Saturday, April 17, 2021

The Year of Fragility

We’re accustomed, as Texans, to relying on ourselves. We take pride in being tough.

For most of us, though, that rugged individuality is enabled by the distribution networks we live within. Networks that deliver food and medicine to our stores, gasoline to our filling stations, mail to our businesses, light and heat to our homes.

Think of what we could count on back in 2019: Toilet paper, Lysol, paper towels, Clorox—as much of these as we needed, when we needed them. The bread and butter we liked. The sweet treats we liked.

So many small, important things we had barely noticed until they were gone.

The pandemic brought an excess of worry (or denial) into our lives, followed by loss—too many friends were ill; too many of our fellow Americans died. Embers of grief were banked wherever we went.

And the ground we had walked on, thoughtlessly, all our lives, wobbled.

Vaccines were promised and arrived, but there weren’t enough. Those who could have them varied by state, and even more by practice. The oldest old who lived at home were overlooked. Some of the front line workers most at risk refused them.

That wobbling ground, founded on reasonable expectation, undermined trust.

Turn the faucet, water will pour out. Flick the switch, lights will come on.

Nothing is more fragile than trust.

Except maybe self-regard.

How much of a rugged individual can anyone be, shivering without heat and water in poorly insulated houses during an 8 degree cold snap?

How secure can anyone be if a winter storm, well predicted by weather forecast services, brings us to so much misery, damage and loss of life?

I, personally, played the ostrich role.

Our old house is largely uninsulated. Our fireplace is not usable, and we have no propane service. A loss of power at 8 degrees would likely result in hypothermia for the ancient, frail husband who is cold all the time even at 75 degrees.

The fact of our fragility rose to full blooded presence in the room, but it was too late to remedy the situation. Too late to run away, and where could we have gone?

Our mistake was in thinking the present would persist. But it doesn’t. The present is neither the future nor the past, and we should not live like it is either of these.

Because this Great Freeze was more than a natural disaster and a human failure. It was a societal failure.

Many of those houses were under-insulated to save a buck. Why insulate against winter, when winter is normally absent? Why insulate and update our electrical power grid, so independent and proudly Texan, when winters are mild and winterizing costs so much? And when there is no law or rule mandating the highly competitive providers to do so.

This was a failure of what we call the “free market,” because the free market rewards low cost, temporary solutions. And we believe it will correct itself, eventually—even if not on a scale of time that will help those who have suffered and died during the disaster. They’ve been sacrificed, it seems, to a theory that cares nothing about human pain—and to the elected representatives empowered by it.

The cumulative institutional failures of this year have undermined our sense of personal security, whether we admit it or not. Small wonder tears find us at the oddest times.

They have made our fragility tangible. Human strength has never been in one person, standing alone. It lies in our capacity for community, for helping each other and building team responses to crises.

Now is the time.


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