The Nazis discovered the family hiding in France and put them on a train to Auschwitz; mom, dad and two sisters.
“We argued the entire way,” said the sole sibling survivor. “About whose fault it was we were captured.”
The rest of her family were gassed to death immediately after they arrived at the death camp.
We too are on a journey, to an unknown place that seems vaguely scary. It’s probably not a spa. We travel together, some of us packed into standing room only cattle cars, others in opulent sleeping carriages, many in between. Outside the windows vistas pass by: an ash-orange sky, towering flames in the distance licking towards the stars; masked people, waiting in line for free bags of groceries, six feet apart; heat shimmering off baked asphalt, hot enough to fry an egg laid by a tightly caged chicken; fog, crowding in like cows hungry for their morning hay; diners eating at picnic tables placed in spaces still slick with the oil of previously parked cars; babies chewing their fingers as they’re strollered by disheveled loners screaming from drug-induced sleep deprivation; trees, blowing in the wind.
Where are we going, we humans, traveling on a planet that we’ve made too hot to handle? Not to the stars, at least not for a long while, other than a handful of billionaires with their necessary entourages. Not to any place untouched by garbage or the exhaust of a million cars or without water saturated with tiny plastic pellets, or that’s free of disease or biting insects.
Perhaps we can just stay where we are. For many, even the non-wealthy, and setting aside this season of sickness, things are just fine. A visit to any supermarket ice cream aisle reveals a king’s ransom of flavorful choices, with snack corridors stuffed with salty treats. Water still flows out of taps at the right temperature on demand; toilets whisk away our wastes. Abundance, sanitation, and better health care have collaborated to raise global life expectancy by six years from 2000 to 2019. Children are at the lowest risk of dying young ever, with worldwide mortality for those less than five dropping from 93 deaths per 1,000 births in 1990 to 38 in 2019.
Polish and German Jews were similarly thriving during the first third of the 20th Century. Until they weren’t. World gross domestic product per capita fell by more than four percent between 2019 and 2020, after steadily increasing the previous five years. In the United States, life expectancy peaked at just under 79-years in 2014 and has declined since. Heat spikes, fires, pandemics, persistent racism, extreme inequality. Bumps in the road, or a forever reality?
As we journey, we could just shut the window shades, and stare at screens showing imaginary places more pleasing than our own. Those swaying in the standing room only car hanging on tight, whispering “excuse me” to neighbors as the rocky road causes them to elbow one another. The privileged, reclining on designer pillows in the first-class cabin, binge-watching dramas featuring mass violence in the standing room only car.
If eyes are portals to the soul perhaps our souls have been damaged by too much streaming.
Along the way we argue. About whose news source is superior, which celebrity is best suited to lead us, what deserves to be cancelled, elevated, modified, mummified. We shout at one other in languages that share the same alphabet but nothing else. Or, most viscously, we’re stone silent, staring past our neighbor’s shoulder as if they do not exist.
We didn’t choose our destination, but we did create it. We changed the world. Not like we changed a channel or changed clothes. There was little overt purpose or intent. A million baby hands reached for the good life. We drove our gas guzzling Chevy to the levy, which had been pumped dry decades ago to grow pistachios. It’s no one’s fault, except all of us, or mine, or yours. Definitely yours.
Wait, what? We changed the world! We can change the world. We built the train and the tracks it’s on. We decide if it’s fueled by steam, coal, electricity; whether we travel by car, bicycle, scooter, or legs. When a novel disease emerged, we devised vaccinations and delivered them into the arms of more than five billion people worldwide in less than two years, even while some balked at the jab. We can get off the train, stay on, change the route, retire the engine and repurpose its parts. Not everyone has to come along.
It’s hard not to doggedly debate who is responsible for where we are, for the good and the bad, the enslaved and those without homes. We need to find a way to do that, though, to forgive, if just temporarily, one another for sins committed and omitted. The things that happened earlier, or even right now, we can’t change. We can’t offer anyone a better past. We can alter the future, though. That’s within our power.
Time to pull the shades up, and decide where we’re going.