What are you doing for Christmas? Hannukah? Chinese New Year’s? (Or for my lucky grandkids, all of the above!)
In the second holiday season of our pandemic, everyone is improvising what festivities they feel are safe for them. As we slouch into our third year of global death, everyone faces choices for how best to safeguard themselves, their families, and their communities.
I, for one, am reminded of Helen of Troy in Homer’s Iliad.
Yes, that Helen of Troy. The most beautiful woman in the world, the cause of the Trojan War!
Here’s the quick run-down.
Helen is the queen of Sparta in Greece. While visiting Sparta, Paris convinces Helen to run off with him to Troy, where he is a prince. Her jilted husband raises an army and sails to Troy to get her back.
They fight for ten years. At the end, (Spoiler Alert!) the Trojans and their city are destroyed.
I know I’m being flip. After all, The Iliad – and its travel-yarn companion, The Odyssey – are the bedrock of all of Western literature. From the Greek tragedians to Shakespeare to Brad Pitt – everybody refers back to these themes, situations and characters.
We still know the names: Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax for the Greeks; Hector, Paris, and Priam on the Trojan side. And the gods — Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares. And of course, Helen.
But to me, the central question remains: Why risk so much – an entire civilization – so that Paris and Helen can remain an item? Why didn’t they just send Helen back?
The central question for this country is: Why won’t so many Americans guard themselves against Covid? Why risk death, chronic symptoms, further viral mutations, infecting family and strangers, continued economic dislocation and social isolation – our entire way of life – just to keep from wearing a mask and getting a couple of shots?
To me, the trade-offs for 21st-century Americans are just as lop-sided as for the Bronze Age Trojans.
Why not send Helen back? Is it just to keep the plot going? The way kids split up in a horror movie so they can get picked off one by one? The way fugitives leave their safe hidey hole to run out in the open? Not in this case. I have an answer.
Here’s a look at what the Trojans lost. The Greeks killed the Trojan king Priam and his wife. All fifty of Priam’s sons, including his heir, Hector, were killed in the war. Hector had a loving wife and an infant son. The wife was dragged away to slavery. The boy was thrown from the city’s ramparts. And Troy was razed.
Here in the United States, we have suffered over three-quarters-of-a-million deaths – 770,000 as of November 20, 2021. Several million survivors still have symptoms.
And in every family, there is distrust and tension. How many times have I heard, “I didn’t even know they weren’t vaccinated!” We all have family and friends – people with whom we share meals and interests – who have resumed pre-Covid routines. They don’t understand why we won’t, even though the epidemic is far from over. More people died in 2021 than in 2020 despite the availability of vaccines.
And the logistics of gathering. Testing at the door, masks, outdoors? How many people is too many? How do you disinvite a sib or an adult child? How will the calculus change with omicron?
Hector fought for Honor. He was ashamed NOT to. He didn’t care about Helen, or even about his brother Paris. “If only I could see him gone down to the house of the death god,” Hector fumed.
The anti-Vaxxers refuse a life-saving shot because of Freedom, as elusive a concept as Hector’s Honor. Who is our Paris? Trump, of course. Dr. Deborah Birx, a sometime Trump enabler, told Congress that Trump was more focused on his own re-election than on stopping the virus. The Washington Post summarized her conclusion: “130,000 deaths … could have been saved with swifter action and better coordinated public health messages after the virus’s first wave.”
Priam is one of the most sympathetically portrayed people in the whole Iliad. He is even kind to Helen. And at the very end, in a most moving scene, especially as played by Peter O’Toole in the 2004 film Troy, Priam kisses Achilles’s (Brad Pitt) hand, asking for the return of Hector’s body.
Yet, I blame this lovely, loving man. He could – should – have been the adult in all this. He needed only to send Helen back. He needed to stand up to Paris. His indulgence of his spoiled brat of a son led to the destruction of his country.
On the Greek side, there is Thetis, Achilles’s goddess mother. In a snit over a girl, Achilles asks Mom to supplicate Zeus to let the Greeks temporarily lose. All to prove to his fellow Greeks how important Achilles is. Thetis does just this. As does Zeus. Sheesh.
Who should be the adults in the twenty-first century? Mitch McConnell and many other Republicans in Congress. Between them, McConnell, Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham have almost a hundred years of Senate experience. They know better than to tolerate Trump’s antics.
Governors Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, and my state’s Mike Parsons, among others, bear responsibility for many, many Covid deaths because of their anti-mask, anti-testing, anti-vaccine-mandate stances. In service of their politic ambition, they pander to the Trump base. They, too, bear responsibility for the prolongation of the pandemic and our societal turmoil.
In The Iliad, Terror, Fear and Hate were personified. They drove the emotions of the fighters on both sides:
Terror drove them, and Fear, and Hate whose wrath is relentless,
she the sister and companion of murderous Ares,
she who is only a little thing at the first, but thereafter
grows until she strides on the earth with her head striking heaven.
She then hurled down bitterness equally between both sides
as she walked through the onslaught making men’s pain heavier.
What if we replaced Fear and Hate with Misinformation and Social Media? Fits the bill, don’t you think?
Still, I am convinced that Americans are caring, generous people. We donate blood, bone marrow, even kidneys. I think many of the vaccine-hesitant would roll up their sleeves if they could see that their action would save others, and by extension, their country. As Helen Petousis-Harris, a New Zealand vaccine expert who doesn’t have a political axe to grind, says: “if you are vaccinated and you get infected, you are less likely to spread the virus than if you are unvaccinated.” It’s patriotic.
As for me, I am putting my money where my mouth is. This holiday season, I am not gathering my nearly twenty-member family, even though almost, almost all of them are vaccinated. And I am Covid-carding anyone who shows up at my door. I am going to be the adult.
Tell me: How are you feeling about Covid right now?