I keep thinking about a man named Tony Sizemore, whose partner Birdie Sheldon was the first person in Indiana to die of Covid-19 in March, when deaths were fewer and victims more likely to be memorialized as individuals rather than joined as statistics to a growing number that now stands at more than 100,000. As part of a contribution to the Washington Post’s “Voices of the Pandemic” series, Sizemore ended his story by correcting local news reports that stated he was able to comfort Sheldon in her final moments. Still, he didn’t blame anyone for wanting to believe a kinder version of events. “I’d like to find a way to sugarcoat this thing, too, but I can’t. Anything good I could say about this would be a lie.”
I repeat that line, in my head, like a warning, whenever I try to speculate about what might come next. Anything good I could say about this would be a lie. I remember Tony Sizemore when I am tempted to believe that this upheaval and loss will transform us for the better, because the alternative is too awful to imagine.
I shared with friends recently that I am glad to be from a region where people don’t compulsively seek silver linings, where many older folks like my grandparents were called “no hellers” because they refused to believe, with so much suffering in life, there could be any punishment left for death. I hear Tony Sizemore in my head but I might as well be hearing every person who had a hand in raising me. Anything good I could say about this would be a lie. My people would add: Just do the work. What is the work? To survive, and help others survive.
People who live on the margins, in places where exploitation and climate catastrophe are ongoing, people who are denied their basic needs because they are black and brown, queer and trans, or chronically ill call this work mutual aid. Mutual aid is an everyday, collective practice through which individuals exchange resources to meet their needs, understanding that help rarely comes from the powerful. For The New Yorker, writer Jia Tolentino surveyed what mutual aid looks like in the age of Covid-19: newly formed and pre-existing networks creating childcare co-ops, sending direct payments to those in need, providing food and supplies to the vulnerable, and finding ways to advocate for and protect incarcerated people.
Mutual aid can be a form of resistance, but the practice itself requires discipline. We can’t do it because it helps us sugarcoat our trauma, or because it lets us say we have claimed goodness in a world where it is often lacking. Mutual aid is incompatible with charity and should offer no pleasure to the well-resourced person or do-gooder who hopes to find worthy recipients of their kindness, because the practice of mutual aid is intended to destroy categories of worth. The discipline comes from knowing there are people who will find that outcome more frightening than the virus. The discipline comes from knowing that if we survive, there will one day be more of us than them.