I’m biased: I am an American who loves my country, but not everything about it. Now, near the peak of the number of people tested positive or admitted to hospitals because of Covid-19 symptoms, the question arises, what’s America going to be like, post-pandemic?
Can America grow more mature – more mature in its default assumptions, more mature in its relationship to time and more mature in regard to its performance of dominance as opposed to becoming wiser about the tragi-comedic nature of life?
From the get-go, America was a large, mostly habitable, resource-endowed nation. Despite difficulties the New World presented, as Americans moved westward they were feeling their oats. Native Americans paid a price. Then came the Industrial Revolution that seemed to force a skipping over our adolescence as a nation and as a people, normally a period of testing out and integrating identities. Still in our infancy, performance (as a way of behaving) and the law (as an impersonal way of judging right and wrong) substituted for creating an American culture.
In sum, by the coincidence of geography and circumstance, Americans, as a population, were curtailed from developing a mature capacity for self-reflection. Americans are more focused on Having and Doing, and less on Being. Being implying an appreciation for who one is and what life is about. The political doctrine of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in many ways is a gift, but it also led to a belief that any person can live an ahistorical existence and can have confidence in making oneself over anytime one wants. Yes, this is an underpinning of the American Dream, but it also has a downside, leading to an inadvertent decline in a capacity for self-reflection. The American ethic and aesthetic is move forward and just do it. No time for stopping and feeling and considering what these feelings imply.
Coronavirus: A Time To Pause, Step Back and Self-Reflect
Human nature is such that it’s often a negative experience that can lead to change because it interrupts familiar, long-ingrained behavioral routines, and can therefore bring up existential questions – What is the meaning of life? Where did we come from? Where are we going?
Evolutionarily speaking, the primal survival strategy is to minimize loss before you maximize gain. “Man, The Hunter,” at a fundamental level, is the recognition of the need to bring home the bacon – a defense against starvation. And the bacon was required NOW, not in a day or two or ten. Primal man was oriented to immediate survival. Not much time for self-reflection and not much linguistic capacity to consider what one is doing or for imagining something different.
In contrast, the Coronavirus as a threat to life took away our mobility and with it the American way – to go out and do. The question is, can we take this constraint and use it as a positive force to better ourselves as we move forward in time? Nelson Mandela, even after 27 years of incarceration, did just that. Why can’t a whole population of individuals reconstruct its attitude towards self-reflection and consequently expand its vision of itself and the world, as Nelson Mandela did?
Reconstruction, Then and Now
After the American Civil War between the North and South, reconstruction sought to give Negroes (as Black people were called then), the promise of full participation in American Democracy. This promise later was articulated by Dr. Luther King, Jr. when he said,
- “I have a dream…that one day my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Realizing that dream requires self-reflection, by everyone.
And the idea of Reconstruction also prompts a recollection of what W.E.B. Dubois, writer and civil rights activist, said in a letter to his daughter:
- “Be honest, be frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life.”
He went on:
- “The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin…the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful and curious world.”
More recently, another Black man’s words are perhaps worth remembering. That man is the actor and rap artist, Will Smith. When an interviewer on CBS This Morning (12/13/15) asked him, “You’ve already done so much, what else do you want to do?” Will Smith replied:
- “I want access to what I don’t have access to now: more of me.”
What self-reflection encourages is a more intimate awareness of the good and the bad we each contain. All humans are an amalgam of love and hate, majesty and madness, cashmere and sawdust. Self-reflection also requires a commitment to break the chains of our cognitive cocoons that keep us boxed in. Perhaps, after this pandemic has receded, we can try not to return to business as usual, but instead tip the balance of these contradictions by starting to reconstruct how we conceive of our interconnectedness with all people, with our planet and with ourselves. To paraphrase from Dr. King’s address, perchance in the urgency of now we can stop being in exile from our own being.