My wife and I were riding bikes when we first saw the owls, high up in the crook of a massive live oak tree heavily draped with Spanish moss.
The owlets were fuzzy things, wide-eyed and staring, their heads swiveling about nearly 360 degrees in a manner that seemed to defy biology as they took in the new world around them. Their parents were a broad-winged pair of Great Horned Owls, with fishhook talons and saffron beaks, soaring silently from limb to limb and tree to tree in unaccustomed daylight. One of the parents fluttered overhead and landed by the nest, bringing food to the owlets. Seeing that was spectacular.
I was off early that day because a couple of my telemedicine visits had cancelled. During a “normal” week, I would never have been home early enough to see the owls. I’m usually up at 4 AM and doing procedures by 6:30, working through lunch and often into darkness, without respite, adapting to the unrelenting needs of a patient population who demand my ready availability.
But not now.
An unseen enemy has humbled me. The novel coronavirus SARS CoV-2 has reordered my life, restructured my days, and reminded me of that fundamental truth which I should have already known all too well: That we, and the entire society we live in, are made of very fragile stuff. Life is precious and miraculous, and yet we take it for granted, every aspect of it, assuming the false pretense of our own immortality while simultaneously failing to recognize how intrinsically connected we all are, both to one another and to the amazing planet we live on.
In 1972, MIT meteorology professor Edward Lorenz presented a paper which posed the question “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” The idea Lorenz was positing became widely known as an explanation of chaos theory called “the Butterfly Effect.” The modern epidemiologic version of the Butterfly Effect is this: A single strand of RNA, encapsulated in an envelope of protein, made the jump in December 2019 from a creature of another species to one of our own in Wuhan, China.
The rest is history.
That first COVID 19 patient never knew what it was that he had. We don’t know his name, what he looked like, or even whether he lived or died. But his illness has changed the entire world. It’s unprecedented and cataclysmic, a once-in-a-lifetime event.
My grandmother used to say that “Every cloud has a silver lining, if you look hard enough.” It’s certainly hard to find a silver lining all of this, with millions of people sick, thousands dying and many, many people out of work. But sure enough, as we were biking back home after seeing the owls on a warm, sun-dappled spring day, I found it.
Seeing the owls made me realize that having an opportunity to slow down and absorb some of the world’s beauty is not such a bad thing. Tiny miracles like that one surround us every day, but we often too busy or too distracted to appreciate them.
To be certain, these are trying times. The threat of contracting COVID 19 is always there, lurking about in the shadows. My medical practice is going to be financially stressed for months, and perhaps longer. But I am blessed with a loving spouse, healthy children and grandchildren, and the opportunity to help others at work every day. All of this has given me a renewed perspective about what is truly important in life—and about what is not.
In recent years, encouraged by the influence of social media, people have tended to be tribalistic, emphasizing their differences instead of focusing on the shared aspects of the human condition. The practice of medicine has taught me that human beings are actually far more alike than they are different—a viewpoint the pandemic has only reinforced. Perhaps, as we make this collective journey through the dark realm of pestilence, we will begin to understand that our species’ shared destiny links us all inextricably to one another. And perhaps, amongst all of the virally-induced heartache, we will more readily comprehend that the fate of Homo sapiens sapiens as a species is largely dependent upon how much we care for each other—and upon our avid stewardship of that singular blue orb, careening through the vast emptiness of space, that we all call home.