Facebook Post by Rabbi Perlin in the Time of Coronavirus (5/14/2020)

Thursday Post 5.14.20:  I Will. I Won’t. I Can’t.

by Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D.D.

For years, as people came into my office for counseling, we often focused on how language represented their state of mind and their feelings.  Using the phrases “I will” or “I won’t” are conscious decisions that come from a perceived choice of action.  You feel empowered to make a binary choice between two alternatives.

We entered a different discussion when a congregant said, “Rabbi, I can’t.”  “I can’t” entails a different set of emotions and reasoning.  When we say, “I can’t,” we are either describing a physical or emotional impossibility, or we are choosing to opt-out completely.  “I can’t eat corn,” for me, is not a choice.  I am literally incapable of digesting corn and the pain that results if I try is truly unbearable.  When an asthmatic says that she can’t breathe, that is a true statement with dire consequences.  In the case of phobias or some emotional or psychological issues, the phrase, “I can’t,” describes a complete inability to engage, cope, or undertake an action or an idea.  I have seen how this can be paralyzing, heartbreaking, and at times, life threatening.

As some of the world begins to open up, we will all be faced with many choices.  As our governments fail us in leadership and guidance, either by abrogating their responsibility, or assuming that someone else will take responsibility, or worse – by relying on the public’s good judgment, we will confront a multitude of daily life decisions that will impact how we go on with our lives during a pandemic that has no hope of mitigating any time soon. In each case, we may respond with one of the choices above.  Some will. Some won’t. But, what about those who can’t?  They will have fewer choices and a much more restricted existence, especially those who are more vulnerable to the virus that will live among us and infect more of us, as we leave self-isolation.

Will you wear a mask?  In Virginia, mask wearing is still optional in Phase 1, which I think is unacceptable. I was thrilled to see that the mayor of Los Angeles has taken this choice away from the public by mandating that everyone who leaves the house will wear a mask.  Emerging science of droplets and the contagion from speech, singing, and those exercising (especially runners) is more compelling than any excuses anyone could provide to the contrary.

Will you travel on public transportation?  Go on an airplane?

Will you go to a restaurant? Will you socialize with people who go to restaurants?

Will you go to a beach where people ignore social distancing?

Will you shop in stores as you once did?

Will you go to a house of worship, even if social distancing is enforced in the sanctuary?

Will you use a public rest room?

Will you feel safe going to a doctor’s office? The emergency room?  A hospital?  A nursing home?

Will you judge others who make choices that endanger the public?  Your family?  Will you speak out to their faces?  Will you fear those who are openly breaking the law, or the public trust, on matters of public health?

What will you do? What won’t you do? What can’t you do?  These are the questions greeting me when I read the newspaper each morning and haunting me in my dreams each night.  And I do understand that for economic reasons, there are many who can’t not go forward with what they must do to survive, or to help others survive.  And my heart breaks for those who have no choices at all.

I pray that I will get through this, and that you will, as well.  I won’t be going back to life as normal for the rest of 2020, and probably for longer than that.  I won’t be getting on an airplane, or going to a restaurant, or a house of worship any time in the foreseeable future.  And I probably won’t be socializing with anyone who does.  For now, I want to make rational, reasonable choices of what I will or won’t do, even if that limits certain relationships and certain activities.  For now, in isolation, I can think about what I will and won’t do as the world opens back up.  Getting me out the door will be a story for another day.