Several Sundays ago, I stopped by Kroger after church. I’m fully vaccinated against Covid but, because of the delta variant, I’ve begun wearing a mask indoors in public again. I pulled it on, yanked a buggy loose from the corral in the parking lot and made my way into the store.
All was well until I arrived at the cold cases in the back. A small crowd had gathered around a woman who stood near the milk and eggs. She was having a temper tantrum, waving her hands in the air and pontificating in an obnoxiously loud voice about all the things that were wrong with this country, starting with President Biden stealing the election and continuing on about how nobody was going to make her take a shot or wear a mask or sanitize her hands and a lot of other crazy stuff. Politely waiting my turn to move in and grab a pint of sour cream, I stood as far away as I could from my mostly unmasked fellow shoppers, including her. But for some reason, the woman fixed her gaze on me.
“People like you!” she shouted, taking a step toward me and wagging a finger just inches from my face. “Wearing that (expletive deleted) mask and acting like you’re so much better than real Americans. You (double-expletive deleted)!!!”
For one of the few times in my life, I was speechless.
And, yeah, more than a little shaken. Why was she so angry at the world? Why was she so angry at me? How should I respond? My first instinct was to lash out with equivalent anger, minus the expletives. I should tell her that everyone with a lick of sense was vaccinated AND wearing a mask AND keeping their hands clean. I should tell her that Joe Biden didn’t steal the election. For good measure I should add that I was just as real an American as she was, whatever that means.
But that’s not what I did. I thought back to the worship service I’d just attended, one in which the sermon was entitled “Peculiar People of Peace,” followed by a responsive reading of the Prayer of Saint Frances, which begins with these words: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon.” So I turned and walked away.
Now here we are, observing today the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and I’m feeling more than a little heartbroken about what this nation seems to have become.
Not long after the tragedy, I wrote a column about some of the positive things that had come from it: “We’ve discovered heroes in unexpected places. We’ve given generously of our resources. We’ve watched adversaries become allies. We’ve become kinder and more patient with one another. We’ve grown to realize that, among civilized people, the things which unite us are far greater than those that divide us.”
How naïvely optimistic those words sound now.
Why haven’t we pulled together to fight this invisible adversary that’s so much stronger and so much more terrifying than Al-Qaeda? Since March 2020, almost 650, 000 Americans have died from Covid-19. Our hospitals are filled to overflowing with those it has infected. Our health care workers are discouraged and exhausted. But not all the news is bad. Scientists and doctors and public health officials have found good ways to fight the virus. But rather than uniting to attack it, too many Americans have chosen to attack each other instead.
I wonder if I should have said these things to the stranger who accosted me. It’s too late now, probably. But on the outside chance that she’s reading this column, I’ll say this. We’re all in this mess together. Please-oh-please get vaccinated. Wear a mask. And try to be just a little kinder, won’t you?
(September 11, 2021)