Sunset in the Ozark National Forest. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

It is 7:30 a.m. I got up early to walk my three miles. The dogs went with me, as always. Black and white constants in a world that feels gray. But it’s not so gray today. The colors of fall are everywhere. So vibrant and beautiful though they are fleeting. Reds, yellows and oranges have already begun to give way to rust and brown.

Out in the country you can almost pretend it’s a normal day. But it’s not normal, because COVID-19 is still with us, though thousands of our loved ones are not. Today, in many places, the pandemic news is not good. There are new surges. I got my booster this week. I’m writing this before checking in with students over a myriad of digital platforms — whatever they can access — and then I’ll put on my big girl mask and head to campus. Stone is about to don a mask and go to his classroom; Grace and Harper will be wearing theirs in universities north and south of here. My ninth grader and fourth grader will too, in Ozark Public Schools. Thankfully, now, they are both vaccinated like the rest of us. Yesterday we did church in a weird way that has become standard, all plopped around the living room watching our pastor friend in West Virginia on a screen. It was both lonely and kind of cozy.

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I love being with my kids and Stone. We are homebodies. And my brother and sister-in-law and their kids are next door. My parents are next door on the other side, and since they are vaccinated and boosted, we can be with them now. For months we didn’t go into their house or even touch them. The closest we got was across the porch or several feet apart in the yard. We had Christmas last year outside in the freezing cold. I know we were lucky to live close enough to have that, but I missed eating together and hugging and running in and out. Thank God we’ll be inside this year. My kids missed playing Doogies and Rook with Granny and PaPa, and spending the night at their house. It’s been ingrained in them that love looks like togetherness. But in the past two years they’ve learned it can also mean staying apart. Not because it’s what we liked or wanted or enjoyed for ourselves, but because it protected Granny and PaPa from getting sick.

This is a theme that keeps growing in my mind. Like those bulbs I’ll soon bury in the dark, it sprouted in the spring. I’d been watching people hoard, criticize, ignore, demand, and blame leaders, especially politicians. Fear and anxiety spread across the globe at least as fast as the virus. I struggled daily trying to figure out my role, to come up with a spiritual vaccine I might offer. What could protect us from losing our better selves in the face of this crisis?

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What finally cracked open the bulb was a message from my friend Melanie on Facebook. My daughter Zayna is missing. She went outside and we thought she was just going on a walk but she didn’t come back and now it’s been hours. We can’t find her. Please pray. 

Oh God, I thought. How would I feel, what would I do if this was my child? As my mind branched out toward all of the worst possible conclusions, I felt a gentle prodding. “That’s what you do now.”

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While the rest of us prayed, the men of the Triple F deployed to Melanie’s house, armed with boots and flashlights, ready to search all night if they had to. What they found when they arrived was that hundreds of other people had the same idea. Community leaders, teachers and co-workers of Melanie, church family, and others who don’t even know Melanie showed up to search and rescue her little girl. Because in this crisis we remembered a simple truth that can inoculate us against a sick world: there is no such thing as other people’s children. In that moment the little girl wasn’t just Melanie’s daughter. She was all of ours — our Zayna. And we couldn’t rest until she was safe at home. (Which happened right at dark, thanks be to God.)

What I took from this experience, other than that the people of my hometown are awesome as usual, is the same kind of lesson I’ve tried to teach my children. Love means you look out for others. It seems the human impulse is the opposite — look out for ourselves. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s smart. It’s being cautious. It’s following the rules. But I think the vaccine that will keep us from losing more than we already have to this virus is to shift our thinking from just protecting ourselves and toward protecting others. Love always protects. 

It’s a counter-culture response, and it’s our choice to make. We can’t choose for COVID-19 not to exist. But we can choose how we respond to it. We can choose to be strong together. What does protecting other people look like other than searching for a lost child? Wearing a mask? Withholding that sarcastic meme we’re tempted to post on Facebook? How might we implement this spiritual vaccine on a local and national level? From the supply chain to our most vulnerable population to all of our children, it takes creativity and some sacrifice. But if there’s anything a crisis is good for, it reminds us of the truth our better selves have always known. There is no them. There is only us.

Gwen Faulkenberry lives, parents, writes and teaches in rural Arkansas. You can read more more of her work here

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