My grandmother did some things I could never understand, or at least so I thought.
When we would ask for more food, and had even a little bit on our plates, she would say, “First finish what is on your plate.” If we took a lot to begin with, she would chastise us for taking that much.
Oh, and her mother, my great-grandmother? She would go over to strangers — in the fanciest of weddings and social events while they were piling on food at the buffet — reprimanding them for taking amounts of food they would never be able to finish. So embarrassing.
Yet with the coronavirus pandemic, suddenly, I understand so much more about our grandparents.
My grandmother lived through World War II. She spent the war in Shanghai Ghetto, also known as the “restricted sector for stateless refugees,” the Japanese Imperial Army-occupied section. While those who lived there were far more fortunate than their Jewish brethren who lived the horrors of the Holocaust back in Europe, their lives were plagued with starvation, disease and constant fear.
Food was scarce, they were at the mercy of Japanese soldiers, and movement was strictly forbidden. Anyone whose life has been affected by World War II has seen a world they would never want to see again.
This glorious generation did everything in its power to create a better world for their children. They stormed the world of medicine, diplomacy, public health, politics, manufacturing and finance, with one — and only one — goal on their horizon: To create a better world for their children. The next generation, they vowed, would not experience the living hell they had been through.
Did they succeed?
They succeeded beyond any imaginable measure. They created the most equitable, stable, educated and peaceful society the world had seen. No generation before them had succeeded like they had in creating a better future for their children. Their children’s biggest mistake? They thought that was the way the world had always been. They thought the equitable, peaceful, healthy world they had lived in was just the way things were supposed to be.
Conceptually, they were right. Factually and historically, they were very wrong. Sure, ideally, this was the way the world should be. Has it ever been like this before? No.
And then we came along — the grandchildren.
We were raised with the utopian belief that if you just do right to the universe, it would do right to you. There is no reason or place for failings, shortages, or human suffering. Just believe the right things, go to the right colleges, and life will shine its abundance on you.
We could never understand those strange grandparents. The ones who told us to take nothing for granted. The ones who told us to appreciate compromise and avoid conflict. Those who told us not to rush into fights about our convictions as much as we should learn to live with those who disagree with us.
Those grandparents who knew to appreciate the plenty, while remembering to rejoice with a little piece of food. It was those grandparents who spoke of scientists with the (almost) same reverence we had for shallow Hollywood actors. It was those grandparents who had their dreams reach a peak when their child became a doctor, rather than an investment banker.
How naive they were. We could never do more than just not be respectful to their capricious tendencies. Oh, how much smarter we were. We knew a world of justice, fairness and plenty.
And then came the coronavirus of 2020.
It did not take its time as World War II had. It moved so much faster. As we started stockpiling our New York apartment with food, I realized I should probably take smaller portions on my plate. Suddenly, my heart cringed at every piece of food that was being thrown out. Suddenly, we all realized the vanity of celebrity worship, dreams of making it big in finance, and how shallow our aspirations were.
Suddenly, we understand that the world cannot be taken for granted, and that if we don’t fight for the most basic of human needs — life — we will lose that, too.
We suddenly recognized that a nurse isn’t just someone who works for a doctor in the hospital. A nurse is the difference between life and death for so many. In less than a month, we realized that the lives of billions of people are in the hands of doctors and scientists. We realized that the fate of a generation of children who cannot name a single scientist living today lays in the hands of those very scientists.
With a moment’s notice, we realized that a “professional politician” is not a dirty phrase. It is a term for a person who can bring opposing factions together in times of crisis. We realized that compromising in public policy with those who disagree with us is a huge win, meeting halfway with our ideological opponents is a matter of life and death.
Compromise is a virtue, not a vice. It is only now that I can turn to my grandmother and say, “Forgive me, grandma, for I have sinned. We have all sinned. We failed to carry the lessons you knew better than anyone. We failed to recognize that if we don’t fight for the upkeep of a beautiful world, that world will descend into a dystopian nightmare we knew only from watching Netflix.”
As we move forward in the battle against the coronavirus, we all know the world will never be the same. The battle has just begun, and is likely to last — one way or another — several years. Short of an outright immediate miracle, it is likely to consume the lives of millions, ravage economies, wreck careers, and decimate communities.
We will win. We will overcome. And there will be only one thing we owe our grandparents. Not an apology, but a promise. We promise not to take life, or this world, for granted. To appreciate it. Most importantly, to fight hard in times of peace or turmoil, for a better and safer world.
May God bless us all.
The author is a rabbi, teacher and bipartisanship activist.