The big picture only hits home when it becomes the small picture. That’s why movie makers show you the big picture — thousands of foot soldiers surging up a hill, for example — and then zoom in to show the tension visible on a single face.
After 14 months of daily pandemic statistics, the big picture of daily COVID-19 statistics goes over my head like distant thunder.
Until Wednesday of this week.
When my daughter tested positive.
She had developed the classic symptoms the day before: cough, nausea, sore throat, headache, some fever. Her test results came back in one day.
Suddenly, COVID-19 has stopped being a big picture and has become intensely personal.
Before my daughter’s diagnosis, I can’t think of one personal acquaintance who caught the virus. Indeed, the whole community of Lake Country — a bubble of some 14,000 people — has stayed remarkably COVID free.
I can’t think that anymore.
I might be immune. I had my first vaccination two months ago.
Or maybe not. Suddenly, COVID-19 is about me. And about my only child.
Too often, we forget that things have to get personal to get taken seriously.
I’ve always known that, theoretically. When I taught writing classes, I told my students, “Make it personal.”
Not personal in the sense of attacks on an individual, but personal in the sense that their reader can find a real person to identify with.
A believable character in a story.
A human touch in a business letter.
The impersonal reply favoured by government and corporate offices satisfies no one. Not the writer. Not the receiver.
Having a real person at both ends of the communication makes a solution far more possible.
“Hi, I’m Sandy,” says a voice at my bank’s call centre.
“Hi, Sandy,” I say, “I hope you can help me.”
Sometimes she can; sometimes she can’t. But the personal contact is much preferable to trying to navigate through any voice menu.
Dumping a truckload of facts will rarely change anyone’s mind. A carefully reasoned argument often bounces off an emotional roadblock.
Situations become real only when they become personal.
Michael Coren was once the voice of evangelical churches fulminating against abortion and homosexuality. He came well-armed with biblical references, historic arguments, and dogmas and doctrines. Then, I gather, he came to know some gay Christian men personally. And that changed his views.
A more trivial example. The publishing house I co-founded used to have chronic problems with deadlines. No matter how precise the schedules — manuscript to editing; editing to design; design to production … we kept missing deadlines.
Then a novice coordinator started using people’s real names. Instead of referring to abstract functions, she substituted Mike, Marilyn, Jim, Julie…
We still didn’t always meet our deadlines. But we did a lot better when we knew that failing to deliver on time directly affected someone we had coffee with every morning.
Perhaps the ultimate modern example was Princess Diana’s death in a Paris underpass in August 1997. We had seen the paparazzi hounding her. But nobody felt they had to do anything about it. That was all out there, somewhere, in celebrity land.
Her death made media persecution real for all of us.
Tragically, it often takes a death to expose systemic injustice. When a situation gets bad enough that people we care about lose their lives, we finally pay attention.
Videos of George Floyd’s death under Derek Chauvin’s knee focused attention on prejudice in American police forces in a way that reams of studies couldn’t.
The Hundred Years War in Europe is meaningless to anyone but obsessive students of history. The burning of a young woman at the stake makes it more personal — Joan of Arc, sacrificed 590 years ago tomorrow.
It was not a bunch of brilliant insights that founded Christianity. The prophets, especially Isaiah, had expressed most of those ideas five centuries earlier, in what historians now call the Axial Age.
It took an individual, a person the western churches call Jesus, to live his convictions, and attract people willing to follow his example. And like Diana, it took his death to drive home the message about the fundamental injustice of his society. And of ours, today.
Writers and reporters always look for the “human interest” angle that makes the story more compelling.
I’ve had a vaccination. I think I’m safe. Maybe. But the pandemic is no longer something that affects other people. It has become intensely personal.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com.