I don’t usually reference biblical anecdotes, but this seems too fitting.
In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites are freed from bondage and flee across the Red Sea, all they want is protection from the pursuing Egyptians. They don’t want to die. When the sea collapses on their enemy, they rejoice and thank the Lord who saved them.
But soon they start complaining. And after wandering a mere seven weeks, they grow impatient when Moses ascends a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, something the Lord promises will protect them forever. When Moses doesn’t return exactly on time, the people revolt, they build a golden calf as something new to believe in, and — well, you know how that works out.
I bring this up because here we are, in 2020, pursued by a plague that has us terrified. A shutdown is in place, because nearly all science and medical experts suggest it is the best way to stop the threat. And at the start, we were grateful for the protection. We saw the slow but positive results.
But after less than seven weeks, our patience, in pockets, seems to be running out, and some of us are throwing angry protests and demanding freedom from this “protection,” and looking for a new golden calf to believe in, one rooted in anger, politics and an emotional knee-jerk leader, who says he’s leaving things to the states, then tweets out “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”
Which explains why I got so many questions last week from friends around the country, who saw a protest in Lansing that featured a logjam of cars, people screaming “Lock Her Up!” and a phalanx of gun-toting men in close proximity on the Capitol steps.
And they asked me, “What’s going on in your state?”
Here is my response.
The Michigan I know …
That’s not my state. That’s not my Michigan. A few thousand folks in a state of 10 million is not representative of anything besides a pocket of citizens who want to express their frustration. Quite frankly, if it involves guns, you could whip up a thousand people here by whistling out your window.
But the Michigan I know, while entitled to practice its First Amendment rights, doesn’t defy common sense by clustering together during a virus pandemic that can spread itself through someone’s breathing.
The Michigan I know understands that if you catch this disease, no matter how young or old, there’s a chance, as front-line nurses and doctors keep saying, that you’ll walk into an emergency room on your own, and be in intensive care an hour later. And no gun will save you.
The Michigan I know can endure more than a month of inconvenience. We are tougher than that. Sure, we may not like that our golf courses are closed, we can’t put a motorboat in the water, we can’t shop for paint or seeds, and our lawn maintenance companies aren’t supposed to work — all things you could argue we can safely pursue, and you might be right — but we’re also smart enough to see that such things are not the fires of a revolution.
The Michigan I know can read the news. It can see that, despite a president incessantly bragging about how many tests we’ve conducted, we’ve barely tested 1% of the American population. In Michigan, we don’t have anything close to widespread testing. And without widespread testing, you don’t really know what you’re fighting. Or where.
The Michigan I know understands that. It understands if the state were to reopen too soon, we could reignite this virus to the point we just left: people dying in hallways, hospitals overwhelmed, bodies stacked in spare rooms, front-line medical and police forces decimated by infections, and a death rate that grows more horrible by the day.
For heaven’s sake, that was just, what, a week ago? Are our memories that short? Is our insistence on a new golden calf that strong?
Not in the Michigan I know.
Sucks it up …
The Michigan I know digs in and helps out. It starts independent mask-making ventures with home sewing machines. It organizes community food deliveries from local markets and restaurants. It opens new quarantine shelters for the homeless, so that people with nothing aren’t the first to die. It creates inventive ways to educate kids who are at home.
It gives to charities when it doesn’t have money to spare. It braves work in grocery stores and gas stations. It keeps jumping into the fray at hospitals, because people here believe in helping other people, even at risk to themselves.
Yes, the Michigan I know is taking a beating when it comes to businesses — small and large. And jobs. And incomes. It is understandably worried about its financial future, and losing homes and stores we’ve worked lifetimes to attain.
But we also know you can’t rebuild if you’re dead. And those of us healthy enough to survive COVID-19 could still spread it to someone who is not, without knowing it. We are all potential victims. We are all potential killers. That’s how insidious this disease is.
The Michigan I know gets this. It sucks it up. As awful as the medicine is to swallow, if we say, “The hell with these rules,” it’s likely a new hell will be upon us. So we apply for federal loans, we apply for unemployment, we cobble together what we can from savings and borrowing, and we remember previous hard times and how we survived those. And we see if we can make it another few weeks.
Because Michigan is smart. It knows that just because we’ve had it with this virus, this virus hasn’t had it with us. It will be no less contagious when we all come outside. And, at the moment, no less curable by vaccine or medicine.
Can see things clearly …
The Michigan I know, as angry as it might get, can see all this clearly. It understands that without a firm statewide policy, the temptation to gather (and thereby spread the virus) is too great. Like it or not, people need guidelines. Or everyone will consider their case “an exception.”
We know this. We also know the wheat from the chaff. We know when politics are disguised as principle. We know a protest organized by a political group is a political protest, and a tweet from a Republican president against a Democratic governor is a political tweet, just as smug Democratic self-righteousness against Republicans is political smack talk and election posturing.
The Michigan I know sees through that smoke.
And in the end, we know the smoke will clear. Maybe not as fast as we want. But it’s coming, if we hold the line. Right now, our state lockdown is no longer than the federal guidelines (end of the month) yet somehow there’s a perceived war between the two.
There should be no war. We are a nation of states, and each state is different, and when it comes to this virus sometimes really different. As our Constitution declares, the states will control their fates in this crisis, not the man in the White House, no matter how many times he insists he “calls the shots.”
Enough shots have been fired. The only shot we truly need is the vaccine that prevents this terror. Until that comes, every state will set its path and determine its legacy.
Who is Michigan going to be? How will we tell our story when this is over?
In the biblical tale I cited, the Israelites began their golden calf worship one day before Moses came down from the mountain. A single day! And for that act of unfaithful impatience, they suffered 40 years in the wilderness.
We don’t know what wilderness would await our impatience. But we’re not going to risk it over lawn cutting, party politics, or defiantly breathing on each other while toting our guns.
The Michigan I know is smarter — and stronger — than that.
Mitch Albom is offering a new work of fiction “Human Touch” for free on the internet to help first responders fighting COVID-19. You can read a new chapter each week or listen to the audio version at humantouchstory.com. Albom is encouraging donations from those who can to the “Detroit Beats Covid 19!” project at saydetroit.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.