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The world we left behind and the one we want to return to

This is a post about the pandemic and thoughts I have on what I hope the world might look like afterward. Before I get to that, a couple things need to be said

  1. I cannot begin to comprehend the hardship faced by healthcare workers and want to say "thank you”. 

  2. The things I write down in this post are musings and are subject to change. One thing I acknowledge is the way I thought about pandemics a month ago is dramatically different than how I do now. As the situation continues to unfold, I cannot yet foresee I will know later that I do not now.


The world I left behind three to four weeks ago I’d overall describe on a personal level as caring and warm. While I don’t have to look far to see suffering and inequity I am lucky that I have brought an array of great people into mine. Over the years I have been fortunate to cultivate wonderful relationships among friends and colleagues. As I have moved further down life’s path and perhaps in small ways become wiser - although who can say what older me will think of 37 year old me - have developed a great confidence and resolve to put something down or step away when I think it’s no longer serving me.


Despite the gratitude I feel, there are still things I hope might be different going forward. The level of “busy” we all were just a couple weeks ago compared to what we are now is both tragic in its representation of how many things have been shuttered or suspended but perhaps also allows for additional shedding of things we had undertaken for one reason or another and never managed to walk away from. With my calendar pretty open from now through the foreseeable future, I hope to keep top-of-mind after the initial onslaught of visiting favorite places that manage to survive, commiserating with friends and family, that I will add things back to my calendar with greater thoughtfulness.


For a long time I have lamented that my life and those of the people I care about, are busy enough that despite not living all that far from one another, getting together is often a question of days if not weeks. While there are without question things that must or should be done that are less glamorous or boring, perhaps each of us will make other things less of a priority and each other more so. Virtual happy hours may be a nice way to come together once evenings have calmed down or maybe we’ll just schedule things together in reckless abandon with one another because doesn’t that just sound great?!


On another front, I wonder what urgencies around life and its fragility will be highlighted by the virus? Many of us will have been touched by or know someone touched by this disease and the accompanying physical, emotional and psychological weight is sure to be immense. With any luck though it will push us to the level alive we wish to be. It is easy to invoke phrases like “live each day like it is our last” or one from Annie Dillard, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives”. But when injury or death touches feels close, might it engender a whole new kind of zeal and resolve? The unfortunate reality and important truth is that we are all of course headed towards our own demise and what do we intend to do about that?  


“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

Mary Oliver


But then there is the pain and hardship that all of this musing overlooks. Many people are already in emotional, financial or medically precarious situations. How will they cope with what society and life are about to deal them? Will our rugged individualism, "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" and "I gotta get what’s mine” mentality persist or will we, even if just for a period of time, move towards more of “I am my brother’s keeper”? 


"While the crisis lasted people loved each other... It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, un-judgingly in pity and love."

Dorothy Day on community during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906


While we all have some level of accountability for our own situation, the reality that surfaces in equity conversations is that we were all born on different yard lines in the game of life. None of us picks the life we are born into and yet I was fortunate to come into a loving household that while it didn’t begin with much achieved financial comfort through hard work. While I own that I've played a role in shaping my destiny I must be open to seeing that a level of “safety net” has long existed for me that does not for others. 


One example comes from just a couple weeks ago when a neighbor who I've developed a nice relationship with came by and asked politely if he could borrow $10. He has since paid me back and yet the reality is this man, who is many years older than me and a gentle soul, is flying so much closer to poverty than me. I do not know if he regrets anything about his life but I do know he did not ask to be born into straits so taxing. We simply were dealt different hands in life. 


Do we wish after this chapter comes to a close, whenever that may be, to create a more fair and equitable society or one that increasingly makes the class you are born into the one you will remain in? While there are incredible amounts of generosity and philanthropy that happen from many, in his book Winners Take All,  Anand Giridharadas points out that our society perpetuates this cycle, “we can ask the rich and powerful to give more but never to take less. We can talk to them about 'opportunities’ to help but never about the ‘inequity’ of the system they benefit from". The American Dream is an intoxicating and valuable metaphor that is becoming more difficult to achieve. 


To those who are feeling despair at the moment I want you to know I feel it too. While I cannot promise any one thing, what I offer up is a reflection. I recently began listening to The Nightingale, a book about France during World War II. While the book is a fictionalized account what I was taken back by is people’s refusal to believe Nazis would ever reach Paris right up to the moment it happened. They were in denial and completely caught off guard like many of us feel. A war against a nation and a war against a disease are not the same thing but keep in mind that when people band together and look out for one another, remarkable things can happen. How we rise from a social solidarity standpoint, collectively is essential.


Will we look the other way as people’s lives are up-ended or feel bad and post about it online but do little when it comes to lobbying the government or reaching into our own pockets? Great sacrifice and hardship came to those visited by World War II and every other major calamity in history. People in those moments did not ask for those situations and they were likely not all that much more, if at all better prepared for them, but they found ways to endure.


The other day I was talking with my brother who was thinking about one particular aspect of the pandemic’s impact and he wondered why no one was talking about it and that they should. I reminded him as I remind myself in moments, “you have more power than you think you do”. I asked him to go become more knowledgeable on the topic and then educate me and a few others. Who knows where it goes from there? We are the adults in the room. We can bemoan Washington or our local capitals but the reality is complaining feels good but is not action. Do not try to solve the whole thing on your own. What is one little thing you can start with? 


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