A Broken Femur… or, Saving Civilization during a Pandemic

Link to the online service here: A Broken Femur… or, Saving Civilization during a Pandemic.

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Dr. Ira Byock, in his book The Best Care Possible,[1] wrote:

Anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

“A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts,” Mead said.

When you were a kid, did you ever get scolded for leaving a door open? If you grew up in America, you probably heard the words, “Were you raised in a barn?!” In another culture, civilization may have expressed itself by seasonally opening every door and window to allow the outside in. In the simple and culturally bound ways we are together, we express this basic idea: civilization. It’s what keeps everything from falling apart. And in a pandemic, what is at risk as we shelter in place, work from home or lose our employment, as we socially distance ourselves from people who meaningfully participate in our lives? And what is at risk when we defy the best instructions our leaders might give us? Civilization itself. That’s what.

In the time before we had smart phones, the internet, or a 24-hour news cycle, before we had the advancements of medical science we depend on now? When the Black Plague swept Europe. When the Spanish Influenza swept the globe. What was at stake? It was civilization itself, the cooperative capability of surviving and thriving in a world where we are not the strongest creatures. Nor, in any objective sense, the most important creatures. Pandemics not only threaten our ability to provide for ourselves and to enjoy the benefits of civilization, pandemics threaten civilization itself. That’s why it’s so important to do everything possible to bring them under control. And so we fight to find a safe and meaningful adaption that allows us to hold on to that treasure. We hunker down, but we adapt. We stay with the person with a broken femur, even if we have to depend on technology across distance to do so.

If you watch late-night comedy, perhaps you saw creative adaptation at work in the age of social distancing. When the comedians had to make do without a live audience, on the first night, they did their shtick to an empty house. And invariably, it felt flat and uninspired, even though it was the same body of work we knew and loved before isolation. So they adapted. Trevor Noah started talking to his audience from his couch, with other show regulars similarly speaking from their own spaces. Technology joined them and joined them to the world. Stephen Colbert also took his gig home, appearing the first night in his bathtub, piled high with bubbles, from which he emerged in his birthday suit. No, not that birthday suit. A real suit. And the next night he talked to the world from the intimate setting of sitting alone at a fire in his back yard. And after that, he shot his next night on his porch, looking out over flowering trees and his neighborhood. The comics are still talking to an audience of the whole world, but doing so in a more direct and personally grounded way than an empty theater could ever give.

While the nature of our tradition of gathering in-person calls for some level of up-front performance, if you will, for those gathered, in the absence of being in shared space, we gather in our individual dining rooms and living rooms – maybe even in your bathtub or on a walk through a quiet park – in a differently shaped authenticity.

And what is at stake? Well, certainly, our emotional and spiritual well-being is at stake. Anxiety and worry are naturally high because of personal risks and impacts, to be sure. But also civilization itself is at stake, which brings a whole different kind of angst with it.. If we can’t hunker down and minimize the risk and damage in ways that still allow the person with a broken femur to heal and return to life in society or in the embrace of their family, friends, and neighbors, our pain and worry only increase.

And that is scary. Of course it is, and it doesn’t help to pretend there is nothing to protect ourselves against. But the antidote is not wallowing in that natural fear. The corrective action to control this angst is to take the precautions that are given to us by the CDC and our physicians, that are given to us by local leaders who want their communities to come through with as little injury as possible. And then, having taken reasonable action to protect ourselves, if your physical and medical reality allow it, to expend a little more energy to be virtually present with the person with the broken femur who would would not survive without the blessings of civilization.

“Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.” Not with smart phones and internet for their own sake. We know that lots of negative stuff is exploited for the harm of others on the internet. But let us redeem the technology for the good of us all and the survival of civilization in times of fear and isolation.

This last Tuesday I met with my fellow Blue Ridge Cluster Unitarian Universalist ministers using the Zoom platform that supports interactive meetings where everyone can see and hear everyone else or, for the less technically inclined, it is possible to call into the meeting, even using a landline, and hear everything that is going on in the Zoom Room.

It was good to be with my peers who are all experiencing ministry in these times. But the part of the meeting that stuck in my heart and mind the strongest was something the brand new interim minister in Lynchburg said. She had asked the congregation’s archivist to pull the records from 1918 when the Spanish Influenza devastated the globe. What she found was, under those extreme circumstances, the congregation shut its doors for nearly a year before reopening. And they did so without ubiquitous telecommunications, let alone internet. They hunkered down. And they came out on the other side. When the danger passed, they reopened and flourished.

What we are facing is certainly serious, but if we, together, act sensibly, we have no reason to expect a Spanish Flu-level of devastation. We will make it through this. And by appropriately helping others through difficulty, we will come out on the other side with a civilization that can still sustain us.


Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Ira Byock, MD, The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life (New York: Avery, 2012).