As a fully vaccinated person thinking about America’s COVID-19 crisis, I visualize standing on the shoreline, water rushing around my ankles back out to the sea. Yes, the water is …
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As a fully vaccinated person thinking about America’s COVID-19 crisis, I visualize standing on the shoreline, water rushing around my ankles back out to the sea. Yes, the water is receding…
But in the distance, a wave is building and coming fast.
The young protagonist in John Green’s young adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars” expressed his optimism regarding his childhood cancer: “I’m on a roller coaster that only goes up.” Life will only get better! Yet, this teenager’s cancer returned and crashed down on him, taking his life.
In America today, too many people downplay or ignore the threat of COVID-19. Not enough people are willing to get vaccinated and wear masks for public safety. The cumulative effects of such behaviors make it seems likely the pandemic will only get worse and many more people will die.
And yet, I was heartened to read Robert Putnam’s new book, “Upswing.” This political scientist tracks the steady, egalitarian reforms of the first half of the 20th century in America: Ida B. Wells shone light on the brutal reality of lynching. Jane Addams and Upton Sinclair exposed the horrors of the factory conditions for the working poor. Putnam is not blind to the segregated and sexist realities of the 1950s, but nevertheless tracks how America became more of a “We Society.”
Putnam also characterizes the 1970s as the “Me Decade” and documents the backlash against reforms as “the deterioration of compromise in the public square and a descent into cultural narcissism.” The current public health polarization over vaccines and masks is part of the legacy of that “Me First” ideology. It is tragic.
But Putnam still has hope we can turn things around. In order to begin a new upswing, we need a return to an attitude held by reformers of the early 20th century such as Washington Gladden: We need “citizens to whom duties are more than rights and service dearer than privilege.”
How do these inspiring words actually fuel change in our me-first, narcissistic society? How do we build bridges and create a more cooperative and generous spirit of unity?
I don’t think individuals can be pushed into caring for one another. We live in a sharply polarized society. No amount of clear, reasoned argument will change people’s minds when they see themselves in opposition to someone else.
I think the answer might be found in the reality of the impending crash, a fate that we will all share. Suffering is an equalizer.
Long ago, the people of Israel had hit rock bottom. The Babylonians sacked the holy city of Jerusalem and forced all survivors into exile and slavery. Yet, a prophet foresaw an upswing in which people “would soar on wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31).
As long as enough people persist in the belief that each of us rides in individual cars on a roller coaster that only goes up, there may be little motivation to reach out to one another. But if we find ourselves in danger of going under, there is the need to seek support and care from others. As novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Everything that rises must converge.”
My hope for our nation is that we shall rise in a spirit of cooperation, selflessness and service. If we come together, we can save lives.
Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”