I have been hunkering down so long, it looks like hunkering up to me.
A scene from perhaps 20 years ago plays out in my mind. I was at a meeting crowded with social workers and case managers. From the back of the room a voice called out, “Can anyone tell me the five stages of grief?” It seemed an out-of-place question for a meeting convened to discuss the new laptop computer-based case management system. For the past 40 minutes these social workers had resisted and questioned the system. It intruded on their relationships with clients; it slowed them down; it wasn’t necessary. “We don’t have to do this!” “It won’t work because …” “It won’t work unless …” “It will never work!”
And then, this bizarre question from the back of the room. Of course, in a room full of social workers, everyone knew Kübler Ross’s five stage model of grief. One person after another answered the question, calling it out one stage at a time. “Denial.” “Anger.” “Bargaining.” “Depression.” “Acceptance.”
The voice from the back of the room spoke again. “What stage are you in now?”
The pertinence of the question became apparent. There was a long pause as the social workers recognized they were grieving their old ways of working. They were in denial. They were angry. They were bargaining. They were depressed.
The pause continued awkwardly until one of them said, “OK, how can we make this work.”
From my work with computer viruses, I knew something about how they spread so, for this pandemic, I fast-forwarded right past denial, anger, and bargaining and went straight to depression. As I stay at home day after day, distance myself from others when I do go out, monitor every doorknob, steering wheel, and can of beans I touch and wipe them down afterwards and wash my hands, I hold depression at bay and lean to acceptance. I accept this new normal. This is it.
An old Jewish story comes to mind. In my retelling (which draws on a version by Doug Lipman), two students are studying the psalms and they come to the line, “This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24.) They are troubled by it, so they ask their rabbi, “On a day when everything is good, it is easy to say this line with a full heart. But, how can we say it with genuine intent on a bad day?”
“A good question,” says their rabbi. “For this question, “you should visit Reb Zushya.”
To find Reb Zushya the students must travel, by foot, to a distant village. On the third day of their journey they arrive in the heart of the village. They ask, “Can you tell us where we can find Reb Zushya?”
“Sorry, we don’t know anyone by that name.”
They knock on many doors, receiving the same response. They continue to inquire further and further from the center of the village; they begin to despair. Finally, someone responds, “I recall a man who used to be known by that name. He lives some distance from here.”
The students follow the villager’s directions and proceed down a narrow street, which turns into a dirt road, which turns into an overgrown footpath. They see a small building ahead – a shack, a hut. As they approach, they notice a window covered with cardboard, the roof missing some shingles, the outer door hanging askew from its upper hinge. They knock at the door. A voice from within whispers, “I’ll be with you soon.”
In time, a man opens the door from within and asks, “What can I do for you, my sons?”
“Our rabbi sent us here to ask a question. Are you Reb Zushya?”
“Yes, I am. Welcome, come in, but please be quiet. My wife is very ill, and she has just gone to sleep.” He pointed to a blanket drawn across the opposite corner of the small room. He waved in the students and pulled up two wooden boxes so they could sit at his wobbly table, filled three wooden cups with water, and broke his remaining bread in three pieces. When they each had something to drink and eat, he asked, “So, what is this question you have come here to ask?”
One of the students explained, “We were studying the psalms and came to the line, ‘This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ We were troubled by it, so we asked our rabbi. ‘It is easy to say this line with a full heart on a good day, but how can we really mean it on a bad day?’ Our rabbi told us, ‘This is a question you should ask Reb Zushya.’ So, here we are.”
Puzzled, Reb Zushya looked at one student and then the other and then leaned back a bit. Shaking his head slowly, he replied, “I don’t know why your rabbi sent you to ask me this question, I have never had a bad day!”
This virus – like ones before it and ones that will follow – is no laughing matter. But, in the spirit of hunkering up:
- Two buddies walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll you have?” The first one says, “I’ll have a Corona.” The second says, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
- Scientists have observed a number of similarities among the various virus outbreaks and have demonstrated that the viruses are copying from each other. It’s a clear‑cut case of plague‑arism.*
- Did you hear the joke about the virus? Never mind, you probably won’t get it.*
- Jewish irony: Passover curtailed because of a plague.*
- Many of my fellow storytellers and musicians have announced cancellations of their performances. Without minimizing their difficulties, I would like to announce I will not be performing at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, or Madison Square Garden.
My title plays on Richard Fariña‘s 1966 book, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. In closing, I refer to Jack Kerouac‘s 1962 novel, Big Sur. It’s a fictionalized autobiography in which the main character deteriorates, physically and mentally, in what seem to be irretrievable downhill slides. Then, as the book concludes, comes an artful turnaround. Redemption is not out of reach. Kerouac writes what we hope for.
“Something good will come out of all things yet.”