Faith Gong: The greater good

"THE SIGHT OF all four of my daughters holding hands and running across our back lawn, or pulling out board games on weekend mornings, because they know they have to be each other’s best friends now." Photo by Faith Gong

In order for me to have time and quiet in which to write this column, my husband took all five of our children to ride bikes around their grandparents’ neighborhood. 

Once upon a time, this would have been a normal occurrence on a Sunday afternoon, but not today. 

This is the first time I have been alone — really and completely alone, without a single member of my family in the house — in over a month. 

This is the first time my children have been in a vehicle, the first time they have pulled out of our driveway onto the main road, in over a month.

“I forget what it’s like to ride in a car!” exclaimed my eldest daughter as they prepared to leave. “How do we do it?” 

Our family has been confined to our house for the past month due to the COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping the globe. In this, we are no different from our neighbors in Vermont and most of our friends and family elsewhere. Gov. Phil Scott’s stay-at-home order for Vermonters remains in place until May 15, but as the rate of new COVID-19 cases has appeared to slow over the past week, the governor has announced plans for a “phased restart” of the state’s economy. 

This news should feel like the first crocuses of spring: A sign of hope that better days are ahead. And while I am anxious for us all to emerge from the fear and stress of quarantine, while I rejoice that businesses that have suffered from closures might begin rebuilding, and while I am hopeful that healthcare advances will gradually bring this virus under control, I must admit that I greeted the news that life may soon return to “normal” with some ambivalence.

This housebound month has been difficult, but there have been moments of beauty that I might not have glimpsed otherwise:

Our daily morning walks up and down the driveway before we start school, my daughters shouting at full voice as they race on legs or bicycles — stopping, if it’s rained, to rescue worms from off of the driveway.

The leisure to snuggle up and read another chapter in our family read-aloud book when my daughters urge, “keep going,” because we don’t have a schedule to keep.

The pounding of feet overhead from the dance party that my eldest daughter is hosting for her siblings.

Our weekly afternoon “tea parties” around the table, upon which my daughters have laid a tablecloth and real china cups.

The sight of all four of my daughters holding hands and running across our back lawn, or pulling out board games on weekend mornings, because they know they have to be each other’s best friends now.

Our baby boy, who brings peace to tense moments with his smiles, gurgles, and coos, because he has no idea that anything out of the ordinary is happening. 

My husband, using his work-from-home time to teach our daughters how to play poker, surrounded by all his card-clutching girls in their best “gambling hats” and poker faces. 

The beautiful evening, following several days of rain, when the setting sun burst golden through the clouds, and we went outside for a walk, even though it was bedtime and the kids were all in pajamas, to bask in the beauty of the world and the song of the spring peepers. 

And the acts of beauty that we’ve experienced from others during this time: the notes and gifts and food that we’ve received from loved ones “checking in,” the friend who has hand-sewn 216 face masks (including our own) as of this writing, the family that snuck over on Easter morning and hung felt eggs on our trees, the complete Easter meal my parents prepared for us and dropped off. 

Next to this, the thought of rounding up my posse of kids into the minivan so that we can rush around to activities and appointments and playdates and errands seems…exhausting. Once upon a time this was “normal;” now I’m not so sure that it’s the kind of normal I want. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. 

I am not insensitive to the fact that, while I’ve enjoyed some lovely homebound moments, out in the wider world people are sick and dying, struggling with depression and losing jobs. Loved ones have been separated, celebrations have been cancelled or delayed, and longed-for opportunities have been lost. In fact, it’s precisely because this time has come at such a cost that I hope with all my heart that when we talk about getting back to “normal,” we don’t mean restarting pre-COVID-19 life as though the virus never happened. 

My hope is that, as restrictions are lifted gradually, we will think deeply about what we have learned from this experience. That as we add things back into our lives, we will evaluate carefully what deserves a spot on our calendars and what can be left out. That as businesses open, we will be intentional about supporting those that need it most. That as we are grateful for coming through a pandemic with life and health intact, we will consider how to ensure better life and health for all. That we will remember who, in these shut-down days, provided “essential services.” That as we see members of our broader community in person again, we’ll value them more in light of how much we missed them. 

And I hope that we as humans might have a deeper, more thoughtful understanding of what constitutes the “greater good.”

During our family’s quarantine, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series — all seven juvenile fiction books by J.K. Rowling about a boy wizard’s dawning self-awareness and fight against evil. I began re-reading these books, which I first read before having children, because my own children are suddenly obsessed with them and I wanted to be able to discourse intelligently about the world of Harry Potter. They have proven to be the perfect books for a pandemic, as they are, at root, all about death and our relationship to it. 

In Harry Potter, the idea of the “greater good” is a running subtheme, and Rowling does a masterful job of demonstrating how subjective the concept can be. The greater good, after all, very much depends on where you are standing. Harry Potter refers to the “greater good” as his motivation for sacrificing himself so that others may live in peace, but the evil forces against which he fights also espouse the idea of the greater good as they plot for pureblood wizards to have total control; the slogan “For the Greater Good” is even emblazoned over the entrance of a prison built by a dark wizard to house his opponents. 

In real life, making choices for the greater good is more complicated than in a world of good vs. dark wizards. It may look like a choice of whether to get vaccinated, weighing the risk of complications against protecting at-risk populations. Or whether to let our freedom-loving cat outside when we know he’s going to wreak havoc on the wildlife. And whether to sacrifice our social and economic comfort so that fewer people will sicken and die. 

These are not light choices; they all involve risk and sacrifice, and it’s not always clear which good is greater. Thus far in the COVID-19 pandemic, inasmuch as we have chosen to limit ourselves so that others might live, I think we’ve chosen rightly. As we move forward, may we never take this choice lightly.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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