The line of shoppers extended to the back of the store. Did anyone butt in line? Were there scuffles, insults, or fistfights? No. There was a hint of adventure and festivity to the occasion. Nobody liked waiting. But folks chatted, joked and encouraged each other. After all, what are you going to do? When the going gets tough, it’s time for a party!
Montour County: Give yourselves a round of applause. Pat yourselves on your backs. So far, so good, unlike news I’m hearing from my family who live in denser and more stressed parts of the country. My sister, who works at a Trader Joe’s, was setting up the strawberry display when management opened the doors. Two hundred frantic customers pushed in. A woman raced to grab strawberries. Instead, she punched my sister’s face. The customer didn’t apologize. I suggested that my sister should have coughed on her.
At a supermarket in Fort Collins, an angry man demanded that he buy the big bottle of sanitizer on the counter. The manager said he couldn’t sell it. This bottle was necessary for the staff. Irate, the man yanked off the lid and dumped his coffee into it, shouting: “If I can’t have it, nobody can.” I bet his wife or children are really happy to be stuck inside their house with him.
Those of us raised in the Reformed Tradition aren’t surprised at people acting badly. We’re persuaded that if we were a bunch of English schoolboys stranded on a deserted island we’d divide into tribes, make spears, hunt each other. The novel, “Lord of the Flies” pretty much sums up our Calvinistic grim view of human nature, unless a divine inner spirit detours us toward civilized and humane behavior.
Would you be surprised to learn that two famous English poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, yearned to come to this region of the Susquehanna? They planned to marry and bring their young brides here to revel in this new world Eden. As transcendental romantics, they envisioned the beatific bliss and idyllic ease of this native paradise. Back to nature. One with nature. In 1794, Coleridge even wrote a poem about us, called, “Pantisocracy.” An excerpt: “Sublime of Hope I seek the cottag'd Dell, Where Virtue calm with careless step may stray, And dancing to the moonlight Roundelay.” Well now, that sounds like Danville and Northumberland. How’s your Roundelay these days?
They called off their dream when they learned they’d have to fell trees, build those cottages, haul water, plow fields. They called off their dream quicker when they heard how the Susquehannocks weren’t exactly receptive to newcomers. They immediately called off coming here when they were told scores of Scotsmen already had arrived.
We shall see what happens when bottles of whiskey, wine and beer run out at homes around here. I suggested to my sister that since she lives in New Jersey where non-state liquor stores remain open, her son and daughter could fill up the trunk of their SUV and drive here to sell bottles at a 50 percent profit. There’s a worthy career for two kids whose colleges shuttered because of this virus — bootlegging!
Uncivilized behavior can be partly blamed on the density factor: too many folks competing for fewer resources. Did you survive the Great Toilet Paper War? Consider it also the Donner Party factor. When food runs out, you’re either the cannibal or on the menu.
At times of abundance, we can be quite civilized. When times turn tough, it takes mightier efforts to remain kind, compassionate, faithful, indeed, civilized. Yet, that is what will be required of us for more than mutual survival. Will we be able to look back on these days as days when our faith and character improved? When you look back on these days, do you want to look back on your behavior with pride, gratitude, or with shame? I don’t want to look back on these days and be embarrassed at how I acted. Imagine it like being on board the Titanic. I would much rather have drowned with dignity, as did most men on that sinking ship, than sneak out wearing a dress and hide in a lifeboat.
Right now around here, we’re pretty relaxed and amicable, but for how long? Humanity takes effort. What are you doing to maintain and cultivate your goodwill, patience, understanding and hope? What habits help foster the good in you? Tell us, please. Write, email.
The Rev. Robert Andrews is retired pastor of Grove Presbyterian Church in Danville. Read more of his work at robertjohnandrews.com.