An old curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” These are those times. Let’s hope we develop the wisdom to survive the curse of chaos.
This curse is subtle and understated. It has been attributed to an anonymous Chinese sage. But it likely came from Britain, the land of understatement and the stiff upper lip. Picture Monty Python’s Black Knight, with his arm cut off, saying, “Tis but a scratch, a mere flesh wound.”
The White House warned this past week that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans will die. Without social distancing and other measures, there could be between 1.5 million and 2.2 million deaths.
Those who think we can simply get back to normal are not paying attention. California school kids will not be able to return to their campuses this school year. Rep. Devin Nunes said the decision to “cancel” school is “overkill.” But closing schools seems a reasonable way to prevent a million deaths.
At any rate, school is not canceled. It is moving online. So these will certainly be interesting times for teachers, parents and students. Let’s help them rise to the occasion. Instead of denial and unrealistic calls for a quick return to normal, kids need computers. Educators need training. And parents need a new model for helping their kids succeed.
Above all, we all need imagination, dedication and courage. Interesting times help us discover what we are made of. We don’t know where our strength lies until it is challenged. Leadership does not emerge until it is tested.
We need our leaders to unify behind a straightforward call for the better angels of our nature. The rhetoric of the American tradition can help. Thomas Paine said, “these are the times that try men’s souls.”
Paine wrote those words in December 1776, as Washington’s army was facing a difficult winter. Paine said that the time of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots was over. He wrote, “Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”
We need statesmen to issue a similar call for hope and virtue today. This springtime may be among the worst in American history. More Americans will die from this disease than died during the Vietnam and Korean wars. The economy has tanked. None of us have ever experienced anything this “interesting” before. We need inspiration.
We also need something to do. Most of us have nothing to do besides grouse and complain. We sit on the sidelines, while the nurses and doctors risk their own health to save the afflicted. Let’s cheer them on and give them the supplies they need. But let’s stop the partisan bickering.
Our passivity creates a paradox. For most of us, the best thing we can do to make the world a better place is simply stay home. This is among the most difficult aspects of our predicament. Virtue seems to require bold action. But in this case, it calls for inaction.
The world’s traditions have often warned against passivity. They say that idle hands are the devil’s playthings. Laziness and sloth are vices. And virtue evokes images of a life of brave effort. Today, inaction is a virtue and activity is a vice.
Can we develop a kind of virtuous passivity? We might cure partisan rancor if we would learn the virtues of silence and patient hope. This is a difficult lesson for Americans. But it is deep in the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions.
During these interesting times let’s rediscover the virtues of quiet and simplicity. This is an opportunity to cultivate calmness and explore solitude. Let’s look within instead of judging others. And let’s encourage our leaders to do the same.
Note to readers: A California law that went into effect Jan. 1 limits freelancers like myself to 35 articles per year. I will be going to a less regular cycle, writing for The Bee only every other week. I will post more regularly on my blog (www.andrewfiala.com). You can also follow me on Twitter (@PhilosophyFiala).