I have a job in China and left just before the coronavirus outbreak to visit my parents in the US. My wife, a Chinese citizen, wants me to return to meet her at our apartment in a major Chinese city not far from the first afflicted province of Hubei, so that we can weather the crisis together. She believes that our life shouldn’t be put on hold for weeks or months, and that our different experiences of the outbreak might be pushing us apart. I’m eager to get back to her as soon as possible but worried that my travelling will endanger us both, not to mention cause anxiety to my dad who is already struggling with serious health issues. On top of this, my government has advised strongly against travel to China and my boss has offered me a way to do my work online. How can I find a path towards making the right decision for myself, my wife and our marriage?
Did you see those huge lines at airports this week, hundreds of passengers crammed shoulder to shoulder so that customs halls around the world looked like livestock pens? Like you, I’d thought about being in those lines. I had thought that I needed to fly home to my parents and my grandparents while I still could, and that if anything happened to them while I was away I could never live with myself. Then I remembered that to pass through an airport right now is to endanger someone else’s loved one. This thing moves so fast, and tests have been so slow, that we simply do not know what each of us is carrying. Patient 31 in South Korea went to church twice and infected 1,000 people.
Once you grasp that moving around right now imposes risk on others, there’s no question left about whether it’s fair to do it, even so we can get back to our people. It’s not. Don’t travel unless you absolutely have to.
I know I’m asking a lot of you here. You asked how to make the best decision for yourself, your wife and your marriage, and instead I’m asking you to make this decision for people you’ve never met.
Your wife might be angry if you tell her you’re putting strangers over what she wants, and normally I’d think she was right. But we have to start caring about strangers, richly caring – caring in the way that makes us prepared to put their wellbeing before our own. What will unite us right now, and God knows we could use it, is finally seeing each other as worth making sacrifices for.
I am confident that patient 31 felt just like you and me: scared, lonely and wanting the joy and reassurance of a familiar group of people. Now thousands more are in danger who didn’t need to be.
It’s hard to realise while we’re in their grip but thoughts like “this will be really hard” and “I want to be around my people” don’t make us special exemptions from the collective, they throw us right in the thick of it.
There’s something galvanising about that; we can keep each other mentally in our pockets as we do the hard, boring, lonely things we will have to in the coming months. Somewhere I’ll wash my hands for you, while you stay home for me. I’ll think of your grandmother while I’m freezing a batch of soup and you think of mine while you bounce a tennis ball off the wall.
It’s a dusty adage (the best ones often are) that we reveal ourselves when we’re tested. Let the part of you that this crisis illuminates be a part that you’re proud of – one that takes other people as seriously as you hope to be taken.
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