“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Perched on a limb in the tree, I am quiet and still. I am safe and surefooted, craning to see a clearing beyond the forest, to see beyond COVID-19, the virus that attacks our very breath both in casual, asymptomatic conversations and last gasps muffled by whirring ventilators. All around me, desperation fills the air. Loved ones, friends and neighbors struggle and fight, survive and die, their loud cries for help filling the air around me like a familiar flock fleeing death and destruction.
Then a ray of sunlight warms my face, and without a sound, I am quickly reminded of my enormous privilege and fortune — I am gainfully employed, in good health, have food and a safe place to live. I work from home and, alongside my fortunate peers, find ways to cope. We cautiously start conversations with friends and family, our hearts filled with gratitude and thankfulness. We quietly donate to non-profits, support local businesses, deliver food to the elderly, take care of family and friends crushed under the weight of unprecedented financial ruin. We do these things because we care. We also do it because, alongside our privilege, we carry an immense sense of shame, guilt and fear. At least, I do.
As night falls, clouds cover the sky, and that fear takes hold of me — Will I be next? How will I survive? What will happen to my family? Will I lose everything I’ve worked for? Dark settles and my fears overtake my sensibilities. I try to shut my ears to the inconsolable wails that surround me. Overwhelmed and paralyzed, I cling to my perch, determined to survive, even if that means silencing my outrage about the unfairness and the loss. I tell myself that I must avoid sudden movements if I am to survive; and I become invisible by dawn, momentarily safe, momentarily comfortable, momentarily sane.
“There will and has become a time when silence is betrayal.”
But inevitably, the season changes. As leaves begin to fall around me, I am exposed. The brittle branches slip beneath me and I falter. Now I am the one calling out for help, looking to others for safety and support, but to no avail. Around me, those remaining are silent, heads low, clinging to barren branches instead of one another, looking for a safety that quiet independence can never sustain. Inevitably, I start to lose my breath, and silence gives way to death.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”