Living in Different Worlds

Do you ever feel like you and some of the people in your life are living in different worlds? This thought was sparked by my observations of how differently people have responded to official health guidelines during the pandemic. Now that a lot of the official lockdown measures are lifted (at least in some parts of the USA), it seems to have intensified the disparities in individual behavior.

Some people won’t even leave their homes to go for a walk. (Mostly older folks with preexisting health conditions). At the other extreme, some people are attending large in-person gatherings, flying in airplanes (even to or from other countries), going to church in person, having multi-household gatherings indoors, and so on, as if circumstances were completely normal. And of course most people, including me, are somewhere in-between.

I started asking myself, “How do I (we) deal with reality when the people around me (us) seem to be living in different worlds?”

And various answers came into my mind.

• The first one is that ultimately I am the only one who can take responsibility for my own health and for setting my own boundaries. For a little while there (til mid-fall?), I was attending very small (outdoor) gatherings (4-6 people max), with sharing of food. But now that the disparity in people’s everyday choices seems to be widening, I have pulled back on that. Now if I want to see people in person, I stay 10 feet apart and don’t share food or drink. The main thing for me is sharing conversation. Eating together is something I love but it’s not essential. (By the way, my geo-distant family and I had a lovely Christmas visit by video-phone app. I got to “sit” at their table!)

• But. Work is a whole other matter. People working in jobs requiring front-line face-to-face contact (as opposed to working home-based or outdoors, like me) don’t have the option of calibrating their social distance. With those workers in mind, too, I really try not to go inside anywhere unless I really need something. Grocery/minimart, plus (the other day, first time since pre-pandemic that I’d been inside a building other than my own house for more than a few minutes) my eye doctor for eye checkup, bank for special business not able to be done by phone or drive-thru, and bicycle shop for new helmet and other safety essentials.

The second level of answers to that question is more complicated. So, “How do I (we) deal with the people around me (us), when they seem to be living in different worlds?”

• One short answer that came to me: The same way other people deal with me when I seem to be living in a different world from them.

(To be continued shortly! I want to go for a walk while it’s still light out, and before the temp starts to dip for the evening.)

OK, I’m back from my walk. And, as sometimes happens with my posts, what started out in my head as a short-seeming post has grown a bit more lengthy. Things came to me as I was walking.

Earlier today, without my realizing it, a friend sent me the “punch line” to this post. He texted me a meme titled, “An Old Farmer’s Advice.” It was all basic sound practical advice, but the one that stood out for me most was, “The biggest troublemaker you’ll probably ever have to deal with, watches you from the mirror every morning.” That’s the punch-line of this post, I realized while I was out on my walk. I’ll fill in the middle as it comes to me.

Nutshell: Judging other people’s choices is not a way to make anything good happen in the world. A very old lesson, but one I seem to need to learn repeatedly. Life on Planet Earth is always humbling.

So, other thoughts in answer to that question:

• We all live in different worlds, in a sense — even while sharing the same physical platform. People have different beliefs about health, medicine, the environment, government, and so on. So “dealing with people who are living in different worlds” is nothing that any of us is new at. It’s daily life.

• I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I’ve noticed that the best way to deal with people, period, is to care more about the people themselves than about my idea of “what’s right.” It’s tricky when it comes to, say, a pandemic, or the environment. Because I think I’m advocating for the good of everyone. But then I look into myself and see some little twisted pocket of something other than “caring for others.” Could just be me wanting to be right (always a popular feeling on Planet Me). Or (in the case of people traveling and gathering despite public-health warnings) me envying them for getting to see their families while I stay home “for the good of all.” Well, if I’m really doing something for the greater good, that envy or whatever other emotion subsides quickly; does not stick around. If it sticks around, that’s a sign I need to look into myself and correct something.

• Similarly with “self-sacrifice for the good of the environment.” If it’s really for the greater good, then I can just feel positive about my choices and not need to be judgmental of others. My job, if I truly believe the choices I’m making are best for the greater good, is to make it easier and more attractive for other people to make similar choices.

• Sometimes the “person living in a different world” is right there in my own head. An opposing faction of my own self, who rebels against my higher judgment. For example, she wants takeout food even though she knows the server will be putting on a fresh pair of plastic gloves just to prepare her order, and will then throw those plastic gloves away. (Ugh. I’d be happier to take my chances with someone’s bare hands than generate that awful single-use plastic.) Or she wants chocolate even though she just read that children are kidnapped to work on cacao plantations.

• To a vegan who grows all their own food and never orders takeout and doesn’t have a sweet tooth, I am one of those “people living in a different world.”

• “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Words of enduring greatness. The Lord’s Prayer is my favorite readymade prayer and I say it pretty often.

• At Thanksgiving, I was worried my friends would get mad at me and never speak to me again, when I said I wanted to visit but outdoors at a distance and bring my own food. They understood; they celebrated in their way; I got to spend time with them later in the way I felt was safe; and we are all still speaking to each other.

• Many of us at one time or another have done things that were bad from a public-health standpoint. When I was young I’d go to work sick, and not even think about other people! When I went to live in Japan in 1990 and saw people on the trains wearing masks, I thought it was because they were germophobes. I found out that, in fact, the mask-wearers had headcolds and were trying to protect other people from their germs. That mind-set was a major revelation for me. I’m not one of those people who were born naturally thinking of others before themselves, and I’m still not naturally that way, but with a little voluntary evolution I have become a bit more that way at least sometimes.

• When I first got seriously into environmental activism (in the mid-1990s, when I moved back to the USA from Japan), I’d get filled with anxiety about the state of things and wonder how the human race was going to survive, given how some people were living. At that time, I was also getting into long-distance road-cycling (both doing it for recreation, and watching professional races on TV). I learned about a kind of time trial called a “team time trial,” where no individual can win. There’s no prize for an individual who shoots way ahead and gets the best time of anyone. The way that a team gets the best time is by everyone working together — drafting off each other, etc. Seeing this, I realized that human life on this planet is one big team time trial. Except instead of competing against other teams, we’re all in it together.

Further Reading:

“Why Travel During Pandemic?” (Opinion piece by Robert Pawlicki in Daytona Beach News-Journal 12/30/2020.) “… the person who has chosen to travel has a belief — typically a very strong belief — that their physical and safety needs are being managed and therefore their need for family deserves attention. … During this period when we are so divided, we may not condone or agree with each other’s thinking. It may be useful to at least understand the rationale of others.” Interesting piece; goes into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.