Do the right thing

I’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19. Statistically, my risk of becoming seriously ill with the disease is very low, even with the Delta variant that has become so pervasive. I also live in a state that has not been very forceful about pandemic restrictions. If you look around, you probably wouldn’t realize we are *still* navigating a pandemic. All this translates to minimal (personal) risk and no real restrictions.

Nonetheless, I wear a mask in most indoor situations.

I’ve been thinking about how I would answer the question of why. The short answer is simply that I think it’s important. If that’s all you want to know, feel free to move along now. If you want the long answer, buckle up and read on.

When my grandmother was 27 years old with three children under age four, she contracted polio. In an instant, her duties as a wife and mother gave way to survival. Friends, family, and neighbors fed her family, cared for her children, and did her chores. She fought like h*ll against being put into an iron lung because she firmly believed she wouldn’t survive the disease if that happened. Nonetheless, she spent several weeks in the hospital while her kids (my mom and two siblings) were shuttled from place to place. My uncle remembers a time when he stood outside the hospital while he watched his mom be rolled out to a fire escape platform in a wheelchair. All she could muster was a weak wave.

Eventually Grandma won her fight, but she wrestled with the lingering effects of the disease for years.

After polio, Grandma gave birth to three more children, served as a US postmaster, ran a farm with my grandpa, and traveled the world. She lived a full life, but she never forgot the fear that polio brought. After she recovered, she still carried that fear for her children.

Until the vaccine.

One of my aunts recalls when my grandma—her mom—took her to get vaccinated against polio. She remembers the vaccination site with tables full of cups that held sugar cubes carrying the oral vaccine. Mostly she remembers that my grandma cried as she experienced the emotional release of knowing her children would not have to suffer the way she had.

I got that vaccine, and so did my kids. They don’t even know what polio is, though. Why? Because there hasn’t been a case of polio that originated in the US since 1979. There has not been a case of polio in this country in their lifetimes. Heck, there hasn’t been one for most of mine.

So what does this have to do with me wearing a mask? As long as we let COVID-19 continue to spread by eschewing the vaccine AND basic precautions like masks, it will continue to mutate and elude our efforts to eradicate it. Mounting evidence shows that even if my vaccinated self doesn’t get sick, I can still carry enough viral load to spread it to others. The more it spreads, the more mutates. The more it mutates, the less effective the existing vaccine becomes. The less effective the vaccine, the more the virus spreads. And the cycle continues.

We will never get rid of COVID-19 the way we did polio and smallpox (yes! I have that telltale vaccination scar) unless we stop spreading it. I want this scourge out of my life, and I’m going to do everything I can NOT to be the person who passes it on.

I’m not living in fear. I’m not even worried that much anymore about getting sick. I want to see this thing disappear and I’m going to do my part. It’s not impossible. My grandma saw it with polio in her lifetime. Nobody is telling me to; it’s just the right thing to do.

Now you know why I wear a mask.

Duck, duck, goose

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Since I decided I needed to focus less on myself and more on making a difference to others, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my ducks in a row. In the past I’ve served charities that didn’t hold my attention for long–not because they weren’t worthy, but because I thought I could do more elsewhere. For lack of a better expression, they didn’t speak to my heart.

In this new quest for meaning (I sound so cheesy), I knew it was important to serve an area where my passions lie. The problem was that I wasn’t sure what that might be. So I researched and self-examined and researched some more. I’ll spare you the details of my three-month odyssey toward enlightenment, but the result is that I feel compelled to help in ways that address the most basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you need a refresher on that, it’s the purple segment of this diagram:

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To that end, I’ve begun volunteering at our local food bank, as well as with an organization that serves homeless families in transition. I was prepared to have to undergo training and work my way through some kind of hierarchical process of establishing trust. I expected documentation and lots of recordkeeping; after all, this is important work, so it must require an appropriate bureaucracy for organizing volunteers, right?

Boy, was I ever wrong.

The first time I arrived at the food bank, I listened to a ten-minute safety speech and then found myself being directed to a spot in a food line. When someone asked, What do we need to do?, the only answer that came before the doors opened was, You’ll figure it out. And I did. Within minutes I was elbow-deep in giant boxes of donated bread, stuffing it into bags held open by the outstretched arms of grateful, hungry people.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and a few miles to my interview with the volunteer coordinator for an organization serving homeless families. She only wanted to know what I wanted to do and when I could start–and oh yeah, had I submitted a background check, by the way? With her two cell phones and a steady stream of in-person questions continually interrupting our conversation, she didn’t have time to worry about org charts and personality fits; she just needed help. I said I could start next Saturday.

Silly, bureaucratic, play-by-the-rules me asked, Won’t I need some kind of training? 

Don’t worry, said the volunteer coordinator. The person working with you will show you what to do.

Not having all the answers up front and organized into neat little systematized packages sits well outside my comfort zone. I don’t usually dive willingly into chaos and just start doing. I need a PLAN.

Well, I’m discovering that’s not the way this stuff works. The needs are just too great. There’s too much to do. This work is about survival. They need people to jump in and DO, not sit back and contemplate. After all, when someone is drowning, that person needs someone to dive in and lend a hand as quickly as possible. Sure, there’s necessary preparation, but at that moment, it’s too late to prep more–you’d better have already had your swimming lessons.

I’m not saying these entities aren’t organized; I’m just saying that it’s not my job. In this case, my hands are more important than my head. The lesson I’m learning is that when people are in need, there’s no time to waste. They don’t really need me to have my ducks in a row–they just need ducks.

Okay, then. Let’s get this party started.

Egomania

noegohereApologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego. —Unknown

I chewed on this quote for a long time when I first read it. It’s good stuff, but as sung by The Fray, “Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same” (from All at Once). So I still struggle to put that into practice, to wait a beat before I speak and let my head lead my mouth rather than vice versa.

The other day I realized that perhaps “apologizing” is too narrow a term. Listening on a conference call, the posturing was so thick, it almost took material form. I could practically see it. This quote popped into my head, and I thought of it in terms of correcting, redressing, proving you know something, and reminding someone else of what [you think] he should know. I’m sure there are dozens more.

Then I thought about the word “relationship.” People on that call clearly weren’t concerned about relationships, but at least they should have been concerned about getting things done. Stepping on people’s proverbial toes (or egos) should always fall behind accomplishing the goal. Think of how much good we could do (or pick your own result: how much money we could make, how many goods we could produce, how much we could improve quality, how many people we could help, how many diseases we could cure) if we could all just get over ourselves.

No matter how I rewrite that quote, it all boils down to this: putting aside my ego.

Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.