“You can’t handle the truth”
“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
These two quotes have been playing out in my mind a lot over the past few weeks. Even if you haven’t seen the movie “A Few Good Men”, you’ve probably heard the first quote. It comes to me whenever we’re facing a big challenge and people want to avoid hearing the truth because it doesn’t fit within their narrative of the world. The second quote is from the original “Men in Black” as Kay points out to Edwards (AKA Jay) that people collectively tend to freak out and panic when confronted with some overwhelming new reality, like space aliens living among us on Earth, though a person can be reasonable if learning this same info on their own.
I think the COVID 19 crisis has, in many ways, proven both quotes wrong. We have, collectively, accepted the truth of what the crisis means for our world and we’ve dealt with it in relative calm and with minimal panic, though the early hording of toilet paper, cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer, and water could argue otherwise.
That being said, after weeks of directed restrictions from governors and mayors and ever more dire predictions about the toll COVID 19 will have on our society, it is perfectly understandable people long for a return to “normal” life. But do we want the normal we had come to accept prior to the start of this pandemic?
There are certainly things I want back as they were—unrestricted travel, gatherings of as many people as want to share a space, hugs and handshakes, the ability to celebrate and mourn with those we love and care about, children on playgrounds, to name a few. But there are a few things happening now I would happily retain when this is over.
The greatest is the sense among most of us that we are in this together. Despite social distancing, we are bonding as a society in ways not seen since our past national tragedies of 9-11 and World War II. We have generally set aside our differences in order to battle the pandemic in hopes of reducing its eventual toll on our country and communities. We have pulled together to support those on the “front lines” of the battle from first responders to health care workers to grocery clerks.
When the pandemic passes and the threat from COVID 19 is minimal, do we want to return to the divisiveness and anger that had become our norm in recent decades?
I know I don’t. And I believe this crisis is the ideal opportunity to figure out how we can retain our sense of unity across society.
I have a unique perspective. I’m a US Army Soldier and a combat veteran with countless friends having a conservative ideology (and some a VERY conservative ideology). I am also a career K-12 educator, so I have countless friends with a liberal or progressive ideology (and some a VERY progressive ideology). Consequently, for years I’ve seen and heard how these ideologies get reinforced in ways that widen and deepen divisiveness on a daily basis.
At the same time, I know these people personally. We’ve experienced marriages, divorces, births, deaths, and other traumatic and life-altering situations together. What I’ve learned is they’re not all that different at their cores regardless of their politics and ideologies, and nearly every one of them is willing to make huge sacrifices to help those in need. In a larger crisis such as we’re facing now, those differences seem to melt away almost entirely.
The differences that continually arise when not facing a crisis are, in almost all cases, superficial. The disagreements stem from how we achieve our shared goals; and unfortunately, there are people who benefit from the divisiveness and they continually push the message that “the other side is evil and their methods will destroy us all.” They don’t want us to pull together, and as soon as this crisis passes, they will work to restore that divisive “normal.” Some will continue trying to do this even in the midst of the crisis. They want to feed our anger to keep us from actually thinking too deeply.
I have studied, written, and taught about power and how the loss of personal power affects one’s life and decisions. I understand why people almost crave opportunities to get angry at other people and lash out at their stupidity, laziness, carelessness, smugness, attitude, politics, etc. I was such a person and would tell myself I was justified in my anger about this or that. The anger and justification felt “good” and I even told myself it was healthy to let that anger simmer—since it was justified.
I sense that justification among those who vocally and sometimes militantly support or oppose some person, group, event, legislation, etc. Like me at those times, they are filling a void in their sense of power in this world. They feel powerless about things that really matter. They don’t feel they have any control over those important things and a lack of power and control is very stressful; it literally triggers the part of our brain that controls emotions, and it silences the part of our brain we use for thought and reason.
In such a state, we look for a means of gaining some sense of power and control, but we don’t do so thoughtfully; we do so emotionally. That, in turn, leads us to individuals and groups who are more than happy to supply that sense of power and control without actually giving us any power or control. They then feed our anger and justification so we need to be connected to them, even if they never actually provide us with anything of lasting value. They become our “dealers” providing a fix for our addiction to anger and sometimes even hatred.
Of course, there are just as many individuals and groups against whom our anger rages. They provide a sense of power and control for those we oppose while providing a foil for us. They become the “enemy” against whom we can focus our anger. They provide the constant justification for our anger to exist.
It is true a crisis such as the current pandemic also creates stress and a sense of lost power and control, except this crisis affects everyone regardless of their demographics, politics, or ideologies; there are few “them” against whom to direct our anger. Instead, we recognize that others share our sense of stress and loss of control so we empathize and seek to comfort and help each other. We may still direct anger toward a select few, but mostly these are distant figures and groups like elected officials or the media or some other country.
And even if we do get a little angry, we mostly recognize that no one is truly to blame for the actual virus or the less-than-stellar response. Like the 9/11 attacks, we may be frustrated because “someone” should have seen it coming and done something, but we recognize that it was so unexpected and so unlike anything we’ve seen that we know few of us would have believed it possible or supported the steps needed to avoid it—until it had actually happened. And like 9/11 as well as tornados, hurricanes, floods, wild fires, and other natural disasters, the pandemic is bringing out the best in people and causing us to set aside our differences.
So, how do we make that become our new normal when this is all over? How do we keep from getting sucked back into the partisan chasm that consumes the time and energy of those it engages while alienating most of the rest of us?
The answer is to treat it like the addiction it really is and the first step is acknowledging we have it. When we are caught up in the partisan rhetoric, the anger, the hatred, we cannot recognize we’re there. Even when friends and people we respect and trust point out how unreasonable we’re being or how we’re being manipulated, we put up our barriers. And when one of “our” group members raises concerns about the group’s or leader’s actions, we accuse them of being traitors and liars.
Like any kind of addict, we find ways to justify our actions and decisions until, as has truly happened in our country, we actually sever life-long friendships and “disown” beloved relatives because they disagreed with our ideology or our political party or our candidate of choice.
I for one believe this divisiveness we’ve suffered for the past few decades has held us back as a nation and society, and I believe if we can keep it at bay following the current crisis, we can both be better prepared for future crises and we can start to solve the vast majority of our biggest challenges.
But we must first admit the divisiveness is a problem and agree that we all play a part. We can’t point fingers and blame others and wait for them to change first. Instead, we each have to do our part. And we each have to be prepared for those who will want us to return to our addiction—our dealers—those who stand to profit in some way from keeping us at each other’s throats.
How can we do that? The answer lies in integrity, trust, critical thinking, and courage. We must each have the integrity to follow our core values; and these core values are ones we all share—honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion. These are truly universal values as shown by the work of Rushworth Kidder in his book Moral Courage.
We must be willing to put trust in those we know and to whom we’re close and hold accountable those who violate our trust, even when they claim to be doing so in our best interest.
We must practice critical thinking, which means we reflect on the things we read and hear in search of the real truth and not just the spin or filtered “facts” that support our biases.
Finally, we must have the courage to show integrity, trust others, and practice critical thinking because we will inevitably have to face a reckoning now and then. We will find out that we have been wrong at times. We will find that we’ve been manipulated on occasion. We will find that we have biases that are actually counter to our values. We will find that we have been unfair or worse to people who didn’t deserve such treatment and we must have the courage to admit this to ourselves and, where appropriate, to others, as well as to make amends when necessary.
If we are willing to begin doing these things and make a commitment to getting better at them and making them a priority going forward, not just in the midst of this crisis, we will build individual and collective shields against those who would manipulate us and try to turn us against each other.
I have to emphasize one point again—we cannot wait for others to “go first.” We must each make this commitment and follow through regardless of whether or not others do. And one of the best things you can do once you make this commitment is to simply not engage with those who will try to draw out your anger and biases. If you have to respond to someone, respond with love and humor. Look beyond their anger and biases to the value-sharing human behind those emotions. Refuse to fuel these flames and eventually they will burn out on their own. It won’t be easy, and it will require patience. And we’re all likely to falter on occasion. That’s okay. Recognize it; learn from it; and refocus on your commitment.
Consider the shared commitment we have right this moment, in the midst of this crisis, and the way it has allowed us to adapt our world to save ourselves, our families and friends, and total strangers from the effects of COVID 19. Imagine what we could accomplish—Imagine the challenges we could overcome in our world—if we could maintain that shared commitment when the current crisis is over. I’m making that commitment and I’m going to continue sharing ideas and thoughts that can help us better understand how to make this our new normal. Are you willing to join me on this journey? Are you willing to share this message with others and ask them to join us on this journey?