In this coronavirus era, bumping’s a way of life.
Recently I saw a doctor. I’d never met him before. As I sat waiting in the examining room he came in and greeted me by name. He was outfitted like people I’ve seen working in nuclear plants, covered head to foot in some kind of coverall. He looked, at first glance, as if he were in a diving suit. The doctor wore a mask over his mouth and a clear plastic face protector which reminded me of the facial guards we see on welders. As formidable as his presence appeared –– extra-terrestrial, I thought –– I instinctively put out my hand to shake his, while he extended his to shake mine.
We barely touched before each of us suddenly withdrew our hands. It was as if we had just touched a hot stove or felt an electrical charge. For a second or two, we both stood there awkwardly. Then the doctor raised his elbow, signaling he was about make the proper elbow bump greeting. We bumped amicably.
It was a curious meeting. I described my complaint. I told him how my aging infrastructure was malfunctioning and giving me a fit. He listened very intently and patiently as I described my symptoms. With all of his paraphernalia on I could see little of his face. Facial expressions are one of the signature gestures we make in communicating our feelings or intentions to others. I could only see his eyes, but without seeing them in the context of an entire face, I could see no expressions. I felt treated well throughout the interview and thought that he was competent to address my complaint. Something about the consultation had still left me feeling tentative; I think it was because I never saw his face or shook his hand. He may just as well have been a robot, albeit a kindly and helpful one.
He reminded me of clips I’d seen of first responders in action.
I remember watching scenes from New York City when, at an assigned time of day, people lowered their windows in high rise buildings, leaned out to clap and cheer for first responders and those who were a part of the medical teams. Even the least acknowledged persons in the work chain, the janitors who cleaned the hospital room floors, because of the risks they we’re taking for us, we recognized as heroes along with doctors and nurses. In my lifetime, to see this kind of grateful recognition for public service is unusual, except perhaps for the military. The recognition of support personnel brought to mind the biblical phrase where God, who loves the poor and disenfranchised, is said to lift up the lives of the humble: “and the lowly shall be exalted.” When it’s all in, everyone counts.
I have thought how PPE (personal protective equipment) that medical personnel must wear to avoid infection has, in a metaphorical way, reflected the prevailing social climate of mutual distrust that’s been plaguing us for some time. It’s as if we are not neighbors anymore –– not fellow Americans –– but have become potential threats to each other from which we must protect ourselves. The recent political leadership actively provoked this distrust of others at a time when, more than ever, we needed to lean on each other. This pitting Americans against one another, the physical threat the pandemic poses, and the protections it has required, have combined to foster our present atmosphere of fear and distrust.
Recently, Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris won the election. It did little to mitigate the virulence of the coronavirus or the country’s troubled psyche. However, I did see encouraging aspects of their election.
President elect Biden is by reputation a team player. He does not appear defensive in acknowledging what he doesn’t know. I believe he is as much of a truth teller as is possible for anybody in that office where every word and syllable uttered undergoes public scrutiny and gets obsessively parsed on cable channels. He doesn’t exhibit compulsive ego needs. As such, he is psychologically free to surround himself with the best expertise to help him guide and direct national policies. My sense is that Biden enjoys working collegially, and actually likes people. I’m sure he enjoys the power and control the office of the presidency confers –– he has been a professional politician his whole life, after all –– but I believe he is less driven by the darker sides of power needs than we’ve seen in the last administration.
I see another hopeful sign, at least for now. Apparently, it was important for many Republicans to make a statement by joining the president in not conceding the election, insisting that “every ballot” be counted, even crying ‘foul.’ Having made the statement, some of them have begun to say they are satisfied to get on with it and start the next chapter of American life. I felt a sense of relief.
But about my visit to the doctor? He told me that I must take better care of my body. My toxic habits have done damage over the years. In a similar way, the recent election revealed to all who would listen that our nation’s health had been seriously jeopardized. The body politic has been abused. Still, as bad as they are, old habits die hard.
The doctor recommended that I change some of my old habits, with particular regard to exercise and diet. The thought of surrendering my old habits –– some I’m really invested in like food and remaining inert –– was painful. After the doctor made his recommendations, I winced discreetly. He told me to come back in December for a follow up. As I left, we bumped elbows, amicably.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.