I still talk to people.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say people still talk to me, since I’m most often doing a greater amount of listening than speaking, which is where the ideas of most of these stories begin. It’s harder now, of course. Hard to have a conversation when you’re six feet away from the person you’re trying to communicate with. And I won’t even get into the difficulties involved in talking through a mask.
Still, it’s rare that I seek anybody out in order to write something. I’ve always just tried to keep my eyes and ears open and trust that a story will come to me. But that’s not the case this time. This time, I went out looking for somebody. I needed some answers.
Take a drive in my little town and you’ll likely get a very small picture of what’s going on most everywhere else. People are like that, I think — they grow up and live in one place or another, and I have no doubt that place shapes them like few things can, but at the bottom we’re all the same no matter where we call home.
And here in my little town, people are getting tired.
Tired of staying home. Tired of worrying every time they go to the store. Tired of not working, tired of having their lives on hold. Stop anywhere for even just a few minutes, and you’ll find that far from this virus bringing us together, it’s dividing us even more than we were a few months ago.
There are the folks who stay home because that’s what they call right, and the folks who go out because that’s what they call right. Ones who wear a mask every time they leave the house, and ones who say wearing a mask is about the worst thing you can do for a whole host of reasons. This whole mess is just one more flaw in a flawed world, or it’s a sign of something sinister in the flawed hearts of politicians.
If I scroll through my social media feeds (something I put strict limits on, by and way, especially now) the divide is even more apparent. We’re all gonna die if we’re not careful, or we’re all gonna die if we keep giving up our rights.
It’s true, it’s fake. I believe, I don’t believe. I’m right, you’re evil.
I read an article the other day that suggested a lot of this comes down to moral exhaustion. We’re all tired of not only thinking we’re going to get sick, but we’re going to somehow get the people we love sick, too. And if I’m honest, I’ll say I’m starting to worry about a whole lot more than a virus that can kill you. I’m starting to worry if we’ll ever be able to agree on anything again.
Which is why I drove out to the edge of town the other day to look for Eli. I’ve known Eli and his family for most of my life, sharing a common if distant ancestry. My mother was Amish growing up, and then Mennonite, which is kind of the same thing but not really. Eli has remained Amish, along with his wife, their six children, and enough grandchildren and great-grandchildren to fill up a church.
There are times when I’ll turn to my more earthly kin for a little perspective on things. Then there are times when only the Amish will do. Times like this one, when I needed someone who generally lived apart from society to tell me what in the world was going on with society. We sat on his back porch (six feet apart and masked) along with the birds and the sunshine. I asked Eli if he knew what was going on out there in the world. He did. He nodded and stroked his beard when I said it was getting a little hard to know what to do. Then he let out a quiet
“Mmmm” and held up one gnarled hand.
“Honor,” he said. He kept that one raised and lifted the other. “Integrity.”
I think Eli meant for that to be it. Lesson over. But I’ve never been a very good student.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“Mmmm. Honor,” he said again, shaking his right hand. “Integrity,” again, shaking the other.
“You’re gonna have to help me out a little more here, Eli.”
“That’s your choice.”
“Always thought they were pretty much the same.”
He looked at me in a way that said if he was allowed to take the Lord’s name in vain, he would.
“We live by honor,” he told me. “Was a time when most others did as well. Not your father’s time. Your grandfather’s, maybe.
Now it is integrity. Everything is integrity.”
“Doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Mmmm. Who am I?”
I sat there trying to figure if that was a trick question. “Eli.”
“What am I?”
“That sound you keep making a sign of disgust, Eli?”
“What else am I?” He asked.
“A father. Grandfather. Great-grandfather.”
“I don’t know. Farmer. Deacon. Amish.”
He waved his fingers at me like that was enough. “I am Eli,” he said. “I am a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. I am a farmer and a deacon. I am Amish. I am all of those things, but honor says I am all of those things before I am Eli. Honor says I tend to these needs before I tend to my own wants. Why? Because I am a part of something greater than me. A family, a community, a faith. See?”
“You,” he said, and then he pointed — at me, I guess, but also everyone like me, “you say I am a father and grandfather and great-grandfather. You say I am a farmer and a deacon and Amish, but you say I am Eli first. I am a person with rights that will not be taken and freedoms that will not be curtailed no matter the reason.
Because I am an individual, and only that matters — me, Eli. See?”
“I wear this mask not to keep me safe, but my Sarah. We stay home not to keep ourselves safe, but our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We share food and what money we can to those who have less. We pray for them before we pray for ourselves, because that is what we do. Because I will die. Soon, I think.
And then I will stand before a Lord who will not say to me, ‘What did you do for Eli?’ but ‘What did you do for others?’”
That was two days ago. Normally when I come across a story, I’ll jot some notes down in my notebook, write it all up, and then throw those notes away. But those notes are still sitting here on my desk, and I think that’s where they’ll stay.
Honor or integrity. I think that’s the choice all of this comes down to.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m fearful of the choice we’re all about to make.