We are altogether all together

Many years ago, while working on my master’s, I took Vietnamese classes at the University of Oregon in preparation for a semester in Hanoi. My instructor taught language by explaining the cultural protocols of daily life. I will never forget the way she described Vietnamese society in an anatomical analogy. She likened individuals to blood, villages to organs, country to body. Everyone was essential to the whole. Each person had a critical role in a functioning village; each village had a necessary place in the country/body.

There is much in this notion that doesn’t jibe with American ideals. We are individualistic and independent, dammit! But this virus is proving how interconnected we all are – all 7.8 billion individuals of us, even those we dislike and disagree with. We are connected. When a novel virus (such as COVID-19) emerges, every human being is vulnerable, no matter race, ethnicity, class, creed, color, politics, age, or anything else. Some are more vulnerable than others – but no one is immune. Lucky, perhaps. But not immune. I think about the Vietnamese country/body analogy a lot, but especially in these times. And I take it even further, to link world to species, Planet Earth/Humanity.

Yet it doesn’t end there! Yesterday, I interviewed an astronomer (an upbeat COVID interview!) who noted the wonders of the night sky (this is a GREAT time to view it, BTW). If you watch the sky over the course of a week or a month or longer, you will begin to see patterns and movement. And you may very well begin to feel a profound connection to something much, much, much larger than we wee ones here on Earth. We are but a minute component of a solar system (genus? family?), a galaxy (order? class? kingdom?), and the universe of all matter and life.

Scientists know similar connections exist in nature, here on Earth. In a fascinating podcast episode from 2016, From Tree to Shining Tree, Radiolab features the work of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who studies a remarkable underground network connecting trees and fungi in a system that allows them to “talk” to each other. And not just trees of the same type – this happens across species. In troubling times and conditions (like inordinate heat), ailing trees warn their neighbors and share their nutrients. They support each other, moving water and nitrogen through this efficient system. Every tree is an individual…

But.

Every tree is an essential component of a network of forests and ecosystems across our planet. The death of one tree sends ripples through the delicate, wondrous chain.

Knowing that, and knowing the function of a virus, I find it impossible to deny that every human being is also part of a village, a nation, a world; the blood, the organs, the bodies that form our species. That doesn’t mean we all agree. It doesn’t mean we all like each other, or that our world will ever be conflict-free. But it does mean that individual actions have implications for all of us. We may recognize this. We may not. Regardless, the suffering of others, near and far, is universally linked to each of us, as human beings.

Does that shape what we think and what we do in the age of coronavirus?

(Next up: Jerry’s DIY gluten-free, COVID-free muffins. Stay tuned….)

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