Coronavirus Diary #13: Vantage Point

When I was teaching high school composition, I used to have my students watch the movie Vantage Point (available on Amazon or YouTube), which tells the story of an assassination attempt on the US President as seen from the various vantage points of different characters. The goal of watching this film, which I assigned over Christmas break before the start of the semester, was to get my students thinking about point of view and the reliability of narration. I wanted them to see that depending on where you are standing, the story might look very different.

And isn’t that true right now?

I spoke to my mother this week. She lives in small town Michigan, very far removed from the cities where Covid-19 has run most rampantly. Her county has had 82 total cases and 13 deaths. She is unfamiliar with the impact of systemic racism; her county is 92% white and she has no reason to believe that systemic racism has impacted the few people of color that she knows. Because it’s tucked back from the highway running through town, she rarely considers the Level IV correctional facility which houses over 1000 inmates, most of whom are likely people of color. From her vantage point, not much in life has changed. She feels free to go out of her house to shop in the midst of a global pandemic, even if she does have leukemia and is 78 years old. She’s wearing a mask, after all, well, except for that one time when she went to a graduation open house when she didn’t wear a mask — because, well, nobody was.

My daughter called yesterday. She lives on The Common in Boston, a city where Covid has infected over 13,000 people and claimed the lives of over 900. She woke up yesterday to the sound of police putting up barricades on the sidewalk outside her window. As the day progressed, Black Lives Matter protestors assembled behind the barricades on one side of the street; Blue Lives Matter protestors with the support of white supremacists gathered on the other. In the middle of these two groups police officers in riot gear patrolled back and forth. She called because she was riled up. She had left her building through the back entrance to protect herself from a potential clash of protestors, wearing a mask to protect herself from Covid. From her vantage point, life is full of danger and opportunity. She sees her position of privilege and feels compelled to speak up, speak out, and engage in a dialogue to impact change. She grew up mostly in spaces occupied by people of diverse backgrounds. Her partner is a person of color. She belongs to a church that is made up of people from many nations, many backgrounds, many socioeconomic levels. She works for a government agency that is committed to equity for all citizens of Massachusetts. She is hyper-aware of the realities around her.

Over the past week, I have been preparing to return to the office where I was working before I started to quarantine at the end of March. My company has done extensive work to prepare our environment to meet the requirements of re-entry — creating social distance, requiring and providing masks, ensuring that extra cleaning will be done, and limiting the number of students who will be in the center at any given time. The parents of some of our students really want them to be able to come into the center — they believe instruction will be more effective there. From their vantage point, opening our center is a great idea. However, many of the staff, who have been working remotely for the last three months, sheltering in place, limiting their exposure to others, and watching the trends of communities who have opened ahead of us, do not want to go back to the center. They believe it is unsafe, and they want the opportunity to continue to work remotely, since we’ve been doing so effectively for three months now with great success. From their vantage point, the risk of going back into physical contact is not warranted. They are wiling to lose their jobs rather than take that risk.

Meanwhile, our country is experiencing the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression of the 1920s. Many new college grads are spending their days alternating between applying for jobs and worrying about how they are going to pay their bills. They are taking jobs that have nothing to do with their degrees just to get a paycheck coming in. They are willing to take risks to work in environments that seem unsafe because they need money — that one little stimulus check way back in April has been gone for weeks, if they received it in the first place. From their vantage point, any work is better than no work.

Families are sitting in their cars in long lines to pick up free food because their money is gone. They worry they’ll lose their homes or that they will get Covid and need medical care that they can no longer afford because they lost their health care along with their jobs.

And each day we hear another story of a family and a community who have senselessly lost someone they love due to racial violence. We’ve heard about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, but there have been many others. It’s not bad enough that these families are trying to manage the physical and financial ramifications of a pandemic, they are also grieving the loss of lives cut short for no good reason.

Most of us cannot imagine processing that kind of trauma on top of already overwhelming stress of all the change that we’ve undergone because of this pandemic. And we likely won’t have to. That kind of shit doesn’t happen in our communities, in our families. And we have this sense that we are invincibile. untouchable.

Yesterday, my daughter was out running in Boston and had her mask down around her neck until she saw someone approaching. At that point, she put her mask on out of respect for the other person, to reduce the risk of unknowingly contaminating him. He saw her put on her mask — he wasn’t wearing one — and he shouted at her angrily, “Really? Really?” as though he was offended by her gesture. From his vantage point, my daughter was protecting herself from him.

This morning in his rural church, my father-in-law who is 80+, was wearing a mask. A fellow congregant — without a mask — approached him and said, “Who are you protecting yourself from?” It was an indictment — didn’t my father-in-law trust the people he went to church with to be free of disease? From that man’s vantage point, my father-in-law’s mask was ridiculous, unnecessary, an affront.

We have difficulty understanding the the actions and words of those who are experiencing life right now from a different vantage point. We don’t understand why a septuagenarian with cancer would go to a social event without a mask, what would cause a white man to shout at a complete stranger for merely pulling on a mask, or why a person with a job would refuse to go to work while countless others are desperately looking for employment.

We don’t understand the kind of history and indoctrination that would lead someone to take the life of another simply because of the color of their skin or what it must feel like to lose everything that you have. We only see the story from our own vantage point.

Unless, unless, we are willing to look at the events from a different point of view. What might happen if we set down our bags full of belief and assumption and took one step to the left or the right and tried to view the world from a different vantage point? Might we be able to understand a person’s desire to move freely inside the community she has known for decades? Might we feel the fear and outrage of someone who can’t comprehend why centuries-long misconceptions about race can’t be finally put away? Might we see the horror of watching a loved one have the oxygen pressed out of him? Might we appreciate both the need for work and the need to feel safe going to work?

Life is very complex. When over 300 million people live inside one country, they can’t all be standing on the same piece of ground — they won’t all have the same vantage point. If we want to come together and build a more perfect union, we’re going to have to walk around a little bit and see how others view things. We’ll have to share our stories and blend them into a more reliable narrative.

Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace.

I Corinthians 13:11

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