Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
Two weeks ago, I launched a new column with this site called Fads!Crazes!Panics! At the time, the intent was to look at the greatest fads, crazes, and panics from history. Each week was going to analyze something we could all laugh at in retrospect.
But you toilet paper–loving weirdoes screwed that all up. Now I have to talk about (sigh) current events.
To be clear, the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is not merely a panic. It is a very real disease that you will most likely contract, and when you do, it will have approximately a four percent chance of killing you. (Four percent doesn’t seem huge, but imagine if Taco Bell killed every twenty-fifth person who walked in their door. Would you still recommend it to your friends? Actually, knowing Taco Bell’s usual clientèle, you probably would. This analogy is getting away from me. Moving on.) Please take the recommended precautions of washing your hands thoroughly, avoiding public gatherings, and leaving your house as little as possible. You might not die from this bug, but you could easily be the one who spreads it to someone who will. As an asthmatic, I am personally in a high-risk group for this thing (which is hard for me to accept, since, as a white male, I’m basically never touched by anything, but there it is). So please wash your hands and stay home. The life you save could be mine.
What will not help you save any lives, however, is buying, just, all the toilet paper.
Guys, we need to talk about the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020 (as they will no doubt call it), not least of all because the whole thing seems uncannily, unsettlingly tailor-made for this exact column. You all heard there was a viral pandemic, and for some reason your response was “Man, I cannot wait for some marathon pooping sessions!” That might almost have made sense if this were a cholera outbreak or something (in which case the CDC recommendation would have been to stock up on toilet paper and then suffer unrequited love for decades in Columbia), but guys, this is an upper respiratory bug. If anything, you should be panic-buying Kleenex. But you’re not. You’re all turning into The Great Cornholio here.
I don’t think any surveys have been conducted to explain the sudden absence of toilet paper from store shelves, but I feel like I could hazard a guess. Obviously, when you expect to be trapped somewhere for a while, you want to make sure you have the essentials—soap, toothpaste, whatever. Still, that alone doesn’t really explain it—without getting too graphic (just kidding, let’s get graphic), it’s just not that hard to clean your butt. I mean, we all have washcloths, right? Those things are softer than toilet paper, they’re machine washable, and they can be used together with actual soap and water, which means there are at least three good reasons to prefer them over the stuff made from the tears of forest creatures. And if push comes to shove (heh) with butt-cleaning, it’s not that difficult to just jump in the shower—I mean, if you’re quarantined, you’ve got time. (And you can wash your hands really well while you’re in there. So, bonus.)This Lent, let’s try to remember that the fast is not a drill. Let’s deny ourselves so that the ones around us can have what they need.
No, I think the main culprit here is just human nature. Humans aren’t purely logical creatures—and honestly, it’s hard to imagine what a “purely logical creature” would even look like. If we see a panicked-looking crowd running somewhere, we immediately start running too. Our brains, at their cores, are designed for survival, not for calmly and rationally weighing the pros and cons of every decision while the world burns around us. Add to that how needlessly confusing the toilet paper aisle of the grocery store is (Why do we need a hundred brands of toilet paper? Why does every price seem random and arbitrary? Why are the pitchmen for TP bears with enormous bits of it stuck to their butts? Why does every package boast that it would have more rolls if those rolls were different sizes? Why???), and you’ve set the stage perfectly for some seriously panicked, illogical behavior.
My guess is that it goes down something like this: A handful of people—a dozen or so, let’s say—each buy one pack of toilet paper within a couple of hours. So far, this is just normal behavior. But because toilet paper tends to come in big, bulky packs, it’s pretty noticeable—even from a distance—when the shelves start to empty. So the guy who came to the store to stock up on Purell and canned food sees the half-empty TP shelves and assumes the place is running out because of the pandemic, so he grabs two or three packages. Someone else sees him, assumes he knows what he’s doing, and grabs five. A few more people see them, and from there it just snowballs. Soon everyone is squeezing the Charmin, fearing that this might be their last chance to do so.
Here’s the thing, though. This sort of panicked, self-serving behavior is the exact sort of thing Jesus forbids. Maybe “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” rings a bell? It’s not just a nice sentiment, or even a self-help practice; using your wealth and worldly possessions to make yourself more comfortable is one of the things Jesus condemns most frequently in his teachings. American-style rugged individualism is utterly incompatible with traditional Christian thought.
It’s Lent right now—the Christian season of fasting and self-denial. Fasting, though, in the Christian tradition, is not just about seeing how long you can go without a sandwich, or ordering the Filet-O-Fish instead of the Quarter Pounder. Nor is it, ultimately, about willpower or general self-improvement. The purpose of fasting, fundamentally, is so that you’ll have more to share with those in need. Church Father St. Diadochos of Photiki put it pretty well, way back in the fifth century:
By not eating too much or too richly we can to some extent keep in check the excitable parts of our body. In addition we can give to the poor what remains over, for this is the mark of sincere love.
A thousand years prior, the Jewish prophet Isaiah put it even more forcefully:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
I went grocery shopping on Sunday, trying to buy up enough food to wring three weeks’ worth of meals out of, if I could. The whole time, though, I found myself acutely aware that each item I bought was an item I was denying to someone else. There were many things I picked up and then returned to the shelves, deciding there was probably someone who needed it more than me.
This Lent, let’s try to remember that the fast is not a drill. Let’s deny ourselves so that the ones around us can have what they need. Let’s give generously to the ones who need it and the ones who are helping.
And maybe, I dunno, put that giant pack of Quilted Northern back on the rack. There is, no doubt, someone with a poopier butt than yours.