FEATURE — The before times. That’s what my boys call them. Back when they didn’t have masks shoved in every pocket. Back when Zoom was only a thing for the “circle back” work crowd. Back when you didn’t have to wait in a line of seventy-three cars to get a nasal swab before you were allowed back at school.
Back when a cold was just a cold. They desperately long for the after times. After this is all done. After life gets back to the normal they remember. I do too.
But these aren’t the first before times most of us have had. And they won’t be the last.
For my generation, the before times were September 10th. Before the World Trade Center Towers. Before the Pentagon. Before Shanksville, Pennsylvania and Flight 93. Before Al-Qaeda and TSA.
My parents had before times before that. Before Vietnam. Before the assassinations of John. F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. Before the Manson Family and the Zodiac Killer. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And my grandparents had before times before them. Before the Dust Bowl. Before the Great Depression. Before the Cold War. Before black out drills and World War II. Before – and after – Hiroshima.
At any of those periods of time, it may have seemed to the people living in them like the world was falling apart. Or changing in ways they didn’t understand.
I know I feel a bit of both right now.
In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Steve Hagen explains it like this, “The situation we always live in is like that of the wise Chinese farmer whose horse ran off.”
The story goes like this:
When the farmer’s neighbor comes to console him about the horse, the farmer says, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
The farmer’s horse returns a short time later. Only she is not alone. She has brought back with her a herd of wild horses. The neighbor comes to congratulate the farmer on his new, good fortune. “Who knows what’s good or bad,” replies the farmer.
Shortly after, the farmer’s son tries to ride one of the wild horses and breaks his leg. The neighbor rushes back to console the farmer again. “Who knows what’s good or bad,” replies the farmer.
Days go by and the army comes through the countryside conscripting men for war. They pass over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. The neighbor comes to congratulate the farmer that his son has been spared from war, and again the farmer replies, “who knows what’s good or bad?”
Of the parable, Hagen asks, “When do we expect the story to end?”
Earlier this week, a friend posted an SOS on Facebook about her French bulldog, Potato. Potato, whose antics are regularly featured on her account under the hashtag dailypotato, had suddenly lost control of his hind legs and was in terrible pain. Within the day, he was diagnosed with a degenerative disk problem that would require surgery. Expensive surgery, without which he would die.
My friend and her husband were reeling. They couldn’t really afford the surgery, but they also weren’t in the position to let Potato go. You see, more than adding levity to her Facebook feed, Potato provides my friend’s husband, who is a U.S. combat vet, with emotional support for his PTSD and anxiety.
But nobody knew that at the time. People simply responded to my friend’s call for help. Within twenty-four hours, friends, acquaintances, and strangers donated more than fifteen hundred dollars towards Potato’s surgery. My friend and her husband were overwhelmed with joy and gratitude.
All had been dark. Now, there was light.
Hagen would probably ask again, “when do we expect the story to end?”
The answer to the Potato question is that he had surgery and is expected to recover 90% of his mobility – and live another several years. Hooray!
The answer to the bigger question – where do we expect the story to end? – maybe matters less than we think.
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