When I first saw the toilet paper ornament for sale, I smirked. I immediately thought of the nationwide “toilet paper scare” in March and the scattered shortages in hard-hit areas since then. A nationwide bathroom joke, comic relief in the middle of a crisis — it had almost even been funny.
Then just a moment later I was reminded of all the “2020” memes circulating on social media. “If 2020 were a plant…” “If 2020 were a drink…” “If 2020 were an 80’s pop song…” This ornament, with nothing printed on it except “2020,” wordlessly adds to the commentary: “2020 is shit.” (Pardon my Anglo-Saxon.) It works so well because we already know the joke, and an understated image is all we need to get it.
But it isn’t because of these jokes that I actually bought the ornament. It was because, along with the smirk, I felt a lump growing in the back of my throat. The petty symbol does more than joke; it is powerful enough to carry many more layers of meaning with it.
When we lose someone precious, it can be the tiniest details that unleash the floods of grief. I never got to give her the present. Or His hands won’t wear these gloves again. The pain of losing the person far outweighs these trivial things, but small, concrete moments bring into poignant focus what would otherwise be immeasurable. The toilet paper roll has that kind of relationship to the U.S.’s specific COVID-19 trauma. It’s a mundane symbol, but it evokes depths of fear, bafflement, anger, and pain.
To begin, when I think of what it meant for countless Americans to have been texting each other, “There’s still t.p. at the Tom Thumb on Hampton!” or begging a few rolls from complete strangers on Facebook, two things about it are poignant.
On the one hand, I am moved by the profound disorientation people experienced. This is America: we never worry that our sanitation routines might be disrupted. At worst, there might be roots in my sewer. But the idea that toilet paper — the single most taken-for-granted and most disposable item in our daily lives — cannot be bought with money, is jarring. When toilet paper was not on the shelves, people actually feared for the order of their world. So, when I look at the toilet paper roll ornament, I feel tenderness for people in that moment.
At the same time, it is striking that such a comparatively trivial thing as a temporary shortage of toilet paper had such power to disorient. It reflects how most Americans have little frame of reference outside our advanced industrial society that specializes in convenience. Few, I’m sure, have wondered how traditional societies handle(d) their sanitation, or reflected that to do without toilet paper would actually bring them closer to the experience of most humans in most ages. I wonder how many have considered all the ways we would have to alter our routines if we must ever live through a war at home. In short, the efficiency of our technological society has left us with a paucity of imagination. Because a major disruption of our prosperous collective life has been nearly unthinkable, we feel invulnerable — and yet all it takes is a “toilet paper scare” to reveal how fragile we are.
But the toilet paper ornament unrolls further. It reminds us of all the things that have been disrupted by COVID-19, all the assumptions that have had to be questioned, the norms that have been upended. We have had to grapple with the idea that hosting a birthday party or wedding could be unwise; that public schools could close their doors; that eating in a restaurant could be “high risk”; that 22 million of us could file for unemployment at once; that our nation’s divisions are so deep that wild conspiracy theories could go mainstream; that a president would choose to foster division and undermine citizens’ problem-solving and heroism. So when I see the toilet paper roll ornament, I think of the much larger collective trauma we have suffered: not only can you not count on toilet paper on the shelf, but you also cannot count on a society that functions the way you think you should expect. The ornament marks the grief and bewilderment we will be grappling with for a while.
And somewhere in all these allusive layers is buried a thought for those who simply refuse to acknowledge this vulnerability or to let their norms be shaken. I’m not thinking here of the complex weighing of best strategies for mitigating the effects of the virus. (How can schools operate? How shall we worship? Which of us must suffer most?) I’m thinking of the adults who resent being told to wear a mask, the teenagers who demand a basketball season, the friends who scoff at wearing a coat and sitting outside. These demands may come in the guise of bravery, but when they bely a person’s (or culture’s) entitlement to routine comforts, I think of the opportunity for growth people are passing up. What a tragedy it is to cling to one’s own false confidence; what smallness it produces; what solidarity with others this choice gives up. So when I look at the toilet paper ornament, I think of the ordinary things so many Americans have refused to reimagine. And I think sadly of the gulf that expands between those who try to band together, adjust to hardship, and welcome its transformation, and those who reject it entirely.
Despite this gulf, the symbol of the toilet paper roll reaches far. It is for “everyman,” since it does not discriminate between whether you believe COVID-19 is a hoax or a serious threat; whether you are high-risk or low-risk; whether you have quarantined or not; whether you are wealthy or poor; whether you are an “essential worker,” working from home, or unemployed. Any of our grocery stores might have had empty shelves. And the toilet paper roll can allude to whatever hardships you have faced — everything from foggy glasses, to loneliness and depression, to childcare struggles, to loss of income, a job, or even a home.
But there might be limits to the symbol’s power. On first glance, it seems most likely to be evocative to those of us who have suffered from the virus’s collateral damage, rather than from the ravages of the virus itself. If you have had a touch-and-go battle with COVID in the hospital or have been waiting months without a full recovery; if you are grieving a family member lost to COVID; or if you spend every day in scrubs in an overcrowded ICU, making decisions that are more desperate than ever; in these cases the toilet paper roll as a symbol of 2020 might strike you as naïve and out-of-touch. The clearest way it might resonate is through its absurdly understated reminder that the situation is nothing other than “shit.”
On the other hand, if we push it a bit farther, the image may not ignore COVID’s direct victims after all. Remember the profound disorientation of arriving at the grocery store and finding basic supplies sold out. Now imagine this same fragility in a hospital. While we know we can’t evade death forever, our society has gotten quite good at holding it at bay. Most people, especially those of adequate means, can reasonably expect to reach old age. And despite the Byzantine pricing structures, when we show up at the hospital with insurance, we expect to be taken care of. Some magic can surely be done. If the problem can be fixed, our doctors will fix it.
But hospital personnel have seen this year that medical care is not so unlike toilet paper. Crucial parts of the supply chain — whether masks, healthy staff, trained specialists, a medication, or research on best practices — may be unable to keep up with demand. Stay-at-home orders changed the demand for toilet paper in homes faster than supply chains could adapt; likewise, even America’s state-of-the-art hospitals cannot quickly accommodate a new infectious disease with uncontrolled spread. Showing up at the store and finding bare shelves was merely a sinister foreshadowing of the fact that you could also arrive at a hospital, struggling to breathe, and be sent away. Or that you could be admitted only to learn that, hard as they might try, no one quite knows how to fix you.
This essay is neither a dreary sermon about wearing masks nor a rousing New Year’s Eve “memento mori.” What I intend is something closer to a love letter. Because when I look at the toilet paper roll ornament, I am thinking of all of you in my country, mostly strangers, with whom I share this symbol and this specific struggle. Ours has not been the worst crisis in the world this year — we are no Yemen, DRC, or Syria — nor are we the most important people. But this image makes me think of you — just you, and the bitter joke you also get because you were there. You, whom I know best. You, whose contradictions trouble me, whose crossroads keep me up at night, whose failures I feel ownership in. Whose shortsightedness I want to shout at you about, but probably share. Whose divisions diminish me.
I saw you anew in 2020, and I hope more truly. Because when a veneer of strength is stripped away, and the frail underlayer is exposed, the only love that can be offered now is love for the real thing.
What I wish for us all is that none of our pretensions should be left standing. May we let them fall willingly. And may all the more love, from God and each other, reach us because of it.
Abigail Woolley Cutter is a Ph.D. candidate in Christian Ethics at Southern Methodist University.