Who do we see?
This question has taken on new meaning, as the upending of society and its norms by the coronavirus has fundamentally changed who we see, and how we see them.
I’m talking about more than just who we lay eyes on. I mean: Who do we really see? Who do we see as our equals? Who do we see as equally important members of our society, and of the human family? This question of who we see, and more importantly, how we see them, shapes every facet of our society.
Who we see, and how we see them, has shaped our hierarchical social and economic structures. The worth of a person, and of human life in general, has long been defined almost entirely in terms of bank accounts, titles and possessions.
Those who have these things — money, power, fame — have long been seen. We see them in the thousands of marketing messages that daily flood our conscious and subconscious minds. We see them behind the podiums, in front of the spotlights and on the playing fields and courts that define American royalty.
We see, or have seen, the rich, powerful and famous as the pinnacle of American success. Everyone else has existed simply to adore them, and to provide the work necessary for their excess and self-aggrandizement.
But, where are these personifications of American success today?
Our royals of sport are sidelined. Movie theaters are shut down. There are no red carpets to walk. Our most famous TV and video personalities have been brought down to the level of everyone else — trying to control the kids and dog during a video conference call from the living room.
I do not say any of this to denigrate those who traditionally sit atop the pinnacle of American attention. I look forward to sports returning. And, I’ve really enjoyed watching the kings of late night, news anchors and politicians replace their usually polished content with shaky video, oft-interrupted by a child or pet too innocent to understand pretentiousness.
But, who’s replaced these paragons of pride and fortune, at the center of America’s attention? Who are we cheering on in the absence of professional athletes? Who do we wish to emulate when politicians seem impotent, when the red carpet gentry are confined to the living room couch, and when the rich seem incapable of doing anything except maneuvering their wealth to capture even more wealth, at the expense of those suffering?
Where do we turn for heroes, when our pedestals are suddenly empty?
The answer, in the midst of this crisis, has been the sudden and well-deserved elevation of people who, just a few weeks back, went unseen and unappreciated in our society.
The teenager working a drive-through window. The single mom running the register at the local grocery store. The stocker filling shelves at 2 a.m. The warehouse worker, trying to feed a family by stuffing our online purchases into shipping boxes. The nurse. The beat cop. The pharmacy clerk. The people who keep clean water flowing to our homes, and sewage flowing away from them. There’s a million more that escape me, and surpass our time and space available here.
Honestly, how were these people seen a few weeks back? Were they revered? Did we pause daily to be thankful for the work they do? Did we think about how incredibly important they are to our way of life, our health, our sanity? Our very survival?
By and large, if we’re honest — and yes, I am including myself — I think we passed by them and their work without pausing to give thanks for what they do, and how important it is to us.
This pandemic is teaching us many lessons. Not least among them — and one I desperately hope we hold onto after this passes — is the relative importance of our work, and the human beings that do the working. We’ve seen, over the past few weeks, how perfectly well our society can carry on without bejeweled starlettes and swaggering athletes. The real swagger now belongs to a 17-year-old single mom bagging the groceries you need to keep your family alive.
It’s tempting to view this as a temporary situation, that will pass as the virus passes. But, that is a comfortable lie. The grocery clerk, the trash truck driver, the nurse, delivery driver and factory worker — these always have been essential to our society, our economy and our way of life.
We’ve simply been forced us to see how vital is the work these previously unseen women and men play in the very survival of our society. The truth we’re now forced to see is, those who truly are essential are those we’ve been least likely to see, value and laud.
Ultimately, we all are needed to make this country worth living in. All honest work is needed, and should be valued. Each of us, on our own, no matter how much money or fame we think we have, are nothing but a single strand in the great tapestry of this complex society. And none of us can truly succeed without the work of all the other little strands, all woven together to make this society something worth preserving.
Thank you to all of you who are doing the really essential work, who are keeping this country alive, fed and safe, while the rest of us are worrying about the next Zoom meeting. God bless you for your work. And, Lord please, let us all continue to value and celebrate you after all this is over.