The Last Buffet

The lessons and gifts of Covid-19

Our grandsons and their parents were visiting us in Florida this last week, and on Sunday we took them to the bi-weekly seafood buffet at the local golf club. Lots of people of all ages, heaps of seafood in open chafing trays, a long line at the ice cream sundae station.

Six days later the markets had crashed like a 737 MAX on autopilot (down, up, down, ‘way down), Trump had declared a state of national emergency, and it was announced that there would be no more buffet-style dining at the club, and that all large-group social events had been cancelled. The kids went home on Southwest, armed with Handi-Wipes, DIY hand sanitizer, and a growing awareness of adult mortality.

Of all the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps the most searing, the one we should try hardest in our forgetful way never to forget, is how quickly the privileged social and material life we take for granted can be erased, how flimsily arbitrary are the patterns of our everyday experience.

One week we’re fulminating over Trump’s latest insult to our intelligence or whether Bernie should drop out of the race, and the next we’re worrying about our elderly friends and loved ones, calculating the odds of their or our contracting a potentially lethal illness, scavenging grocery stores for canned goods, and calibrating our social distancing.

But that lesson — of the fragility of life as we know and mostly enjoy it — is a gift. Crises that respect no boundaries of class or geography or politics have a way of restoring our connections to our essential humanity. 9/11 did this, however briefly.

This time it could have been another terrorist attack, or yet another mass shooting, or another war. But those events happen suddenly, often in a single moment, and are geographically confined, and are uniquely human aberrations. And for all these reasons their lessons tend to be forgotten almost as quickly.

There’s something particularly unsettling about the rapid spread of a disease across oceans and continents, the certainty that it’s infected people in more places and in far higher numbers than we know. But more than that, an epidemic like this one reminds us that disease and death are not aberrations, but are built into nature just as intimately as the nucleotides that give us life.

You can tick off the other lessons of the day. That showmanship is no substitute for leadership. That market value is no measure of human value. That we tolerate the hollowing out of federal bureaucracy at our peril. That the hubris and materialism that are the engines of our culture offer no protection or solace when the going gets really tough. That despite our delusions to the contrary, life is not predictable, programmable, nor necessarily benign.

But the national reset that we’re experiencing also presents us with the opportunity to rediscover the comforts of family, the joys of small gatherings of friends, the fun of dis-organized sports, the otherworldly magic of a few hours alone with a good book, the strength and resourcefulness of our local, physical communities.

Life is a banquet, the poet tells us. But any meal with those we love can be the last buffet. We all need to be reminded to live with that recognition.

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