It is Holy Week. Easter is coming, Passover here. We are perhaps halfway through the big pause and fully conscious we are living big history. We’ve never experienced a time like this before—a global pandemic, a national shutdown—and may never again. When it’s over most of us will look back on it as a life-changing event.
What have we learned so far? What can we glean from what we’re going through?
As a nation we’ve learned that as a corporate entity of 330 million diverse souls we could quickly absorb, adapt and adjust to widespread disruption. I’m not sure we knew that. Crazy cowboy nation cooperated with the authorities. America has comported itself as exactly what you thought it was or hoped it was but weren’t sure: compassionate, empathetic, committed, hard-working, creative and, as a friend said, funny as hell. Under great and immediate stress there’s been broad peacefulness and civility.
So far we done ourselves proud.
There’s been a lot of pondering going on about deeper meanings and higher purposes. Is all this some kind of wake-up call? What is asked of us? Do we need to change, personally? Should our country change and in what ways? What should we learn from this?
“You did not come back from hell with empty hands,” said André Malraux to Whittaker Chambers after reading the galleys of “Witness.” None of us want to come back from this time without having gained some insight, some wisdom that we can use to gain greater purchase on reality.
A good resource in looking for societal wisdom is Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author, among other books, of “The Righteous Mind.”
“This is a time for us to reflect,” he said by phone, “and choose a better story. Right now stories are being rewritten all around us, nationally, individually, and we all get a chance to do some of the rewriting.”
“The key concept everyone has to understand is hardship generally makes people stronger. Fear, challenge, threat—unless they are extreme—tend to produce growth, not damage.” He feels this could be a turning point for some of the young who have been “overprotected.” They are enduring “a giant shock and setbacks.” “This will make them experience, and deal. Many people will grow a lot from it.”
In a national emergency it becomes easier to fulfill the key human desire to be part of something—“to be part of Team Humanity, to be useful. That’s why it’s such a pleasure at 7 p.m. I hear the noise, we cheer, yell and bang pots” to honor New York’s health-care workers. “It’s a small thing, but it’s a chance to be part of something larger and know it.”
He is struck by “all the possibilities of heroism.” There is “the Brooklyn landlord who canceled the rent for working-class people in 80 apartments. Then there is the man caught hoarding N95 masks. These stories were next to each other, on the same page.
“Every society tells stories, and those stories involve good and evil, and these stories call us together.” They are stories about “moral leadership,” and they make clear that “we each of us get to provide it.”
By talking about these stories we teach the young what is admirable—this is who you want to be.
We are also as a society reminding ourselves of what we hold high—the selflessness of doctors and nurses, for instance, and how they keep doing their jobs because it’s a calling. This tells us what bravery looks like, but also what a vocation is, and how a vocation is a spiritual event.
“If you want to come out of this crisis,” Mr. Haidt says, “discuss these things.”
The crisis has helped us discover the importance of the human face. The explosion of Zoom, FaceTime and Google Hangouts meetings tells us people crave more than just the voice.
“The key insight we’re getting is that video communication is surprisingly satisfying,” Mr. Haidt says. Social media connections in which you’re looking for “likes”? “That’s just managing your brand. But talking to someone face to face, if only on a screen, is really good. It isn’t a beer or a campfire, but when we’re starving, it’s good!”
Could what we’re enduring leave us less polarized? Not at the top, not so far in Washington, which hasn’t distinguished itself, but across America? “People are doing so much locally and at the state level, there could be a hope for a kind of civic renewal.”
Mr. Haidt has been studying political polarization for years, and what he’s seen in the data is distressing. Yet he would always say at the end of his talks that if present trends continue we’re in trouble, “but present trends never continue. Something will happen to force this off the trajectory.”
He thinks this might be “the thing”: “It’s the end of a cycle, not the end of the world.” He hopes that in a shift “from I to we,” Americans may more deeply cultivate the virtues we need as a democracy, “which include the virtues of the Christian and Jewish traditions—humility, mercy. We are so quick to judge. We need to be easier on each other, turn down the judgment 80% or 90%.”
“The virus may do this. We have all been humbled by it, as a nation of institutions and of individuals, from the beginning.”
That, by the way, is where Lincoln wound up at the end of the Civil War, thinking we must turn down the judgment. A friend this week quoted from Edward Achorn’s “Every Drop of Blood,” a study of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Mr. Achorn writes that Lincoln had come to think “it was time for Americans to stop thinking about self-righteousness. The only way forward was to recognize that all had been wrong and to treat each other with mercy.”
For now, we deal with disruption in even the most personal spheres. A friend’s mother, in her 90s, died weeks ago. No funeral Mass or wake was possible. He watched her brief graveside ceremony by video link. Another friend is arranging to sit shiva for his father on Zoom. A friend whose wife died could not have a gathering and is home by himself waiting for her ashes in the mail. Everyone is accepting, understanding, not complaining.
We’re all making do. The first night of Passover I attended a Zoom Seder with good friends. It’s always a pleasure, always moving, but this year more so. “You shall tell the Pesach story to your children in the days to come,” the leader read. “This is a holiday that was born in extremis.”
And of course Easter, the holiday that for Christians is the heart of it all. A friend sent a meme that captured this moment. It is Leonardo’s “The Last Supper,” only Jesus is alone at the table, a bottle of Purell at his left hand. But then you see he’s not alone—above him are the faces of the apostles in little boxes. They Zoomed in. They’re listening intently. “And Jesus took the bread, blessed it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘This is my body . . .’ ”
It all continues. A radiant Easter, a happy Passover, and may God bless us all.
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