I am watching, helpless, as the world ends– not for the first time.
When I was a teenager, I watched about three thousand people die.
Well, that’s not exactly what I watched. About half of the victims of 9/11 in New York were already dead when my father ran into the house screaming and I turned on the television. There, I saw one Twin Tower instead of two– in the place of the other, there was a column of white smoke and swirling paper, and then the camera cut to the smoking hole in the Pentagon. About half an hour later I watched the other one turn to dust. The dust enveloped the camera– it looked white as it rolled in, and suddenly black once it engulfed. And then I saw the cameraman’s feet running, and I heard a confused reporter screaming that he couldn’t find the cameraman. Some time later we heard about Flight 93 hitting the ground near my grandmother’s house, and then the attacks were over, though the fire in New York kept burning for days. That was the historic tragedy that defines being a Millennial, at least in the United States. That was our Pearl Harbor, our Kennedy Assassination, the thing that changed the direction of the whole culture for us. The world we were being raised in didn’t exist anymore. Something else took its place.
It made the culture more selfish. That wasn’t what we thought would happen, not at first. There were news stories for days about how we could never be divided as a country again. We would sing the National Anthem together and rebuild, and we did– we belted out the National Anthem, we started to rebuild, but the country we rebuilt was more paranoid, more xenophobic, crueler. We tortured people, hideously, and justified it because it was to keep us safe. We bombed children and grandmothers with drones. We killed millions.
Now I am watching thousands of people die again, worldwide. I have tuned in somewhere in the middle of this disaster– when it started, back in December, it was something I didn’t pay much attention to. I’m not watching the television but the internet. The victims are not all trapped in the same building but on the same planet. Just over two hundred of the deaths are in my home country so far, but that number is going to spike, sharply.
It is spiking already.
It is spiking faster in the United States than anywhere else.
In New York City, I’m told, one person per hour is currently dying of COVID-19.
We’re about ten days behind Italy, and in Italy, there are nearly five thousand dead. Italy’s death toll is higher than China’s: Over six hundred died only Thursday, and 723 in the past 24 hours. That’s what’s predicted to happen here, if it isn’t much worse.
I am living in the moment between turning on the television to find one tower already gone, and seeing the other tower turn to dust. I am living in the moment between one world dying away forever and another one taking its place. I have been living in that moment for nine days now. It inches by me in terrible slow-motion. I would rather have it over with on half an hour on a sunny Tuesday morning, but it goes on and on, day and night, in the fleeting sunshine and the spring rain.I fear that I am living in the moment that’s supposed to bring us all together to act heroically as a country, and instead we’re going to become even crueler and more selfish than we were.
I want it to turn us into something else.
I remember when people were saying “I have nothing against Muslims, but…” and “we respect the Arabs, of course, but you have to admit…” and “it’s not the individual people, it’s their culture.” It’s not that we weren’t xenophobic before, mind you, but those words were magical. Suddenly, anybody who looked like they might be Muslim or of Arab descent was in that much more danger of violence. People who thought they were being good Christians had an excuse to despise their neighbors that much more. Military intervention became that much easier to justify. And then we were invading the wrong country, and the killing goes on to this day. We were bad enough before, and we got much worse. And now they’re saying “I’m not calling it a Chinese virus to be racist, but…” and “I have nothing against individual people, it’s their culture…” and “you have to admit, a person who would eat bats…” and “he can’t close the border fast enough.”
Our culture has always been cruel, and we can always become crueler. We’ve always been selfish and that can get worse. And as we become cruel and selfish, we will certainly be able to justify it to ourselves by our fear. It will seem like prudence, like patriotism, like being a grown-up. It will even seem like courage. That can easily happen, and it’s happening already.
We could also become something else.
We could let this experience build our empathy, with the people who live in similar fear and chaos and worse every day. We could become compassionate. We could even become heroic– real heroes who really save lives with our courage and decisive action, not people who act out in violence and believe that makes them heroes.
The world we thought we lived in is gone. The world we are going to live in hasn’t fully come to be, not yet. We have some choice in how that world looks.
I pray that, this time, it is a compassionate world.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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