Thursday, April 16, 2020

None of us are exceptional. All of us are exceptional.

I've been thinking lately about how surprised some people are to be living "in these strange times" as some of them put it. I've heard baffled friends compare it to living in some kind of post-apocalyptic movie or a historical documentary. I sense a general feeling that some folks expected the exceptional nature of being wealthy or American to protect them from hardships like coronavirus has caused. A distance in geography and time from extreme poverty and epidemics made our population and our leaders complacent. A general assumption that we should be exceptions to hardships leads to amazement.

But we are not exceptional.

Perhaps my perspective as a global health advocate makes me less surprised. Haven't we been spouting slogans like "polio anywhere is polio everywhere" in lobby meetings for years? In fact, I was once part of a photo shoot in Africa in holding my fingers close together like Bill Gates to show
we're "this close" to ending polio.

Shot@Life advocates in 2012 saying we're "this close" to ending polio
Photo by Stuart Ramson with Shot@Life

It's not like I predicted this pandemic or knew I'd turn my basement into a face mask factory. It's more that I was aware it was a possibility. After all, we were already in the midst of a pandemic before COVID-19. Tuberculosis is a pandemic without a reliable vaccine, which most people just don't notice. Last year, 10 million people fell ill from TB and 1.5 million died. It's not that I expected to be scrambling to keep the necessities in my house, as if rationing for war-time. I just know people who struggle in poverty to keep the essentials in the pantry every day and I didn't see myself as inherently different from those friends. I am not so special a person to expect a pass from disasters.

I know I am not exceptional.

Across time, people have suffered so much. During Passover, I reached out to a Jewish friend who was celebrating in isolation. She admitted it would be a lonely Passover meal, but noted that "we've had worse as a people." She's right. There's a reason that Jewish households retell the story every year together and eat matzo, the bread of poverty and affliction. It's supposed to be an annual reminder and link to the experience. Christians like me can learn a lot from the tradition. We can all realize there is no part of our humanity making us different from those who have suffered in the past from war, poverty, and disease.


Except that every human is special in our souls and our individual experiences. Each of us has an extraordinary voice and a loving heart to share with others. We live in an unprecedented time of communication. You can text your mom half-way across the country from your living room just to reassure and check in. You can play Battleship on an app with your cousin stuck in her room in NYC to keep her mind off the virus. We can set up zoom meetings to speak to members of Congress from our kitchens. I can email a newspaper over 100 miles away and have them publish my letter about strengthening global health systems. In the meaning of being special, unique, extraordinary, and individual...

We are all exceptional.

It's up to us to decide how to use our individual voices to make things better. What will you do with yours today? Will you comfort a lonely and depressed friend? Will you defend the World Health Organization? Will you share your unique thoughts and experiences to tell Congress why we need better health and nutrition for every American? Maybe you'll write an encouraging blog ending with a quote that helps you get through every this one...
"I am not alone in my tiredness or sickness or fears, but at one with millions of others from many centuries...and it is all part of life." - Etty Hillesum