We are social creatures. How are we supposed to manage the constraints that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed upon us? Social distancing can help control the spread of this potentially deadly virus, but it makes life difficult both socially and economically. The restrictions imposed have been both disruptive and stressful. Yet, can there be a silver lining in this otherwise gray cloud that now engulfs us?
The answer is yes. As Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
Even as we focus on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, there is another long standing illness that needs our attention. Like COVID-19, the extent and intensity of this other illness has been growing at an alarming rate. And like COVID-19, if it is not immediately resolved, it has the potential to plunge the country and the world into chaos. What is this illness? Political polarization.
The chasms between left and right, rich and poor, black and white, governing and governed, and so on have steadily widened in recent decades. The escalating hostility created as a result now threaten to tear our nation apart. If our country is going to get through the COVID-19 health crisis in one piece, we must commit to reversing this decades-long trend.
Where do we begin? As with any skill, we must devote ourselves to practicing the fundamentals. In this case, the skills that matter have to do with building strong relationships, and in particular with the time-honored spiritual principle: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. This principle is addressed at length in a previous post; in this post we will focus on its application to the current crisis.
Understanding and practicing this principle is the foundation of healing. Is healing the same thing as cure? No, it’s not. Healing is of the mind. It is holistic in nature and associated with thought. In contrast, cure focuses on achieving proper bodily function. The job of medical science is to find a cure for and manage the spread of COVID-19. Our job is to focus on healing our relationships and emotional well being. That is not of the body but of the spirit.
The seeds of healing are planted when minds join together for the common good. When we practice social distancing, we recognize that we are all connected to one another. That makes social distancing a good starting point in the practice of loving our neighbors as ourselves. It’s an activity in which all of us can work together for each other’s well being. But more needs to be done.
Our struggle against COVID-19 is like a tug of war. If we want to win, we will have to learn to pull in the same direction out of love for one another and for the world as a whole. We will need to recognize that our political divisions and the escalating tensions among us are ultimately an attack on all of us and must cease. Making peace with each other is crucial if we are to win the war against COVID-19. If we don’t, COVID-19 won’t destroy us from the outside; we will destroy ourselves from the inside.
Abraham Lincoln understood the danger of deep political divisions. He explained it to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, IL in 1838 as follows:
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
As in Lincoln’s day, we are living at a pivotal moment. Now is the time to seize the opportunity to truly unite in spirit and be healed. Let’s put away our philosophical, financial, racial, and hierarchical differences and work together toward conquering the real enemy: hostile divisions among ourselves.
Let’s resolve to use this COVID-19 crisis to bring a spirit of understanding, patience, and tolerance to our national discourse. Let’s focus on healing one another as well as on curing our bodies. Going forward let us strive to seek cooperation rather than conflict. Let’s resolve our inevitable disagreements through peaceful communication free of personal attacks, through love and mutual respect for each other’s dignity.
So what steps can each of us take toward bringing both unity and civility to our public discourse during this period of social distancing? Here are some suggestions.
First of all, charity begins at home. Since we are spending much more time at home during this pandemic, we can practice being gracious, kind, patient, and tolerant of those in our own households. Spending time on shared activities such as working together on early spring chores or just relaxing around the dinner table with light conversation is a great way to build unity, mutual love, and respect.
If you live alone, as approximately 1 in 4 Americans do, call your family, friends, and neighbors. Better still, use Facetime, Skype, Google Hangouts, or Zoom to give yourself a virtual sense of being there.
Social media can also be a good way to stay in touch with family, friends and communities, but only when it stays positive! Remember that love builds up and unifies. It never tears down and divides.
Since this is an election year, now would be a good time to write letters to our leaders. We need to inform them that in the midst of our current crisis, the time has come for the two parties to set aside their differences and work together peaceably to make some real progress. The prophet Amos asked, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” [Amos 3:3]. And, Jesus also told us, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined” [Matthew 12:25]. Write to the president, to your senators, and to your congressmen and tell them so. They will have to listen if they want our votes in November.
Flood the major media outlets with letters, phone calls, and emails encouraging them to promote unity rather than controversy. Amplifying controversy may sell more advertising, but it will only deepen the divisions that already exist. In short, the power of their influence could either save the country or destroy it. Encourage them to use their considerable influence to unify the nation and restore the public trust.
Finally, if you’re able, volunteer in whatever way you can. Contact your state and local officials and your local aid organizations to see where assistance is needed and how your unique talents can be employed to make a difference.
How we collectively respond to these challenges now will determine the destiny of our nation. Will we join together, be healed, and endure? Or will the nation, as Lincoln put it, “die by suicide”? The choice is ours; we can heal our nation. It may be an arduous task, but it is very achievable. Remember, all it takes is a tiny spark to create a blazing forest fire. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead had it right:
“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”