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8 Big Lessons We Can Learn from the Pandemic

Young couple standing on the jetty and watching sunrise
image credit: iStock/borchee

Suffering through a pandemic is a terrible way to have to learn a lesson or two about the nature of humanity.

But it’s what we have, so we may as well make use of it.

What can we learn from our current crisis? Not so much in the “I should have stocked up on more toilet paper” vein, but in terms of understanding more about who we are and our place in the universe? You know: big picture stuff?

Here are my thoughts.

1) Normalcy is an illusion. Still thinking that conditions prior to the pandemic were the way things were “supposed” to be? Or that once this thing is over, we’ll all go back to “normal”? Give it up. We’ll adapt, we’ll get by the best we can, because that’s what we humans do. But there is no special state that represents the way things are supposed to be – there’s just the way things are. As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari put it:

The heated debates about Homo Sapiens’ “natural way of life” miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.

2) We humans don’t occupy any particular place of privilege in this world. One day we’re feeling like the Crown of Creation. The next day we’re getting our butts kicked by a submicroscopic infectious agent that’s not really even alive, and certainly not conscious. So if we think we’re something special, and somehow chosen or destined to ride herd on the rest of the world, it would be best to think again. I’m reminded of some rather obscure song lyrics from an old Jefferson Airplane song:

Consider how small you are:
Say it plainly,
The human name
Doesn’t mean shit to a tree.

… or to a novel coronavirus, as it turns out.

3) Although each of us likes to think of ourselves as powerful, independent agents, the truth is somewhat different. Is there something ironic about all of us sitting quietly at home, streaming shows and movies often showing strong heroes conquering evil villains? I think so. When confronted with a real threat to humanity, it’s interesting that our ace superpowers turn out to be sheltering in place, social distancing and ordering things to be delivered. Who would have guessed?

4) We are already a global society. This is not to suggest that we are ready to do away with national governments, or with national borders: these things generally serve useful purposes. And it’s not to argue that we should be indiscriminate about our international trading partners. On the other hand, the rate at which this novel coronavirus spread around the world, and our inability to contain it, and the effects it has had on global supply chains, should tell us something: we are all one human family, all connected in ways we cannot see, and all interdependent. As Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” If we were harboring any illusions otherwise, then our current situation should be enough to dispel those fitful dreams.

5) Just because you can’t see a thing, and don’t understand it, and don’t want to believe it, doesn’t mean it won’t kill you. Overpopulation, global warming, species extinction – these are all as real as COVID-19, and even more serious threats in the slightly longer run. Greta Thunberg has been telling all of us to listen to the scientists, and the pandemic has brought those people back to the forefront of our attention, as we come to realize that none of us, individually, has any sure-fire way of defeating this thing, but that scientists around the world, working together, and sharing information with one another, may just come up with a vaccine and/or a cure.

6) It might be time to rethink our policy of infinite growth. Let’s see, how can I put this delicately? There are so many people now, in so many places, that our political leaders had to issue stay-at-home orders because, whenever we’re allowed to go outside, we tend to congregate in such large numbers, and in such close quarters, that we’re a danger to one another. And the virus has hit us hardest in large urban areas (not to mention cruise ships) where population densities are the greatest. And then the fallout from the pandemic has revealed the fragility of our global supply chains and the holes in our safety nets. Do we really think it’s a good idea to keep adding more and more people to the planet, and packing us together in ever tighter quarters? And to continue pushing the limits of how many humans one planet can support? Might be time to reconsider this whole idea of endless human population growth.

7) It’s high time we figure out how to better run large organizations. One of the most consistent elements of our current culture is our pervasive mistrust of large organizations. Despite all the things we disagree about, there is one attitude we all share: we don’t trust large organizations any farther than we can throw them. On the left, this generally manifests as a lack of faith in big business; on the right, this tends to show up as a distrust of big government. But the overall feeling is the same: a sense that these organizations are too large, too complex, too opaque, and too independent from the will of the those they are ostensibly in place to serve.

We all like small. We trust small. The problem is that humanity is now a sprawling mass of almost 8 billion people facing global problems, and small is just not going to cut it.

So we had better get serious about making large organizations more effective and more responsive to our common human needs.

8) Our purpose here on earth is to care for one another. As we consider our current situation, we may begin to question whether there is any purpose to our existence. We may begin to ask questions such as: Why are we here? What sense does all of this make? If there’s no grand design, then just what is the point?

But when we scrape away all of the fading illusions, we are left with one bedrock reality that won’t go away: even if we matter to nothing or no one else… we matter to each other.

As Albert Einstein said:

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people – first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men [and women!], living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving….

This pandemic has made all of us more aware of the countless number of others whose daily labors make it possible for each of us to go on with our lives each day: if we take away nothing else from this thing, let’s remember that, in one way or another, we are all here to take care of one another, and that so long as we’re doing that, we have purpose enough.

May 10, 2020