by Becky De Oliveira—
My father, who has been in a mostly self-imposed lockdown since the beginning of March to protect both himself and my mother, who has late-stage Parkinson’s disease, from COVID-19, has used some of his downtime to work on his memoirs, focusing on the 38 years he worked in forest management in the Pacific Northwest, starting in 1968. His writing is informative, funny, interesting, and, above all, highly reflective. At 77, Dad finds himself often pondering what he might have done better, what he might have done differently.
One example is a tree-thinning operation he supervised in the early 1970s about a mile from a scenic lake. Thinking the distance between the lake and the harvest site was enough that the activities of the machinery would have no impact on the lake, he was shocked to discover the lake had turned brown and murky. Sediment from a nearby wetland was slowly seeping into the stream that fed the lake. The damage was not permanent, and the lake soon returned to its normal condition, but Dad calls this incident “a slap on the side of the head,” and says it caused him to learn to “look beyond the project at hand” and to “consider all the impacts” of his actions, always trying to “look at the broader picture.”
I wonder to what extent we are doing this—or not doing it—in our lives and communities. Make no mistake: a church, a town, a group of friends—these are all ecosystems, delicately balanced, precious. They can flourish. They can be destroyed.
For the first six weeks of the pandemic, I awoke every morning with a fleeting feeling of well-being. Almost as soon as my fingers hit the button on my phone to turn off my alarm, I would remember: “My life is over.” I’ve stopped feeling that juxtaposition of emotions. I’ve become used to going nowhere but the supermarket. I have plenty of things to do in my house; I’m a busy person. I do therefore I am. It would appear that my life is not yet over.
Anxiety-inducing as they were, I miss those six weeks—if that’s how long it really was—that period of time when everyone seemed to be on the same page. We faced a crisis and we had some idea of how we might approach it. We were (mostly) unified in our efforts to make sure the most vulnerable of our population remained healthy. It made me think, in some ways, of one of the happiest nights of my life, the one when as a college student I was stuck at a truck stop on Interstate 90 heading east from Seattle to Walla Walla because of avalanche warnings. There were dozens of motorists in the same situation, and we helped each other. We pushed stranded cars, provided change for pay phones, shared food and weather updates. Waiters in the diner gave out free coffee to cold travelers with nowhere else to sit. Things were not exactly going well, but we took our situation with good cheer. We wished each other well.
That night in 1993 is an example I consider when I think about a social, faith-based ecology—an ecology of cooperation, of goodwill, of friendship. Many people have similar types of memories, and many of us long for communities that feel good—communities where we can trust and be trusted. But it is getting ever more difficult to find these.
The things we do now in our little lives may seem inconsequential, the way cutting down trees a mile away from a lake seemed low risk to my father all those years ago. We may find, however, that our actions—the gossip we spread, the mean comments we post on social media, the people we choose to disdain for whatever reason—will change our ecosystem into something ugly and incapable of sustaining the good life.
I’m old enough to have adjusted to one new normal after another, but not so old as to have decided what I think it all means or to predict where exactly we—as humans—are going to land, what we’re going to decide to be. I hope—always—that it’s not anywhere close to as bad as it looks. I hope the damage is temporary. I hope for crystal clear water.
Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods at the University of Northern Colorado, working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference. This article was originally published in Mountain Views, the quarterly journal of the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, based in Denver.