Yesterday afternoon dozens of cars full of honking, waving Rountree Elementary teachers were streaming down our street. They were driving block by block, with balloons and posters on their cars, reminding students they are missed and loved. It was hard to keep my eyes dry as I watched little kids overcome with joy to see their teachers smiling at them from at least six feet away. This followed a morning of coordinated door-to-door efforts by our neighborhood association to leave informative door hangers so the most vulnerable among us can find the resources they need. There’s no question I am privileged. My neighborhood is regularly voted the best in our city, and we enjoy an uncommon commitment to social connection and solidarity. But there’s more to it than that.
If I’m honest and I look beneath my cynical, self-righteous veneer, the America I know is very different from the entrenched battlefield I often describe. But it takes a crisis. The America I know is a place where we help when tragedy strikes. Where people with basements give their neighbors underground shelter when a tornado is on the way. Where we band together during hurricanes, ice storms, and power outages. Where we fix meals, do laundry, and watch over our neighbors’ kids. We help push stalled cars out of intersections. We stand up for people who don’t feel safe. We generally do big, helpful things when people around us are facing crisis. That’s the America I live in. Maybe I’m propping up a fantasy. Maybe it’s what I’d like to believe about my country. Whether I’m right or not, it often seems to take a crisis for us come together.
During the year Betsy and I spent traveling the country, listening to people talk about the things that separate us, I often brought up my Crisis Argument – that people are generally good, and differences and divisions tend to fade when we’re facing struggles together.
Pam in Santa Fe, who spent years working in public policy (some of it as a presidential appointee in DC), said she thought my vision of America might only exist in the heartland. Her experience was that people didn’t help strangers much, no matter the circumstances. I brought up 9/11 – how no one considered anyone’s religion or politics as they worked together to help. But Stephanie, who works for NASA, reminded me her Muslim friends were left out of relief efforts and conversations after 9/11. More than one person has talked to me about how people of color are regularly disenfranchised, even in the midst of crisis (Katrina, anyone?). So, it isn’t a panacea for our divisiveness, no doubt, but it sure seems like crisis brings us closer than our normal, everyday existence.
On our way through Pennsylvania – in September, 2017 – we stopped at the Flight 93 National Memorial, outside Shanksville. The story of those passengers coming together to fight a common enemy was profound, especially when you’re looking at the spot where the plane collided with the ground at 570 mph. Looking closely at the bios of those passengers, it isn’t hard to see all the possible divisions that existed among them. But when faced with an immanent and overwhelming danger, they quickly transcended their differences and unified for a common goal.
When we all share a similar challenge, we’re more likely to focus on what we have in common, rather than our differences. Especially if the stakes are high and the situation extraordinary. In our present moment, the problems are big, they affect us all, and none of us has seen anything like this before. We’re all in this together.
It’s an extraordinary opportunity to redefine ourselves, to do something gigantic. To turn to our better angels, instead of our damaged, cynical souls, misshapen by politics and our 24-hour outrage machines.
In the spring of 2018 Betsy and I met then Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He had been the runner-up to Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries. His campaign was built on a sense of optimism and cooperation. Ultimately, the message of anger and divisiveness “trumped” his appeal to unity and emotional vulnerability. Kasich told us a story about a town hall he held in New Hampshire where an 80-something guy got up and told a story about how his wife had just died. Kasich stopped him and said to the crowd, “Who is going to take this man to dinner tonight?” People began to cry, hug the guy, and exchange phone numbers so they could continue to support him. “Sometimes people just need permission to care about each other,” Kasich added.
Celebrity scholar Brené Brown contends that vulnerability is key to social connection and well-being. Emma Seppälä, Science Director at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, further explains:
Acute stress may help remind us of a fundamental truth: our common humanity. Understanding our shared vulnerability — life makes no promises — may be frightening, but it can inspire kindness, connection, and desire to stand together and support each other. Acute stress, as unpleasant as it may be, may also be an opportunity to experience the most beautiful aspects of life: social connection and love.
There’s something that happens to us in crisis. It cuts us deep, reveals our authentic selves and makes us vulnerable in ways we normally guard against. The question is will we take the opportunities and show the leadership it takes to transcend the normal patterns of outrage and division? Or will we fall back on the state of nature, where everything is a “war of each against all,” where toilet paper and hand sanitizer are scarce resources we need to secure before the competition (our neighbors) get them first?
There are so many examples of our capacity to rise above differences to meet a crisis. Why does it take a crisis? And why do we so quickly return to our resting outrage face as soon as the stress levels out? I’m not sure how to answer all those questions, but they need answers.
We’ll all decide who we’re going to become during this crisis.
We should think long and hard about that.
This historical moment is huge. For everyone. How we choose to respond will leave a mark on us and our communities for generations to come.
This crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. We don’t have to get worse in the meantime. We have an opportunity to become something better than we’ve been lately. If we stand together as we stay apart.
#StandTogetherStayApart #FindCommonGround #LetSomethingComeOfIt #SomethingGigantic
**I just spent a little time at Lindberg’s Tavern, where a group of us came in one by one — following proper cleaning and distancing protocol — to record an impromptu album of solo and duo acoustic performances. Our purpose was to quickly put together an album that will serve as a fundraiser for the venues that have supported all of us by hosting live music. The album will be called, “Stand Together. Stay Apart.” Initially it will only be available as a perk when you pick up curbside food/drink from a select group of places. Be on the lookout for it.**