Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
There was a philosophy group that I used to go to where we would discuss the latest news, topics, and ideas. The group would sometimes cycle between members, but it was always overall pretty diverse in terms of backgrounds and affiliations. Because of that diversity, sometimes the talks would get pretty intense, but never out of hand, as philosophers are stereotyped to do. What I found however was in all of that, there was this common thread of idealism that went along the lines of, “if people only…”: were more educated, believed in the same thing, gave more of a damn about other issues beyond themselves and so on, that there would be less tension and more common ground. It's a hope that I found in many people and groups that I’ve been around and worked with. And one I used to follow as well.
That was until Covid.
Living the Dream
Something I used to say when people presented such ideals to me was that the idea, while well meaning, was also naïve. It was naïve because it didn't take into account the hold that one’s own self-interest and values had on them. The comfort and certainty that such things, regardless of how flawed or limited, still provided those people.
I used to say that for people to break out of those shells, that shell had to be forced open: shattered, externally. My most common example that I employed was the point in American history between the Great Depression and the end of the Second World War. The reasoning being that the economic crash, national recovery, and the war that followed caused many groups who had no reason to like or trust each other, to for a time deal with greater existential threats. It didn’t remove the source of the tension and they definitely still existed, but there was also a sense of putting those tensions on hold to a certain degree.
Requiem of a Dream
Covid hit changed my mind...or at least most of it. Pandemics are hardly new to the world. You could track a whole slew of them going back to 1918 alone with the Spanish Flu, Polio, AIDS, SARS, and Ebola. Most of these have a much higher death rate than Covid.
Yet there was something unique about this newest pandemic. The speed in which it spread out of China and across the world, the huge numbers of people seemingly randomly infected by it and who died hit the global community like a biological nuke. Compare this to AIDS during the last century, itself a rapidly growing disease at the time, and it's truly shocking. Hell, the entire world was put on hold for the first time in...well ever!
People began to call out for unity in fighting the virus and following the health restrictions. It was literally something out of a Hollywood blockbuster, which is usually the peddler of such ideas of unification in the face of the greater, existential threat, ala Independence Day. Surely, I thought to myself, the moment had arrived where the idealism of sci fi stories and summer thrill flicks had arrived.
As the year went on however, this idealism slowly started to run out of steam. There were increasing stories of Covid parties among Millennials and Gen Zer’s who were initially thought to be more immune to Covid than people over forty. Something I saw quite frequently in my walks in the city, walking by frat houses that partied like there wasn't a pandemic around them. Governments began squabbling with each other, first over whose fault the pandemic was, and then over who would take credit for the first successful vaccines. Growing reports of increasing abuse of children in bad homes who now had no outlet to briefly escape their hell holes, and so on.
Despite all the WW2-esque propaganda that was all over the place, it more and more appeared that our own self-interests and needs to get out and socialize took priority over our survival and the survival of those around us. That people could literally not care about their fellow man never seem so naked and raw to the civilized world than during 2020.
Meet Me Halfway
I said earlier that Covid mostly changed my mind about a utopian alliance. There’s a reason why after all I just mentioned that I said ‘mostly’. The concept is still a viable one because it relies on the factor of choice rather than inevitability. When I was Christian, I was often told that humanity will never free itself of the sin nature because it was inborn. In our literal DNA, both biologically and spiritually. But even then I didn’t quite believe that because how could someone be held responsible for something they did not choose?
No, whether coming from a spiritual or scientific perspective, if humanity is damned it's because we choose it for ourselves.
To "come together as one" as the saying goes is not as easy as many people like to make it out to be. The primary reason being that it does involve potentially sacrificing our own needs and values for a greater goal. A body cannot move forward if it's limbs are trying to go in other directions. And these especially there is a great mistrust in what the other wants, or that we would fit into their value system and visa versa.
Coming together also involves looking past our own benefits from the current system and potentially seeing the real flaws that exist in it. Flaws we may never have had to consider before then. Everyone wants to see Manhattan, but no one wants to see the rundown parts of the Bronx. The level of empathy required would be huge and empathy is the hardest human commodity to come by and develop. Especially in this era.
Still though, there have been and still are people choosing to do what they can to help each other out. Millennials, Gen Xer’s, and Zer’s putting in time at hospices and elderly homes to help those more vulnerable. The myriad of frontline and social services adapting their businesses around the health restrictions to limit the spread. People are choosing everyday how to live during these times. As long as there’s a choice, there’s a chance.
It’s just that it's a very distant chance.
© 2021 Jamal Smith