This pandemic has led me to think a lot about the word “sustain.” We often think of a farm as “sustainable” or hear that a victim “sustained” an injury, but the word has three distinct meanings. It amazed me how different each meaning is, and yet how each spoke powerfully about the experience we’re all going through now - locally and globally.
Sustain: 1. Prolonged for an extended period or without interruption.
It’s been about a month since we began social distancing. While we know it will end sometime, we aren’t sure when. We’re living with a new status quo. At best, it means staying close to home, ceasing in-person contact with anyone we don’t live with, and cancelling appointments that aren’t essential. At worst, it means supply shortages, job loss, childcare worries, and painful choices. We’re in the eye of the hurricane, waiting for the storm to pass. This is where we bear down and hold fast. This is where we channel Atlas and hold the world. The question is, do we hold it alone, or with others?
Sustain: 2. Strengthen or support physically or mentally.
If you watch Governor Beshear’s 5 o’clock addresses, you know his daily invocation: “We will get through this, together.” That last word, “together” is the most important part of the charge. I explained it to my ten year old like this: “Holding a heavy weight is hard if it’s just one person, right? If a whole bunch of people do it, it feels easier - and less lonely”.
If part one is to bear a weight for a long period, part two is what makes sustaining bearable: doing it together. Now is the time to look outside our windows and remember the businesses and people that are bearing more than their fair share of the weight - and help them carry it.
Sustaining the weight of our community doesn’t have to be hard. We can send encouraging notes to the teachers who have had their worlds turned upside down, yet still find a way to teach kids they can’t see. If we sew, we can make masks for health care workers who are putting their lives on the line every day. If we cook, we can cook a meal for the pharmacist who is working too many hours to see her children, let alone cook for them. If we have financial resources we can donate to rescue funds, buy gift cards to our favorite local shops or get curbside take-out from our favorite restaurants. We can seek out farmers markets and study up on the new shopping rules before we go; keeping farmers and their families safe. Not everyone can help - but for those who can, sustaining our community’s burden starts with thinking beyond our own pain, following thought with action, and sustaining that action into habit. What practices can you incorporate into your week that a) are safe and b) sustain the burden of your community?
Sustain: 3. Uphold, affirm, or confirm the justice or validity of.
Part three is where we hold fast to that which we have learned to be true in crisis. When life goes back to “normal” what will we affirm with new habits moving forward? Maybe we learned to look closer to home for our resources. If we tried ordering a side of beef and realized it’s actually pretty easy...will we keep it up? Maybe we saw first-hand how essential grocery clerks, hospital janitors, daycare workers, line cooks and farm laborers are. Next time fair pay comes up, will we think about it differently? Maybe someone cared for your grandma or cooked for your kid when you couldn’t. Will you pay that forward when it’s your turn to rest?
This is a good time to think and reevaluate the ideas we all have about what is “normal” and “right”, and ask, is that still true? It’s complicated, but worth doing.
Sustaining in Real Life
Sustaining can be a simple thing, too. To help a sick family member, we dropped dinner on her porch. I can cook, but chose to buy food from a local caterer offering contactless pickup. That caterer specializes in cooking food sourced from local farmers. In one gesture, we supported farmers, a local business, and my sick family. We held our share of the burden.
How you define and sustain your community is your choice. This time is hard, but it’s also a gift if we decide to take it. If there's anything we take away from this pandemic, I hope it is this: together, we can sustain anything.