I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but it was my birthday. The gateleg dining table was pulled out from the wall, the leaves extended, and it was covered with the colorful terrycloth tablecloth in the orange, mustard, and avocado hues fashionable in the 70s. Or maybe the nicer tablecloth—I don’t think I have any photos from that year, though I can recall exactly where I was sitting at the table. I had a few friends over, and it was the one day a year I could request junk food and actually get it. The usual menu was cheeseburgers, Fritos, and Cheetos, and a cake made by my Mom. My grandparents came and I got to invite a few friends over.
This is an earlier birthday, but with the tablecloth described.
But that year, something was terribly wrong. My mom came to serve the burgers and fixings, and I noticed a glaring error.
“There’s no cheese!”
My Mom made some apology–sorry, she hadn’t remembered to get cheese.
How could she do this to me on my birthday? How can you have a cheeseburger without the cheese?
“Can’t you look and see if we have any? Just one piece of cheese?”
It was my birthday, and I was entitled to my meal the way I wanted it!
She went into the kitchen and shortly returned with a few pieces of cheddar cheese sliced off of a block from the fridge—not the nice squares that you usually have on a burger, but good enough for my purposes. My birthday was saved.
Later, after my friends had left, my Mom informed me that I had been terribly selfish.
“You asked for just one piece of cheese—what about your guests? Did you really want me to just get one piece of cheese for you?”
She let me know that it was lucky we had that block of cheese so she could cut enough to pass around the table. I shouldn’t be thinking only of myself.
But I was the one with the birthday—it was my special day! I was old enough to realize that this wasn’t really a good enough excuse. I had been selfish, and I hadn’t even noticed how selfish I was being until she pointed it out. Ouch. I had been a jerk to my Mom and to my friends.
I must have taken that lesson to heart, since I remember it so vividly. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the past year and a half. It’s natural for children to be selfish, but just as natural that we be gently corrected and asked to consider the feelings of others. Empathy is important for people of all ages, and distressing when it seems not to be taught or valued.
“I’m not worried about COVID. I don’t want to wear a mask and I don’t want to get a shot!” Says the person who, their own possibly misplaced belief in their own immune system aside, is not considering several things. Do they have any family members, friends, or coworkers who may have health issues that place them at higher risk? Are they willing to get tested if symptomatic, and inform anyone they have been in contact with that they may have been exposed? Are they willing to let the ICU beds fill up with preventable cases so others may not be able to get care? Are they thinking about the cost to overworked health care providers who may simply burn out and leave the profession? Or are they only thinking about themselves and throwing a tantrum over a minor inconvenience? Sounds a lot to me like my child self having a fit over cheese.
That’s just one example of people’s lack of empathy making a pandemic worse than it already is. The trouble is, some grown adults seem to think a complete lack of empathy is a feature, not a bug. Caring about other people is “soft.” If you can’t handle racial slurs you’re a “snowflake.” People who have medical issues like high blood pressure or diabetes “don’t take care of themselves” and it’s their fault they’re sick. If you follow that line of thought to its logical conclusion, you get to a very bad place. If you want to know how bad, look at the Nazi rise to power. https://www.theholocaustexplained.org/the-nazi-rise-to-power/the-early-years-of-the-nazi-party/ It’s honestly not that big a stretch. We just had a bunch of angry white supremacists attack the Capitol because their candidate lost, and I’ve literally read posts on NextDoor suggesting that it’s ok if people who are elderly, disabled, or have health issues die of COVID because they had it coming anyway. Maybe not in so many words, but if you read between the lines, it’s pretty hard to see it any other way.
There is no way out of this unless we do it together. There is no way out of this unless we care about all of us. I’d love to not see so much behavior that reminds me of my child self, throwing a fit over a piece of cheese. My Mom is no longer with us, but I’m grateful every day for the lessons she taught me about thinking of others.