“This too shall pass” is a famous quote with ancient origins that we have all been clinging to with our contemporary challenge. With each passing day, we experience the manic swings of the “flattened curve” only to have our enthusiasm diluted with pessimism of new outbreaks, economic despair and prolonged anxiety. Our instincts are to expect the best and prepare for something less. We live in an environment of incredible good fortune and have come to believe that everything will “pass.” We should expect this. Our governments on the local, state and federal level are working tirelessly with powerful resources to meet the short term needs of the population and to find medical solutions. Flawless? Hardly. But who experiences perfection with an unprecedented event? I put my trust in God and the remarkable healthcare community in our midst. This will pass. We will survive and we will be stronger. I believe that. The question remains: what have we learned and what of value will we forget?
In times of adversity, we have the opportunity to learn much about ourselves and our communities. The challenge is to maintain some capacity for enlightenment, while the anxiety of the crisis and the euphoria of recovery consume most of our thinking. I remember in my youth, the ambivalence displayed against veterans of the Vietnam War when they returned. There were no parades, no airport receptions, no visits to schools. An angry and divided country took its wrath out on those who were ordered to fight in an unpopular war. This was unheard of to the older generation that had, as their reference point, fought a patriotic war in Europe and the Pacific. Life went on after 1975 with the exception of some MIA dialogue. It wasn’t until several years later when the Vietnam Memorial opened in Washington, D.C. in 1982 that the public guilt became evident. The brilliance of the design helped Americans realize how misdirected their emotions had been and the severe impact it had on the healing. What was the lesson learned? Americans would never again disrespect those who served even if there was policy dissension. A new value was taught in our schools and places of work. When the veterans of the Gulf War began returning in 1991, it was common practice for school children to make field trips to military bases to welcome home those who served. I recall my own son participating with flags and balloons and asking for autographs from the soldiers. Ironically, the parents of many of these students were fulfilling a missed opportunity from their youth through their own children. This practice of honoring those who served has continued in the Iraqi, Afghanistan and Syrian conflicts, expanded via efforts such as signs over highways and sporting events. The value that exists today came out of a sad experience from that earlier conflict.
Many of us vividly lived through the horrific tragedy of 9/11. The images of our fire and police heroes rushing into engulfed towers will forever remain etched in our memory. That chaotic time in 2001 produced two public lessons for our communities. One has become a sustained part of our culture and the other faded with time. Prior to 9/11, there was what I would describe as a “take for granted” respect for our first responders. There are many public services that fall into this category. Unless you have had direct experience with the service, you simply assume its presence. The live video of these heroes in New York City and other impacted areas elevated our perception to an unprecedented level. While thousands of citizens followed their instincts to exit the area, these professionals ran into harm’s way to save lives without concern for their own. Many perished so that others could live. Their value had never been so evident to the public. Of course, this is what they have been trained for and what in fact they have been doing for generations. But the American public had never experienced collectively anything like 9/11 since Pearl Harbor, which today was experienced only by our most senior citizens. Our national society felt the pain of such losses. We had never experienced a mainland civilian attack of such shocking proportion. To witness their selfless acts literally changed our culture. It is common now to honor the service of our first responders. In fact, the term “first responders” became popular during this time. At sporting events and schools, children are taught a new level of respect for these public servants.
On the other hand, we recall the displays of patriotism everywhere after 9/11. Nearly every car displayed an American flag. License plates reflected our respect, and a sense of community was visible. It has not entirely disappeared, but it is fair to say that this was fueled by a surge of emotion that has faded. We seem to have returned to a time that a large flag on display creates images of some right wing zealot among too many. Just a few years back, it was an expression of our unity after a tragedy. It shows that not all behaviors during a crisis are retainead. Some good learnings are temporary.
It’s now 2020, and we have another crisis on our hands—a horrible pandemic. Certainly our primary concern is the health and well-being of our families and friends. Another question we should all consider is what new behaviors and cultural changes will we experience as a result of this crisis? One notion has clearly already emerged. Our healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, orderlies, custodians, clinicians, technicians) have become to us what our first responders became during 9/11. These tragedies have a way of exposing the best and worst in our society. Thankfully human nature filters some of the bad, and we choose to retain most of the good. This pandemic, like 9/11 before it, offers us a graphic and clear visual of the bravery of many in our society for the benefit of others. It is much more than a job. It is making a human difference. Intuitively, we all understand their impact, but the life and death nature of our current challenge is a real differentiator. We will never look at health care workers the same way again. They have been officially elevated to a new level. It is sad that it takes a tragedy, but this realization, however, illustrates that most of our sustainable learning comes from adversity.
What else is ahead of us? The isolation caused by the virus has forcibly introduced several new behaviors in our lives. Some of them are substantive and add depth to our lives. Will they be retained when the “chains” are removed? The most common behavior changes have been the slowing of our hectic American pace, the return of family meals and creative forms of entertainment. Concerning the pace of our lives, it is often stated that most active Americans do not know how to deal with solitude or simply relax. We are conditioned by the desire to keep our calendars full and stretch our geographic expanse. We are a driven culture. Suddenly, our work is out of the home, and leisure travel is gone. After some initial culture shock, we actually have “quality” time for ourselves, our children and our partners. Many of these are behaviors that we have simply abandoned or lost in the name of “progress.” Have we discovered that a fulfilling life does not have to include constant motion and exhaustion? This is one we definitely need to retain as life returns to pre-pandemic. The family meal, once an opportunity for sharing with parents and siblings and not just a moment of consumption, has been reduced to a buffet on the kitchen island in many homes as activities create virtual shifts. Eating together and all that comes with it has made a bit of a comeback in the last two months. This is where we learn about the lives of the other people we call family and build the memories that bond us. It brings some sense of commonality and order to otherwise socially, professionally and educationally diverse lives. Hold on to that rediscovered treasure! With all this time on our hands, many have discovered the joys of binge watching with streaming services, some of which we didn’t realize we even had. Others have returned to more traditional forms of entertainment such as large puzzles, board games and reading. Of course the video conference services and texting play a major role. It’s not all about returning to traditions. Where would we be without FaceTime or Zoom to see our grandchildren or extended family?
As we settle into these forms of self entertainment, there is a certain peaceful nature. Parents are worrying less about where their kids are and what time they will get home. Adults and children are learning how to use this newfound commodity with quality endeavors including service projects and online community fundraisers. I am also gratified by the number of people who have used this time to express and strengthen their faith. Whether it’s the solitude of prayer or virtual communal worship with any number of streaming church services, using this moment to strengthen our faith is a very personal investment.
Do not despair. This too shall pass, but as the crisis “passes,” let us all take responsibility to understand new learning and retain what truly adds value to our lives. This is how a society advances. This is how we make it better.