Like many of you, I find myself this weekend struck by the quick development of events created by the emergence and spread of COVID-19. Thankfully, all around me in my own little corner of this world are, at the moment, not directly affected by this new virus; but we are all impacted by the current crisis it has unleased. At a moment like this it is hard to keep perspective about both the present and future, but, as history teaches us, this moment, too, will pass. It is with that knowledge that I ask all of us to be patient and keep perspective as we face this crisis—for it is not just a crisis facing our elected leaders, it is a crisis we all must face.
No truer observation about how to face a crisis was made than by FDR in his inaugural address of March 4, 1933, in which he said the following:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. … [O]ur distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it.
Although these words were intended to address an immediate economic crisis, the wider context of recent crises in which he spoke needs to be remembered. Not much more than a generation earlier, centuries of routine waves of smallpox, yellow fever and cholera continued to ravage communities throughout the world; polio continued to infect millions, including FDR; 15 years before his address the world saw the end of both a world war and an influenza pandemic that decimated populations in the US and Europe; by 1933 the men who would create such carnage throughout the world over the ensuing decades had come to power—Stalin and Hitler (with Mao attempting to take control of China)—and the seeds of the Second World War had started with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The common element to each of these crises is that they all eventually ended. They ended not just because of leadership from political leaders, but because of the perseverance of all of our ancestors who faced these crises.
Moreover, in just the lifetime of many of us, we have endured other critical events, both manmade and natural: the social upheavals of the 1960s; the stagnation and Watergate scandal of the 1970s; the Cold War; the swine flu, SARS and H1N1 viruses; the HIV virus; 9/11 and the wars that followed; and the financial meldown of 2008—just to name a few. But again, we have persevered through these times. This history shows that we will persevere through this crisis as well—especially if we remember how to do so.
As a former U.S. Vice President wrote in a personal memoir published over 60 years ago,
‘Seflessness’ is the greatest asset an individual can have in a time of crisis. ‘Selfishness (in its literal rather than its lay sense) is the greatest liability. The very fact that the crisis is bigger than the man himself takes his mind off his own problems. The natural symptoms of stress in a period of crisis don not become self-destructive as a result of worrying about himself but, on the other hand, become positive forces for creative action. … We are all tempted to stay on the sidelines, to live like vegetables, to concentrate all our efforts on living at greater leisure, living longer, and leaving a bigger estate. But meeting crises involves creativity. It engages all a man’s talents. When he looks back on his life he has to answer the question: did he live up to his capabilities as fully as he could” Or, were only part of his abilities ever called into action?
These are not just questions for political or medical leaders in this time of crisis, but, in a free society they are questions for all of us. If we empathize with those who face this virus directly every day, follow the health and hygiene instructions, and find creative ways to help our family and neighbors through this current ordeal, we will all get through the next few months of crisis. Most importantly, we may even come out of this better as individuals, and as a society, then we were when it started by re-learning how to care for and trust others.
So, just as we face this current crisis as it unfolds, we need to also keep “the day after” in mind. What type of people do we want to be when this crisis ends? As we think about this question, we should also remember these words from the same author:
…[L]eaders are subject to all the human frailties: they lose their tempers, become depressed, experience the other symptoms of tension. Sometimes even strong men cry. … The easiest period in a crisis situation is actually the battle itself. …And the most dangerous period is its aftermath. It is then, with all his resources spent and his guard down, that an individual must watch out for dulled reactions and faulty judgment.
Let’s get through this time by keeping our wits about us, but also by building the foundation for a better tomorrow when this crisis ends by rebuilding caring relationships and trust—even with those with whom we disagree. Let’s not let our guard down and revert to the isolation, self-centeredness, and distrust that has evolved over the last few years—we can and should be better than that.
But being better tomorrow is always difficult, for it is our natural inclination to let our guard down and try to revert to old ways of “normalcy”. Even the quoted author, Richard Nixon, who thoughtfully wrote those words in 1962 would let his guard down a decade later in such a spectacular fashion as to embroil the country in a deep political turmoil that still impacts our politics today, over 40 years later.
As Nixon’s story shows, it is hard work, even in the best of times, to build a better tomorrow, but it can be even harder after a crisis ends and even when we know what we should do. Let’s remember that building a better tomorrow after a crisis starts with being patient, keeping perspective, and applying creative actions during the crisis to promote what is truly lasting and important, and then continuing to apply what we learn from this experience to all the days that follow.
Good luck, stay safe, and remember to help your neighbor—we’ll get through this, too.