Llama, Llama, Quarantine Drama

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By: 
Matt Geiger

This afternoon, a nice black var drove by my house. Sitting calmly in the back seat was a large white lama. As the vehicle went by, the animal’s glistening black eyes, shaded by lush dark lashes, met mine for a brief moment. 

I quickly grabbed my phone and texted a friend.

“Just saw a lama in a car.”

“What kind of car?” he replied. 

“Sedan.”

“What type of person owns a lama but not a better way to transport one?”

I wondered what type of decision led to the scene I had witnessed. Did someone impulsively buy a non-refundable lama, then think, like someone who purchases a king-sized bed or extra-large couch, “How on earth am I going to get this home?”

At some point, someone was faced with a decision, and cramming the animal in the back seat of a car was apparently the best option. 

This is life. Wandering from place to place, making decisions. 

A few years ago I had to choose between joining and never attending a gym near my home, and joining and never attending a slightly nicer gym a few miles further away. 

Each morning, I awake to find a home full of phones and computers and tablets, all of which have one percent of their battery charge remaining, and I must stand in the kitchen, holding our one and only charger, and deciding which of these devices must die, and which will get to see the sunrise. 

 It’s at times like this I remember Agamemnon: “For mankind is emboldened by wretched delusion, counsellor of ill, primal source of woe.”

History and mythology, which are often the same thing, overflow with examples of impossible moral dilemmas.  

In the “Agamemnon,” the king angers a god, who then strands his army and its ships in the middle of the sea, where they will eventually starve and perish. Eventually, he learns that he can appease the god by slaying his daughter. He must choose between the death of everyone in his army, and his daughter. He chooses to kill his daughter, and unlike in the “Old Testament” no god comes rushing in at the last moment to say, “Just kidding.”

In another Greek drama, Antigone’s brother dies and his body is left to rot in the open, the fate of a traitor. She chooses to sprinkle dirt on his corpse, to symbolically bury him and restore his dignity, choosing her brother over the laws of the state. 

In most modern movies and books, the moral choices faced by the characters are easier. There is always a “good” character and a “bad” one, one who is oppressed and one who is the oppressor, or one who is just while the other is unjust. One who is right and one who is wrong. This might be one of the many reasons I usually enjoy older stories more, because a few hundred years ago, or a few thousand, authors seemed to better see the fickle natures of our gods and of ourselves. 

Most of the old heroes and gods are immensely flawed, and no amount of strength or wisdom can ultimately save them, because in the end, we all travel to places where the road forks into two equally worthy or equally horrible paths. 

I was chatting (via email) with an author recently, whose book is a finalist in the Midwest Book Awards. (My most recent book is too, but in a different category, so we are still allowed to be civil to one another.) His book, a collection of humorous and touching stories about his interactions with people in Wisconsin, is nominated in the “Travel” category. 

“I had no idea I’d written a travel book,” he told me. “I thought I’d written a memoir.”

It got me thinking, and I realized that really, all books are travel books. Every story is a tale in which we go there and back again, and every life is simply the adventures of a person going around, looking for meaning and humor and solace as they face obstacles and dilemmas, and take on and unload burdens with the regularity of a traveling merchant. 

In truth, I’m just glad this particular book isn’t in the same category as mine, because he’s a much better writer than I am, and his book would win over mine without any doubt. The choice would be easy. 

But as we began with, many choices are not easy. Many decisions are between two equally worthy, or two equally horrifying (the election is almost here!) options. 

It has never been more clear than it is right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there are plenty of examples of people pulling together and helping one another out, the past two months have seen a proliferation of moral dilemmas. People are being asked to choose between the good of all humanity, and the good of their own families. They must choose between losing their jobs and their homes, or putting a vague but enormous civilization at risk. They are being asked to sacrifice their sons and daughters, their hopes and dreams, for the good of a society that often seems to care little for them, and little for their families and hopes and dreams. 

But each of those individual family units is part of the same society that needs saving, and therein lies the crux of this most modern but ancient moral dilemma.

It only took a few weeks for people to package this crisis and toss it squarely into their own little, prefabricated systems of belief. Liberals have decided an untreatable virus that traversed the entire globe in a matter of weeks is the fault of a president who, even by his own admission, knows little or nothing about medicine or science. They think anyone who thought ahead and prepared to quarantine or fend for themselves is a greedy hoarder. Conservatives, on the other hand, have decided this is a power grab in which shadowy figures use a viral boogeyman to seize the last of their rights and liberties. Both seem overly simplistic and severely disingenuous. 

In our family, we have taken COVID-19 fairly seriously, not because we fear getting sick, exactly, but because we know many people with compromised immune systems and don’t want to make them sick. Plus, staying away from people is not the worst thing in the world, as long as you have a few people you love by your side while you are doing it. 

Plus, our health insurance doesn’t cover anything, seriously, so any illness worse than a common cold could be catastrophic for us. 

But I understand those who are not afraid of this disease, or at least are more afraid of despair, seclusion and poverty than they are of catching an illness from which the vast majority of people recover. 

The debate about how deadly a disease needs to be to take it seriously is an old one. There is no right answer, and it always reminds me of something Bill Bryson said in “A Walk In The Woods.” He is preparing to go on a very long hiking and camping trip, and he is reading about black bears. He says the books he consulted told him the vast majority of black bears avoid humans and do not actively hunt them. “But here’s the thing,” he quickly adds. “Sometimes they do!”

Which is something to remember, because COVID-19 has claimed lives in our own little communities, and the sorrow felt by their loved ones care little for comforting statistics. 

And yet, those who wish to reclaim their lives are not wrong, either. My daughter came up to me the other day and asked the following question: “Daddy, am I really six?”

“Of course you are!” I replied. 

“But I didn’t get to have my birthday party this year, so am I really, actually six?”

What does a father say to his daughter when faced with a question like that? I do not know, and honestly I don’t even remember what I did say. I do know that at that moment, I would have sunk all the ships in an ancient Greek army, or all the ships on earth, just to throw her a real birthday party. And yet we didn’t. We had canceled her party, and because of it I felt a little more like Agamemnon than I would ever like. 

I believe many people believe they will be proven right when this is all over. That they will be able to look back and say, “See, we did too much” or, “See, we did too little.” But really, we will never know. Because right now, we are all faced with a moral dilemma, and like Agamemnon, or Antigone, or so many who have come before us in art and in life, we will never really know if the choices we made are right.

 

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