My favorite scene from Tom Hank’s movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War” goes like this:
Gust Avrakotos : There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful. The boy got a horse” And the Zen Master says, “We’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen Master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t cause his leg’s all messed up. And everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.”
Charlie Wilson : Now the Zen Master says, “We’ll see.”
Today is May 6th, 2020 and all we can say about the future is “We’ll see.”
It starts with this premise: As a global society, as a country, we have never been here before. Before the pandemic our economy was going through head-spinning disruptive change.(seems quaint now doesn’t it?)
And now on top of that, two things have happened simultaneously, the Covid-19 pandemic and our economy being all but stopped. You can’t separate them into boxes, they are intertwined catastrophes. The consequences, both intended and unintended, will last for a decade if not longer.
We have never been here before.
There is no precedent to cull answers from, no similar series of events that we can draw wisdom from.
Sure, you can draw parallels to the 1918 Flu Pandemic and even the 1892 Cholera Epidemic in Hamburg,Germany. In both cases, the government didn’t listen to scientists and they early on denied the seriousness of the situation. My favorite Facebook poster of the last couple of weeks read: “Every horror movie starts out with officials ignoring scientists.”
(Ironically, during the Flu Pandemic, the on-the- ground situation was similar to the 2020 pandemic: A highly infectious virus, no immunity, no effective treatments and no vaccine. The only defenses were hygiene and social distancing. (Sound familiar?)
But parallels fall short of helping us to figure out what to do next.
We have never been here before.
We are in that situation that Marshall McLuhan famously wrote about, “You can’t drive into the future looking in the rearview mirror.”
It follows then, that everything going forward, every idea proposed by policy makers are nothing more than theories, hypotheses and conjecture.
This is not a criticism, it is just the facts.
Thus what we will be seeing in the future months are high stakes experiments against two criteria: How will we save lives and save livelihoods?
I have a couple of recommendations for us as we live through this.
First of all, like any experimenter, we have to be comfortable living with uncertainty. Frans De Waal, the Dutch Ethologist wrote, “Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as certainty, only people who are certain.” Ambiguity, uncertainty and even doubt are baked into the cake of our near-term future. We need to adjust to that, like all of ancestors did. Think of just the 20th century. My grandfather and grandmother, born in 1900, lived through the first world war, the flu epidemic, prohibition (my grandfather was a liquor salesman) the great depression, the second world war, the red scare and the Vietnam war. That is life: uncertain and a bit chaotic. And that is just our “first world.”
Remember the feeling you had when we went into “lockdown?” That sense that everything on your calendar went up in smoke, that all your plans were laid bare? That all you could be really sure of was that day? That is the feeling that we need to be comfortable with for a while. It’s hard but it will be a necessary adjustment.
Next, as we proceed into this great experiment, we must reject either/or thinking. You can see it happening already. We are moving into camps. There is the camp of staying locked down and then proceeding with caution to open slowly to protect hospitals from getting overwhelmed and saving lives, even though the economy (that means all of us) will suffer.
The other camp says let’s open soon and as robustly as we can, knowing that it might cost lives, but it is the difficult decision we make in order to save the economy and lives that might be lost because of a possible deep recession or worse. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said recently on national television that we might have to accept up to 3000 deaths a day in order to open the economy and avert disaster. This morning in my local paper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, a letter writer reminded us that most of the COVID fatalities had “one foot out the door anyways” implying that they were not productive members of society and could be sacrificed for the good of the majority. I take a little offense at this, being seventy. . .
The point is that we cannot except, nor can we allow our policy makers and politicians to use, either/or thinking. It must be both/and. We must vigorously try to save every life we can and figure out the economy. (hopefully in a way that benefits all groups more equitably than before, but that is just my “liberal” bias showing through).
Finally, I think the appropriate posture to take now and in the future is realistically-optimistic. We cannot lie to ourselves or hold on to illusions that this will not be difficult and challenging. And yet we can grasp this fact: We’ve seen difficult times before. We’ve recovered, been changed and moved on. Look around you. There are individuals who have gone through terrible trauma, that would knock many of us to the ground, but they are up, walking, changed but surviving.
We will get through this. We will be changed. But we will survive.
So embrace the uncertainty, come to grips with the fact that we are in an experiment now. And accept the Zen position about the future: “We’ll see.”
Be brave. Be kind. Follow the science.