s love for her mother.
“He grew up on a turkey farm during the depression where his family ate turkey all the time,” Tootie writes. “He hated turkey. My mother loved turkey and considered it a treat. Each Thanksgiving, my father would dutifully eat his turkey after he meticulously carved the perfectly prepared bird. He did this because it gave my mother great joy. For him it meant more to see my mom happy than it did to adhere to his own dislike of turkey. It wasn’t until I became an adult, did I realize this. The lesson of love was not lost on me as I marveled at how my dad could stomach a food he found distasteful.”
Loving your neighbor means personal sacrifice, even on Thanksgiving.
Like Tootie, and like many Americans, I love Thanksgiving. Last year I traveled to my hometown, ran a 5k Turkey Trot with my best friend and hugged my parents at the finish line. This year, I can’t run anymore and I am staying home with only members of my household. I will be cooking Thanksgiving dinner and delivering it to my neighbors, who are sick with Covid. They had friends over for dinner two weeks ago, and three days later they both fell ill and then tested positive. Two weeks in, they are sick and tired of being sick and tired. I want to offer them words of encouragement, but all I can do is hope they escape a long-Covid fate.
I will also porch-drop Thanksgiving dinner to my neighbor on the left, who is 90. He hasn’t been anywhere except to doctor appointments since March. He has also been without his wife, Shirley, since this summer when she went to their home on the coast to avoid Covid exposure in the city.
I recently texted Shirley, who is in her late eighties and also my gardening mentor, to check in. “I miss seeing you in your garden! When will you be back?”
“When there’s a vaccine,” she said.
The whole country, the whole world, is facing a damp, drizzly November of the soul. The people who pretend otherwise and try to have a normal Thanksgiving are just exacerbating and elongating everyone else’s misery. We all want normalcy; it will come a lot more quickly if we buck up and accept the short term inconvenience and loneliness of a more subdued holiday season.
This Thanksgiving, I will ponder hard on what it means to love my neighbor. Not just my literal neighbors, who are easy to love, but also my neighbor Tootie Smith. The country is being torn apart not just by pandemic but also by a vast philosophical and moral chasm, which cannot be bridged without self-reflection on all sides. It cannot be bridged if we do not set aside our egos and independence and choose to love our neighbors in practical and inconvenient ways.