Thanks to social distancing, we are living very separate lives at the moment. But we are also discovering a leveling and equal susceptibility. A microscopic organism has brought the world to its collective knees. And perhaps from the fear and uncertainty this COVID-19 has wrought, we will find a cure for more than the coronavirus.
Politics in America:
We were already separated.Livy, the great poet of Rome once said: “We have reached the point where we cannot bear either our vices or their cure.” As was true for the Romans, so it is for us. The political and social fabric of this nation has been deeply wounded for over a decade now. We have been there before, yes. Through slavery and Civil War, segregation and Civil Rights; Korea and Communism; Viet Nam and militarism; Watergate and pessimism. We could go on. And now, the list of our national crises should also include measles, diphtheria, polio, AIDS and a host of other health crises our nation and world have coped with in the last two centuries
We Americans are famous for finding creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. And yet, Livy’s quote squares well with our current dilemma. Our politics, our very democracy, was already at a crossroads. The current health emergency notwithstanding, our two political parties have wandered in the wilderness of lost identities and ill-defined parameters. And like our politicians, we are a nation starkly divided, increasingly lonely, politically despondent and progressively cynical.
Yet with Livy’s commentary, we cannot bear the vice, nor can we abide the cure. We have been paralyzed by fear, anger and a growing assurance of the absolute stupidity of those we oppose. Our disagreements have appeared as intractable as they are intolerable.
Religion in America:Alexis de Tocqueville, the astute French social philosopher, toured early America during the 1830’s and catalogued prescient and insightful conclusions. In his critical work Democracy in America, he famously saw in the American experiment a “religious point of departure” so embedded in our collective psyche, it motivated then even as it does now.
Quoting from John Winthrop (1588-1649), the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, de Tocqueville detected a bedrock beginning as well as an echoing essence:
“We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as member of the same body.”
Indeed, in Winthrop, De Tocqueville saw “the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on the those shores.” But de Tocqueville also sensed a looming cloud within the broad horizons of America’s future. Winthrop envisioned a society based on and planned for the common good. This was a “moral freedom” he espoused, a true freedom birthed from a covenant between God and humanity; it is a liberty “to that only which is good, just and honest.” “This liberty,” Winthrop said, “you are to stand for with the hazard of your lives.”
Yet by the 1830’s, de Tocqueville detected the growing seduction of unchecked individualism. This has only gotten worse. Sometimes referred to as “natural liberty,” and morphing into a “hyper-individualism,” we have lately been seduced into believing that my desires need to be met, my happiness is what matters, and my personal ability to get what I want when I want it increasingly flies as the standard for our political, moral and even spiritual decisions. The seductive culture of my, me, mine has sadly corrupted Winthrop’s communal, compassionate vision. Therefore, we have been at an existential cultural crossroad.
A New Vision for the Common Good:Twice in the last eighteen months, I have had the grand privilege of interviewing my friend, Barbara Brown Taylor. For both events, we were discussing her latest book, Holy Envy. She reemphasized in our time on stage what she says with such passion and wit in her written words. Teaching students in her classes on World Religions led to field trips from Piedmont College in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains to synagogues, mosques, Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches, Buddhist and Hindu temples.
Her students trended toward fairly traditional, generally conservative and mostly Christian. In many cases, these students displayed a reticence to learn too much from faith traditions outside of their own. With poignancy, humor, and great respect Barbara recounts multiple stories of glad enlightenment. Students discovered new worlds of compassion, heard broad words of wisdom, gained new insights, and experienced countless meaningful moments within traditions well outside their North Georgia comfort zones. Exposure to difference, encounter with “the other” and seeing meaningful interactions beyond their previous experience changed lives. The majority of these students became more compassionate. They saw with different eyes and felt with hearts more open. Respect is a vital beginning for us all. But there is more.
Our Common Vulnerability:This is the consistent theme in virtually every faith group, including the earlier warning in our Jewish and Christian traditions. The man and woman discover in the garden (Genesis 3), not so much that they are naked, but they are vulnerable and exposed to the world around them. The knowledge they stumbled upon was less about what they couldn’t have and more about what they couldn’t control. They stand prominantly as the early representatives of our common humanity. We are equally fragile.
Brene Brown reminds us in all of her books, including her most recent, Dare to Lead, that our common vulnerability unites us in a coalescing need to confess our inadequacy, our woundedness and our fear of failure. The potential unity this understanding engenders is profound.
Our Common Humanity: David Brooks, in his most recent book, The Second Mountain, concedes these fragile moments are ubiquitous for us all. They unite us in a common heritage which should reconnect us firmly to Winthrop’s call for the Common Good. These fragile moments also constitute the valley following the first mountain, that steep incline most of us endure for the success we hope for and the dominance our culture insists we deserve. But we tumble, stumble and bumble in our vulnerability and stark experience of unbridled hyper-individualism. We fall, inevitably, into the valley of loneliness, shadows, and failure. Only there, in our confessional acknowledgement of common fragility, does the call of the second mountain begin. He describes it as a “sweet compulsion,” a growing and deeply moral commitment to others, to the world around us, and to a new vision of a common vulnerability that is uniquely life-giving and imminently hopeful.
Perhaps change is at hand – in the form of a tiny little virus that offers us no other alternatives but to work together, to face our common inabilities, and to no longer ignore our truest human condition and our common human family.
COVID-19 is clearly no respecter of race, status, nationality or cultural leanings. It also might just unite us in ways that would surprise Livy and his Roman contemporaries. If we do well and learn carefully, perhaps this coronavirus will gather in each of us a calm assurance, having become so weary of our vices, we finally embrace our cure – by embracing one another. Let us hope so; and let us begin. Today!
As quoted in Habits of the Heart, p. 29.