If a butterfly in China had beat its wings a little differently sometime in November, it would have caused a bat to alter its course of flight slightly — just enough to keep it from coming into contact from some poor unfortunate soul who otherwise would have inhaled some droplets of the bat’s saliva, or been bitten as a reward for straying into the bat’s flight path.
If that butterfly had beat its wings differently, that person never would have been the first person to contract the strain of coronavirus that became known as COVID-19. COVID never would have become an epidemic in Wuhan. It never would have spread beyond its hometown and spilled across international borders. It never would have defied everyone’s efforts to get ahead of it and blossomed into a global pandemic. Some 200,000 people to date would still be alive. More than 4 million people would never have become infected.
But that’s not what happened.
Of Spinoza, Butterflies and Bat wings
The butterfly did what it did — if you want to get all Spinozist about it, the butterfly and the bat did the only thing they could ever do. So did the virus, if you want to consider a virus alive. So did every one of us, from me to you to Dr. Fauci to President Trump to whichever world leader you want to think of to any global citizen you will never encounter. All of us. We’re just caught up in this unfolding chain of cause-and-reaction that has seemingly taken this bizarre and unexpected turn of events.
And it’s almost easy to think of it that way when everything’s abstract. But what about when it gets personal? What about when it gets painful?
I’ve been pretty lucky so far. No one close to me has died, though two people I know from my previous jobs have. One friend became sick, though she has thankfully recovered. But so many are mourning spouses and parents and children, many of whom died in hospital rooms where family members couldn’t attend. It must be an unbearably painful way to lose someone you love.
And so many others have lost their jobs, or have been temporarily laid off. Some of them haven’t been able to get unemployment and are facing this already uncertain time without any income. I’ve been laid off. and I know how stressful and frightening it can be, but I’ve never had to go through it at a time like this. And looking for a new job now must be an incredibly difficult challenge.
It’s a lot harder to think, act and believe as though everything happens as it had to happen when such awful and painful things are happening to so many people. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. The part of us that is the most human demands justice and wants to know why. Why should this be happening now, and to us, and to me? And above all, who is to blame? We want to make sense of it all.
Blame It on the Butterfly
I’m not immune to that, either. Like I said, I’ve had it pretty good so far. My wife and I are still employed and get to work from home. We have health care that’s pretty darn good. We have a wonderful home and our families are all safe and healthy. So really, we can’t complain, right?
Ah, but today, if that butterfly had done its job right, my wife and I would have been on the banks of the Rhine River gorge. It would have been her first time seeing it, and I was really looking forward to showing her one of my favorite places on earth. Afterward, we would have gone back to our hotel in Aachen, where Charlemagne was coronated, located just 10 or so miles from the hometown of my mother’s family.
I had really looked forward to showing my wife so many of the landmarks of my childhood. The ice cream shop where I deciphered, on my own, the intricacies of currency exchange (one year, when the exchange rate was two German marks to a US dollar, I could buy two ice cream cones for a dollar — the next visit, when the exchange rate was three marks to a dollar, I could buy three ice cream cones for a dollar — like magic!). I wanted to show her my grandparents’ apartment building and the place where my great uncle lived. I wanted to point out the artificial hill made up of discarded slate from the abandoned coal mine that had become overgrown with scrub growth and stinging nettle that I loved to climb up. I wanted to place a stone of remembrance on the memorial to the synagogue that used to stand in that impossibly small village. But we didn’t get to do any of it.
Before that, we were supposed to have spent a week in Amsterdam, going to Rembrandt’s house and seeing his great works in the Rijksmuseum, and then spending time in the Van Gogh museum. I would have spent a day in the old Jewish quarter and planned to join the congregation at the grand and venerable esnoga for a service. We would have gone to Spinoza’s house in Rijnsburg! My mother and I would have treated Stephanie to her first rijstafel and delighted in showing her the decadent parts of Amsterdam, just as my mom pointed them out to me in my wide-eyed wonder when I was just 11. And then, when mom was safely asleep for the night, we would have snuck back out and made a great time of it.
None of it happened. None at all.
We began planning our big trip back in August and had planned to leave May 3. All through the fall and winter, we kept telling each other, we just need to make it through the cold and snow and then it’s our time to go. But as the winter wore on, we watched the scepter of plague sweep across the globe — slow at first and then gaining alarming speed — putting all our plans in jeopardy.
When the epidemic hit Italy, I was gravely concerned for our trip. When COVID cases turned up in the town literally across the street from my mom’s hometown in Germany, I knew it was over. Done. We wouldn’t be going. We were all busted up over it, to be honest, but my mom, now 81 years old, has wondered aloud if she’ll still be strong enough to globetrot whenever the moratoriums on travel are lifted.
No, I haven’t buried anyone. I didn’t lose a job. But it is also a loss. And on a day like today, when it’s a cool Michigan evening I see instead of the Rhine flowing by as I order “Noch ein andere Weissbier mit Himbeere, bitte!” – I can get to feeling just a bit sorry for myself.
Self-Pity in Small Doses
Another bit of Spinoza: feelings aren’t necessarily good or bad things — nothing is either good or bad. But when a feeling overwhelms or consumes you to a point where you are distracted from reason, it has become a problem.
Therefore, feeling sorry for yourself isn’t necessarily good or bad, either. It’s natural. It’s hard for me to think of anyone in the world at this point who hasn’t lost something: a trip they were looking forward to, a business they owned, their job, their home, the graduation ceremony they worked toward, or worst of all, people they loved. We’ve all got something to mourn, whether it’s something big or something small.
Pretending we’re not sad about that is foolish. But losing ourselves to that sadness is, too. And so is comparing our loss against someone else’s to decide whether we have a right to feel the way we do, or worse, whether they do.
It does no good to measure up our loss against another’s. It’s no contest, and there’s no prize to be won for being the person who lost the most. We’re all likely to feel sorry for ourselves at some point, and that’s fine! It’s to be expected.
We would be wise to keep the self-pity from getting the better of us. No one is out to get us here. The entire world is hurting — it’s not some fantastic storm engineered to hurt you or some political figure you favor. There’s no global conspiracy to run the world’s economy into the ground. To what end? To be the king of a broke-down garbage heap? Come on, be reasonable.
Or looking at it from another angle, this was always going to happen. People have been fighting a never-ending battle against disease. We’ve made incredible progress in the past few hundred years, yes! But we’ve never been able to stand before that great banner that reads “Mission Accomplished.” We’ve endured waves of plagues and pandemics for thousands upon thousands of years and only recently learned to tame some of them through things like medicine and better hygiene. I’m no doctor, but it seems the only way we have ever been able to actually get ahead of a disease is to devise a vaccine against it, and there’s just no way to create a vaccine against a disease you don’t even know exists yet. There was always going to be some new, highly contagious disease that took us by surprise. We just didn’t know when.
It didn’t matter who was in the White House when it happened. Even the best president imaginable wouldn’t stop it. Handle it better? We can certainly argue about that. But stop it? It’s been stopped very few places in the planet, and no where I’m aware of that are as large or as populated as the United States. Not in this age. Not when planes criss-cross the globe in hours.
So if you feel sad, let yourself feel sad. But don’t lose sight of reason. And try not to lose grip on civility (myself included). If you need to blame someone, blame it on the butterfly.