Social Distancing and Beth March

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

Anyone who knows and loves the book Little Women knows the story of Beth. Beth is the third sister, quiet and shy, not quick to pour herself into social occasions like her younger sister, Amy. And though Beth is timid around a lot of people, she is quick to notice those who need help. Above all, Beth is kind.

The story begins at Christmas time. Beloved Marmee has gone to visit a poor neighbor family, huddled in one room with sick children. Later on in the story, when Marmee has to leave to go be with her wounded husband she charges her daughters to not forget this family. The only one of the sisters who remembers and is willing to go see them and care for them is Beth.

Beth ends up with scarlet fever, a disease that she caught directly from the family she had been assisting. It was an illness that we know now is untreated strep infection and includes a sore throat, high fever, and a bright, red rash that covers the body. For her kindness, she ends up teetering between life and death. The family desperate to see her well again, and she does recover from this initial illness. But scarlet fever can carry with it some residual damage, and she later dies from complications of the disease.

Does Beth’s kindness kill her?

History is full of people who die helping others. The “Chernobyl Three” who stepped into a radioactive area to drain a pool, and in doing so averted another explosion; Annalena Tonneli, who fought TB in the Horn of Africa and ended up killed by terrorists; Corrie Ten Boom whose family helped Jews escape by hiding them in their home – there are far too many to count.

We are in an unprecedented time in this century. A global pandemic has been announced and “social distancing” has been strongly advised. As a public health nurse, I agree with this approach. It slows down the spread of the virus, giving hospitals and health care workers opportunity to catch up and be able to treat those who are the sickest. But those health care workers – doctors, nurses, pharmacists, community health workers, physicians assistants, nursing assistants – they don’t have a choice. They work to keep the rest of us safe. They don’t have the luxury of “social distancing.” Some of them, inevitably, will get the virus. It’s the price they will pay for helping. My prayer is that they will not die, but will instead be cared for by people who are as kind and dedicated as they are.

Social distancing is something of a privilege – a privilege reserved for those who live in single family dwellings, a privilege for those who have the resources to stock up on many months worth of supplies. Millions around the world don’t necessarily have this privilege. Maybe we also need to rethink the phrase “social distancing” a public health term used to apply to actions that a health department deems necessary to slow the spread of disease. Could we change that phrase to physical distancing instead? Social distancing gives us room to ignore the other, caring only for ourselves, all in the name of containing a virus.

A culture, like the United States, that prides itself on individuality could happily distance themselves physically and socially, but maybe some of us need a little prodding to go help others. There may be a neighbor who is really suffering, and you may be the one to help them. There may be someone who needs a ride from the airport, and you need to go pick them up. There may be families that need you to not socially or physically distance yourself so that you can bring them food and supplies.

This social distancing may be the right thing for the majority of the population, but there may be some of us who will be called upon to give up that distancing and help others.

It will be easy, if that happens, to opt for fear, to use social distancing as an excuse. I’ve said it before in this space – fear is not good currency. Fear is more viral than the virus itself. There is, and will always be, something to fear.

In the past 24 hours, I’ve watched some of my family members and friends come together to help another part of our family who have been rerouted from their home in Thailand. They are tirelessly gathering clothes, food, a car, and other resources that this family needs. Any one of them could have said “No. We have our own families to care for, to feed, to stock up for.” None of them have done that – they have stepped up and they have stepped in. I am beyond grateful for this coming together, moving in to help instead of moving away.

Please hear me – I don’t advocate being foolish. I don’t advocate walking in to harm’s way just to be noble. But I do think there are times when we need to put others above ourselves, and in this country, we have a lot to learn about what that looks like.

Social distancing may be the kindest thing for some people; for others, we may have to step up and move in. May we recognize the humanity of the other more than ever. May we have wisdom on what is needed, and above all – may we fight fear and be kind.

And these thoughts from C.S. Lewis are apt, though written long ago:

It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

CS Lewis

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. CS Lewis on the atomic bomb

6 thoughts on “Social Distancing and Beth March

  1. I have been angry by some of the mailing list messages that are shared in my relatively posh neighborhood — everyone seems interested in advertising activities they want to share “in these crazy times”, but then they insist that the other person honor the social distancing. This applies to things like bike riding, too. If you’re downwind of someone else…not sure that a six-foot distancing helps much. It seems like a petite bourgeoisie way of affirming a conformity to a rule.

    This world is entirely insulated from the working-class folks I know from Lowell, who have three jobs just to pay their bills, and live entirely hand-to-mouth, and cannot afford to be quarantined, because the folks who love social distancing perseverate on that stricture at the expense of figuring out how to create systems that would _genuinely_ distribute risk for the working class.

    In the end, social distancing is class-based peacocking. It’s not stupid, it’s smart, but if we fail to distinguish between the epidemiologically intelligent thing to do _in the abstract_, and the real –the REAL– forces that either allow people to do the intelligent thing or else prevent people from doing the intelligent thing (these are the true forces that govern our lives — not the “we ought to…”), then we’re living in a fairy tale.

    Great post, as always.

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  2. Amen Amen Amen. Thank you for this well articulated post. Will you also share it on Instagram? “3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2. And may I add you will not lose by serving and loving those around you. Thank you again, Marilyn.
    Lou Ann

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  3. Beautifully said, Marilyn! As a not so quiet and not always as sacrificial Beth as the one in Little Women, this is a prompt for me to learn from her and other’s examples in caring for the people around me. Thank you for this call to action and encouraging kindness. And prayer!

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