THE GREAT RETHINK
“I realized that I was going to die—maybe not from this cancer, but I was in fact going to die—and suddenly a lot of things that used to be okay, simply weren’t okay anymore.”
With that curt assessment, a dear friend explained to me why her cancer diagnosis led her to seek a divorce after years in a sustainable but unfulfilling marriage and to start her own business.
Sea levels are projected to rise by one to eight feet by 2100, displacing millions upon millions of people, changing disease vectors, bringing more pandemics, destroying crops, and fundamentally changing our ability to live on this planet. The Arctic will be ice-free by 2050, further accelerating global warming.
A human life tends to gather momentum. When we’re younger, if we’re lucky, we get to think about formative questions, the answers to which will define the course of our lives. These exquisite questions are a luxury of youth. How do I want to live? By what priorities? What do I believe in and adhere to? How will I interact with others? And the big one (for me at least): Why? To what end do I do the things I do?
Because these are questions of youth, we tend to answer them with shockingly scant information about the world and ourselves, unexamined biases, and less thought about the consequences of the answers.
We have not had such financial disparities between the poor and the wealthy since the 1920s. At the same time, we now have our most regressive income tax system structure, ever.
Regardless, answers are needed. We give our answers every time we do, well, anything, whether we have thought about the questions explicitly or not. And those answers, like our lives, tend to gather momentum.
How to take actionWe begin to live by patterns that burn themselves into our psyche and allow us to answer the little, daily questions much more easily—indeed often with no thought whatsoever. In general, this is not a bad thing. Because once things really get going in life, things happen on the world’s schedule, not ours, and we often lack the time needed to think about formative questions. Babies cry, spouses seek connection, friends reach out, work accumulates, bosses demand.
Once things get going, we simply don’t have time to go back to first principles to determine our course of action. If we did, we simply wouldn’t keep up. So, we typically stop asking the big questions and settle down into the doing of things.
Until we don’t. As the philosopher and high schoolbon vivant Ferris Bueller put it, “Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.”
A typical human life also typically includes certain events that shake us to our foundation. Whether it’s a cancer diagnosis, a milestone birthday, a cheating spouse, the loss of a loved one, or any one of myriad other events, we have moments when our life grinds to a halt. These pauses often happen at unexpected times and the triggering events are often unpleasant. And yet the people who go through them often say they’re happier as a result.
Imagine what can change when an entire nation takes pause, and reexamines its core beliefs, rethinks what it’s willing and not willing to put up with.
The reason, I believe, is the pause—the moment of grace (and, often, anguish) when the daily demands of life are lifted and we’re forced to evaluate our everyday choices from a different perspective. But the pause alone is not enough; sustained happiness and a life more clearly lived requires sustained effort to re-examine those choices and make new ones.
A nation’s life tends to gather momentum, too. As a nation we’re governed by decisions made in our youth, decisions that have daily consequences we now accept as givens. Whatever you think of our Founding Fathers, there’s little doubt they had scant information about what the United States and the world would become. You need look no further than the references to “men” or to the methodology by which slaves should be counted, to know that they labored under unexamined biases. And you need look no further than the assault rifle to know that they did not foresee the consequences of their decision to craft a sweeping Second Amendment right to bear arms.
But life, including the life of nations, is for the living, and so we get on with the doing of things. We go to work and to school, knowing that our economy and our school systems have built-in biases and unfairness. We vote knowing there is voter suppression. We go to the doctor, knowing that our health care system is deeply flawed. We see police violence with horror, but don’t call on our elected officials to demand change. We ignore these things, in part because they can seem immutable, and in part because weneed to get other things done, now, even if the systems within which we do them aren’t perfect.
These disturbing facts are often all around us, but we no longer see them. If they are bothersome as you read this article, one solution would be to do something about them.
Life moves fast, and we don’t usually have time (or make time) to re-examine basic principles. Thus, we are left to figure out how to process the devastation of school shootings, income inequality, an inherently inhumane health care system, an electoral college system that has twice in 20 years given us a president that received fewer votes than his opponent, and police who are too powerful for meaningful oversight. The result is that these disturbing facts are often all around us, but we no longer see them. If they are bothersome as you read this article, one solution would be to do something about them.
American household debt stands at $14.3 trillion and rising.
And now, in 2020, a microbe has shaken us to our foundation. The Coronavirus pandemic has done more than stop our economy and force most Americans to stay home. It has become our national cancer diagnosis. Our cheating spouse. It has laid bare the worst inequalities in our nation. It has attached immediate, life-and-death consequences to health care access and to the difference between being able to work from home, and having to show up at the grocery, the warehouse, or the delivery route.
To get solutionsIt has allowed us a national moment to watchour police slowly kill a man on a public street. It has opened space for conversation about that. It has caused more Americans than ever before to question many of the mantras of modern nationalism. Perhaps, some realize, the United States is not predestined to prevail over all challenges. Perhaps our hegemony is neither permanent nor universal. And, perhaps, some things that used to merely bother us, are now bothering us enough to make us examine them anew, and maybe—just maybe—change them.
U.S. public debt stands at $23.7 trillion, or 122 percent of gross domestic product.
Imagine what can change when an entire nation takes pause, and reexamines its core beliefs, rethinks what it’s willing and not willing to put up with. If you don’t believe that such national reimagining is possible, look at the global response to the murder of George Floyd. As tragic as his death was, it was, sadly, not qualitatively different than far too many other deaths suffered by Black people and other minorities at the hands of the police.
Three hundred and thirteen people are shot every day in the U.S. Eighty-seven of them are children. One hundred and three of them will die. We kill one another at a rate approximately 25 times higher than other wealthy nations.
So why did George Floyd’s death cause a national upheaval that ran from the U.S. Senate, to Fortune 500 boardrooms, to streets across the country? Some say the protests were sustained because theycould be sustained. When more people aren’t going to work every day, they simply have time to protest that they didn’t have before.
There was a national reevaluation inherent in the decision that walking the streets of Portland, getting tear-gassed in Philadelphia, or being buzzed by a military helicopter in Washington, D.C., might actually be the right way to respond when a Black man is murdered by police in Minneapolis.
This is surely part of it, but not all of it. Because those same people could have easily done other things with their newfound spare time. Instead, they chose to stand in the street, risking arrest and physical injury. They chose to march with strangers to stand up for justice for a man they didn’t know, and by standing for justice for that one man, also stand for justice for so many others.
Something else was going on. There was a national reevaluation inherent in the decision that walking the streets of Portland, getting tear-gassed in Philadelphia, or being buzzed by a military helicopter in Washington, D.C., might actually be the right way to respond when a Black man is murdered by police in Minneapolis. And it might just make a difference for our future. To make that calculation, at some level, those protestors must believe that, unlike in the past,things can change right now.
Due to gerrymandering and population concentration, 388 of the 435 U.S. House seats are considered safe for one party or the other, increasing partisanship and reducing the chance for legislative compromise.
There are plenty more facts like these, facts that likely trouble most Americans, facts that are all around us, but are no longer visible, or seem immutable. In reality, we have created each one of them. And thus, if we look at things anew, if we sustain a national dialogue based on our shared experience of the current pandemic, we can change each one of them. Because they simply aren’t okay anymore.
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