by Becky De Oliveira—
Who doesn’t have thoughts on toilet paper these days? I grew up hiking with my dad, and he always said, “Toilet paper is mountain currency.” Who knew it would someday be currency off the mountain as well? The United States—along with much of the rest of the world—seems neatly divided into two camps: those who hoard toilet paper and those who make snarky remarks about those who hoard toilet paper. I have staked my claim firmly in the latter camp but mostly with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I’m not yet particularly angry about the toilet paper hoarding. People want to feel a sense of safety and control. As a former anorexic, I can’t hate anyone for that. I well know the feeling, the heady sense of euphoria that comes with having your ducks in a row.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I won’t hate them for that. Or for anything. To paraphrase Chief Joseph, “From where the sun now stands, I will hate no one else forever.” Last week in Connect Group (what our church calls Sabbath School) my husband tells me they discussed the character of God and a few people argued about it. I was resting from a hard week and Mohs surgery for skin cancer on my face, and it’s just as well I wasn’t there. I would have raised this question: Why are we worried about the character of God? What we need to ask right now is what is the character of me? Because things are not really bad yet—and they don’t ever have to be. They will only be bad if we start to turn on each other, bitter, snarling, taking chunks of flesh.
In the last 48 hours, my oldest son’s university—currently on spring break—asked its students not to return until April 13 at the earliest. They will conduct classes online. My son is on a school trip to Death Valley National Park and has to return to campus before flying home. There was much online discussion over whether the students would be allowed in the dorms at all, with everyone posting different theories, opinions, or reports of what they’d heard. He emailed the rector and asked whether he could spend the night and the rector said yes. Whew.
A few hour later, my university announced it would go online after we return from spring break, starting today. We will not return to campus until April 6 at the earliest. My high school-aged son is out for three weeks. My niece, in Washington State, is out until the end of April. My husband is working from home. So is my brother. My parents, both well over 70, are self-quarantined.
People are stockpiling water, cleaning supplies, tissues, paper towels, rice, beans. My friends are posting photos of empty shelves. One friend had the last packet of toilet paper snatched from her hands by another shopper in Holland, Michigan, which used to be called the happiest place in America. I went to the grocery store last night myself in preparation for having a houseful of males (two of them growing) rifling the cupboards for sustenance, and I found what I needed with a minimum of difficulty. A huge bag of dog food had spilled on the floor and the poor checkout clerk swept some of it out of the way and stepped aside to let me pass. We smiled at each other. “That sucks,” I said. We laughed. This whole situation sucks.
All of you know exactly what I’m talking about. You are living your own versions of the same story: closures, cancellations, shortages, uncertainty. For some of us, the situation is much more serious than for others. If my major problem right now is less toilet paper than I might ideally like, I think I can say I am truly blessed.
When one of my classes met earlier this week to discuss our contingency plans should the university go online for the rest of the semester, the professor said, “Now I don’t want to hear anyone talking about whether or not people should be hoarding toilet paper. I don’t want you to say whether you think it’s right or wrong. Some of you are talking about it (was she looking at me?) while others of you have bought a lot of toilet paper. No one needs to feel bad. It doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong.”
I take her point but also feel the urge to question it a little. What is a crisis for if not to learn, to clarify your own beliefs, to determine which lines you will not cross? Here’s a line I will not cross: I will never snatch a package of toilet paper from another person’s hands. But if you did do this, dear reader, you and I can still be friends. I have probably crossed lines that you would never cross, done things you would find disgusting, beyond the pale. We can be judgmental—maybe even occasionally snarky—without becoming enemies. We can learn from each other. Can’t we?
Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.