Americans have a tendency to think we react well in emergencies. There is this sense we rise to the occasion, without whining and with that strength of character vouchsafed us from our immigrant ancestors.
You only have to look at how the pioneers dealt with the dangers of the trek westward, the Depression-era folk who survived the Dustbowl and urban poverty, the Greatest Generation that willed themselves through World War II, and even a few more recent examples, like the reaction to 9/11 and the response to Katrina.
We are survivors.
But as we have become more accustomed to comforts and less willing to adapt to the less forgiving aspects of nature and fate, there has emerged this strain of “let’s pat ourselves on the back for doing the right thing.” You cannot turn on the television these days without seeing some cloying advertisement for a company that promises us we are “special” and that we will survive this “together” and that we are “doing a great job” and that we are heroes for “staying home.”
There is Alicia Keyes, writing a song especially for people on the front lines like health care workers and first responders, but which seems to give us all permission to feel sorry for ourselves and proud of making it through the pandemic. There’s nothing really wrong with optimism, and it definitely beats the alternative, but I am beginning to feel like a kindergartner who needs to be told how special she is every blessed five minutes.
And then there are the journalists like Chris Cuomo on CNN who make a very big deal about having contracted COVID-19 and chronicle it for the country on a daily basis, but who cannot escape the triumphalist tone of having suffered, and made it through the dark tunnel to the other side.
The people of 1918 did not need to have songs written to tell them how wonderful they were, nor did they get a kick out of businesses telling them that the mere fact of survival was a sign of virtue. I’m reading “The Great Influenza” by John Barry while quarantined at home, and the stories of families destroyed and cities devastated by another “invisible enemy” are heartbreaking. The difference is that you grasp the gritty, almost fatalistic pragmatism of our Philadelphia ancestors, trapped in the city that registered the second highest number of deaths during that earlier pandemic.
If we were to demand that same level of stoicism today, we’d be looked at as heartless, crazy, or both. That’s because we are so conditioned to avoiding the harsher realities of life, and worry either about giving too much offense or not enough praise. Partly it’s because of the “everyone deserves a trophy” syndrome, but mostly I think that it stems from this inability to face the fact that there are some things we cannot fix, and some things we cannot control. So staying in our homes is both a way to take our own destiny in our hands, as well as show everyone just how fierce we are in staring down forces that are much greater than us. We are not only going to flatten that damned curve, we are going to wrestle it to the ground.
And then we want compliments, and a trophy, and Alicia Keyes to write us a song.
My only real point is to highlight the fact that we have become so enamored with our roles as protagonists in the great theater of our lives that we have lost sight of the fact that no one should get an Oscar for simply performing – and living – the best way we can.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times in Philadelphia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.