Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 18

July 13

Today we had a couple of workmen at our house and just as they were getting started on the job, we heard one of them talking loudly outside, obviously very shocked and upset about something. “What happened?” he kept repeating. My husband and I looked outside to make sure that neither man was injured. They were fine. It turned out the man who was upset was talking on the phone. We gave him space, but worried that something horrific had happened to his family.

We found out later that his adult son had injured his hand badly, but would be OK. We speculated afterward that his son had probably called just moments after the injury and was hysterical, thus sending his father into a panic.

It’s really distressing to hear or witness someone when they are shocked or very upset. We were greatly relieved to learn that the man’s son went to the hospital, and was treated for relatively minor injuries. However, I found that for hours afterward, I was still reeling from the feeling of dread and concern at witnessing someone else’s moment of agony.

I kept asking myself why it was so hard for me to move past those moments, and I realized that for all these months, we have been internalizing a lot of fear, panic, and sadness, and another person’s outward expression of those feelings brought all that to surface for me.

All around us, there is frustration, confusion, and questioning of what the future holds. Just when we were lulled into a sense of things improving, we see that the public health crisis is in fact worsening. This reality is fomenting a lot of negative emotion.

Like many people, I wish the national discourse about the virus were more civil, and more focused on science-based policy rather than politics. I found myself wishing tonight that we had a leader in the vein of President Franklin Roosevelt (for all his shortcomings), who comforted the nation during difficult times with his fireside chats. If we had this type of leader, here’s what I imagine he or she would say in a time like this:

“My fellow Americans, the last few months have called upon us to make sacrifices that many of us never would have imagined. We stand today, four months into this crisis, without a clear path forward and without knowledge of when this danger will finally pass. I would like to thank you for the unprecedented discipline you have demonstrated in limiting your social contacts and putting the welfare of your neighbors above your own enjoyment and economic benefit. 

“My family, and my administration, stand with you and are working every day to find a way forward that will protect the health of every American while not ignoring the very real economic, social, educational, and societal needs that have taken a back seat during this pandemic. I know many of you question the effectiveness or necessity of some of the public health measures that we have asked you to adopt, and I would like to acknowledge that our guidance has sometimes been contradictory as we learn more about this virus. We have made mistakes at all levels, but are working every day to understand how we can contain and neutralize the threat of this terrible illness. 

“Our nation has been through many difficult trials in our history, and we have come through them best when we have come together, when we have invested in the great minds and advances of our times to find creative solutions. With scientists around the world working together to understand this virus, I am confident that sometime in the not too distant future we will begin a path forward toward normalcy. While we work toward those solutions, I ask you to look kindly upon your neighbors, to give them the benefit of the doubt, and to recognize that they are just as scared and frustrated as you. Offer them a friendly wave, a kind word, or a smile. This virus will not endure forever, and when it is gone, we will need to have strong social, communal, and national bonds to help us move forward. Let’s not squander the opportunity to begin building unity and civility now.”

July 14

Today I was disappointed to learn that a free-lance project in which I had invested considerable time will not progress as expected. It’s not something for which I would have been paid, but it’s disappointing nonetheless to have a project canceled.

Some projects are more enjoyable than others, and some seem to flow better than others. This project was meaningful, but emotionally taxing, and the writing process was more fraught than is typical for me. In retrospect, it feels like perhaps I should have realized weeks ago that things would not come to fruition. On the other hand, there is something to be learned from every experience, and this project provided an opportunity to connect with several other people, and to exercise my journalism skills. I am glad I stuck to it as long as I did.

The article that was scrapped had nothing to do with COVID-19, but the disappointment seems emblematic of this endlessly frustrating time, when we all seem to be running in circles and getting nowhere.

I am consoling myself with the knowledge that my efforts were not wasted because I learned and benefited from the creative process.

July 15

Today I participated in what I consider to be a hopeful and productive Facebook dialogue. (Yes, it’s surprising, but such things really are possible.) One of my high school classmates, who is black, tagged me in a discussion in which she was seeking friends’ reactions to podcaster Nick Cannon’s anti-Semitic statements, which led to him being fired. She wanted my input, as a Jew, on the situation.  

I had to do a bit of Googling before I responded, as I was not aware of what he said, and I am still a bit vague on all the details. The gist I got was that in the course of interviewing another black entertainer, the discussion between Cannon and his guest veered into talking about Jews, saying they were not the true Hebrews, and also reviving some other, old conspiracy theories about Jews. This led to Cannon being fired by CBS, the network which hosted his podcast.

Before I commented, I was pleasantly surprised that many of the other people contributing to the thread of conversation, regardless of their race, were piping in to say that hate speech should not be tolerated in any form. There were others who felt that Cannon should have the right to express his beliefs, even if he were wrong.

I thought for a while before posting anything, and then commented that I don’t think firing Cannon was necessarily the right move, as it would have been more productive to give him the opportunity to learn more about the origins of the ideas he was repeating, and to understand why Jews get rightfully nervous about our safety when these ideas are disseminated.

There’s a lot of talk about “cancel culture” lately, and I see it as another aspect of the divisive times we live in, and the antithesis of the idea of free speech. There’s a difference between having a discussion that includes beliefs that are rooted in misconceptions on one hand, and intentionally sowing hatred on the other hand. I think it is absolutely necessary to point out when anti-Semitic tropes are disseminated, but we should be pointing out why the information is wrong, offering explanations, and warning the person before we take away their job.

Obviously, there are gradations of hate speech. Someone who actively promotes violence, or who refuses to acknowledge they are wrong should be treated differently than someone who is simply misinformed and may be regretful when given the chance to learn more. Simply shutting people down takes away the opportunity for positive dialogue and education.

Cancel culture also takes away the permission all of us need to sometimes be wrong and to learn from our mistakes. Who among us has not said something that was either factually incorrect, or was perceived as intolerant? With so many more forums for recording and broadcasting ideas, and with an emphasis on candid conversations, there are many more opportunities to put one’s foot in one’s mouth. We all need to calm down a little bit, and give other people the opportunity to reflect upon the things they say, and how they are heard by others.

I was really touched that my friend, who I haven’t seen in person in a couple of decades, wanted to hear what I had to say on this topic. That simple act of reaching out, and listening, gave me a lot of hope.

I’m sure there are those who will say that I am naive, and that, in fact, Cannon’s slip was a window into a more extensive anti-Semitic ideology. They may be right, but even in that case, shutting people down without further discussion also has the negative effect of further entrenching opposing positions and cutting off the opportunity for better understanding. There are unrepentant anti-Semites and racists in the world, but there are many more people who are simply lacking in education and experience who might think differently if given the chance to learn without public shaming and ostracizing.

July 16

A few years ago, when my family first moved onto the block where we live, I began noticing a neighbor, an older man, who took his dog on daily walks. The man walked with difficulty, using a cane, and the dog seemed older and slow-moving as well. At first glance, I felt a bit cynical and sad watching them plod down the street.

I have since gotten to know the man a bit better — he always offers a friendly greeting when we see him, and he expressed concern a couple of weeks ago when he saw my daughter wearing a brace and using a walker. He continues his daily walks with the dog, and rather than thinking of them with sadness, I now think of them as resilient. No matter the weather, no matter the stiffness either of them may feel, they go on their daily walks, slow and steady.

With the many challenges of COVID-19, sometimes simply walking around the block is an act of pushing back against the fear, the isolation, the madness of the times in which we are living. When the anxiety builds up — which it does just as effectively in hot and humid weather as it does on cold and dreary days — a simple five-minute stroll can be a powerful way to clear one’s thoughts and fortify one’s psyche.

Two different relatives this week told me they were planning to go for walks, but had trouble finding the time. They were planning longer walks, 30 minutes or so. Try a five-minute walk, I told them. Just walk around the block. I have tried to consistently do this over the last few months, and have mostly succeeded. However, I have found that on the days I am not able to walk, I am much more edgy and unfocused. It’s ridiculously simple, but it really works. Obviously, the longer the walk, the greater the benefits. When I am able to go for longer walks, I feel a kind of freedom and release that seems reminiscent of a simpler time. I wish I could do that every day, but I can’t. So when all else fails, I just walk around the block.


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Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer

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