Most of us have heard the old joke about a righteous man caught in a flood. As he prays for rescue from the rising water, first there appears a helper offering to carry him on his shoulders to safety, then a Good Samaritan in a rowboat, then a helicopter dangling a ladder. In each case, he rejects the offer, saying, “God will provide.” He perishes and, standing indignantly before the Almighty, exclaims, “But I thought you would provide!” To which God responds, “I gave you strong shoulders, a boat and a helicopter—what else did you want?!”
Humans can be astonishingly reluctant, at both a personal and societal level, to accept what a moment in time is offering us. We blur those insights with our politics and preconceptions, our biases and opinions. Numerous studies have shown how readily we dismiss even the most compelling of evidence if it runs counter to our vigorously held beliefs. We are prone to living in a world we invent in our own heads, apparently never more so than in this age of massive information overload.
Already we can see that happening with this pandemic. It manifested in our country’s catastrophic lack of preparation as the situation in Wuhan unfolded and early dismissal of the virus as an alien phenomenon and partisan fantasy. It appears in efforts to demonize Chinese people and racialize the disease, to wish away the science of social distancing, to mock scientists and medical professionals for their warnings, to blame hospitals for equipment shortages, to dismiss the loss of life as exaggerated, to pretend we are all affected equally regardless of race and poverty, and to brandish some pathetic notion of economic machismo as the essential alternative to flattening the curve.
This powerful inclination to blur the lines between reality and belief grows in ferocity the more that society comes to know about this virus and our vulnerability to it. Old hatreds and beliefs die hard, we have always known that. But here is what we are learning anew: if we let them, those misbegotten ideas will consume us all.
We cannot let them. The uncertainty they sow is a self-serving illusion. On this, I side with noted theologian and social activist Thomas Merton, who wrote, “Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true.”
The lessons from this crisis will be many and, I pray, enduring. Whether we believe those lessons are divinely inspired or merely the opportunities that difficult times give us to reset a mistaken course, we are required now—both as beings armed with the unique capacity to think and grow, and as a democratic society charged with shaping its own future—to weigh the teachings this crisis wants to give us.
And they are abundantly transparent—not at all complicated or confusing, but glaringly, stunningly, ‘duh’-inducingly obvious. Here I briefly offer five. Our capacity or refusal to acknowledge at least these basic lessons will determine whether we grow from this experience or doom ourselves to repeat it in an ever-downward spiral of misinformation and despair.
Injustice is killing us. This crisis has laid bare how dependent we all are on workers we have routinely denied a living wage, health care, and child care (which, notably, includes many people working in health care). Shouldn’t that irony teach us something? Yes, folks working to provide us food and shelter, to keep us safe, and to move essential goods and services are behaving heroically right now. But we owe them more than our simpering, hollow declarations of thanks for their service. We are being asked by this virus to confront our ultimately self-destructive unwillingness to share basic human rights to health care, food, shelter, and opportunity with everyone in our society. Enough with the hand-wringing about that—it’s time for the richest society in the history of the world to stop embracing injustice as a condition of its own success.
Science is vital for us. The virus has proven that we do not live in a universe of “alternative facts,” where knowledge and expertise are no more real than some vacuous troll’s malicious opinion careening wildly around the internet. We live in a universe of knowable truths and testable assumptions. Science is the tool we have been given to navigate this knowable world and to build a future better than the past, including learning to protect ourselves against the possibility of pandemic. This crisis is challenging us to base decisions on knowledge, not on conspiracy theories and grotesque distortions of theology. Like many, I believe there are whispers to the universe not even science can discern, but, as we are learning so painfully, they are most assuredly not instructing us to obscure the gift of our own rational minds.
Government is an expression of us. The virus has offered us a bitter lesson about leadership, definitely, but also about the importance of government. After a generation of underfunding government at every level other than national defense and years of treating it as the enemy within, how can we be surprised if it has been stripped of the capacity to do its job well? If the U.S. government failed to react decisively enough against this threat, the solution is not to expect less of it, but more. Many of us believe government should protect its citizens not just against missiles and bombs but also against viruses, ignorance, inequity, racism, pollution, and the bone-crushing effects of generational poverty; others of us, I know, prefer a more limited view of government’s role. But surely we can all agree that we want a government that works, and whose workers deliver their best because they are valued by the citizenry they serve.
Nature is home to us. At a time when we are undermining the very integrity of the climate that sustains human life and civilization, we are confronted by a virus that attacks our respiratory systems and, the early evidence suggests, grows more dangerous in the presence of polluted air. You can view this virus as a plea for sanity from an angry planet, but I view it more as an expression of the obvious: the more we corrupt the air, water, biosystems and climate that give us life, the more vulnerable we become to illness and death. There’s an old joke about a patient who says to his doctor, “It hurts when I do this,” to which the doctor replies, “So don’t do that.” This isn’t a hard lesson to figure out: let’s stop destroying the environment.
Connectedness will save us. The supreme irony of this virus is that it has forced the most interconnected generation in human history into isolation, demanding that we confront how profoundly we need each other. While it is true that temporary barriers such as social distancing and travel restrictions slow the virus’s spread, this tiny bug we cannot see has made a mockery of our walls, our pretensions to sole authorship of our successes, and all the resources and time we have wasted spinning enemies out of our prejudices. What is saving us right now? Scientists and doctors, government and medical leaders, journalists and citizens sharing information and resources across borders. Volunteers showing up to give blood and hand out food to their neighbors. Donors offering up money, time and ideas to give help wherever it is needed. Even the simple act of staying home is a triumphant acknowledgement that your life and mine are connected, that we only win this thing if we are in it together.
Sometimes a ladder dangling down from above is just what it appears to be: a way to safety, escape from the rising tide of our own delusions. We will triumph against this virus, but that isn’t the only test facing us now, not by a long shot. The deeper and perhaps more enduring test is whether we will use what we learn from this affliction to build a less fragile, fractured society.
It turns out that justice matters, and so do knowledge, government, and nature; it turns out that only by embracing our shared future can we be confident of reaching it. The rescue we are waiting for is right here, in this understanding, dangling like a ladder dropped from above. And that isn’t just a nice story or fable. It’s the truth.