Book Intro: This is not fine

This is not fine.

There is a popular internet meme that has been circulating a lot over the last few years. It’s a simple cartoon drawing of a dog wearing a hat, sitting on a chair at a table with a coffee mug on it. “This is fine,” he says. All around him, the room in which he sits is on fire.

The image, originally illustrated by K. C. Greene as part of a larger comic, has come to symbolize living in denial, or pretending that things are, well, fine when they clearly or not.

The coronavirus pandemic has so disrupted our lives that very few of us would even claim that the life we’re living now is truly fine. There may remain some who think the disease that is expected to kill tens or even hundreds of thousands of Americans is really not a big deal, or that think the tens of millions of suddenly unemployed Americans are going to bounce right back once the various “lockdown” measures taken by federal, state and local governments to slow the spread of the virus are lifted. But the vast majority of people here recognize that things are bad.

What we talk about less is that, as much as the virus and our attempts to contain it have disrupted our lives, most of the things we would agree are bad parts of this disruption are really symptoms of societal problems that far precede this viral outbreak, that run deeper in our society’s foundations, and that will remain as weaknesses long after this disease has run its course.

Coronavirus has exposed multiple problems with our society’s approach to health. Certainly, our public health infrastructure has been tested and shown woefully underresourced, as states and communities scramble for testing supplies, protective equipment for medical staff, and critical care devices like ventilators to serve patients. But beyond that, as we learn about what victims of COVID-19 are most likely to suffer hospitalization and die from it, we find that those with chronic conditions are most at risk, and while there is an inherited dimension of those conditions, in many cases those conditions are exacerbated by a society that does not make it easy to access the fundamentals of good health: nutritious food, natural exercise, adequate sleep. Moreover, the stress caused by coronavirus and the disruptions it’s caused have exposed a cultural deficiency in adequate mental health resources – not just treatment for mental illness, but a societal culture that prioritizes mental well-being. Our society is not fostering good health.

In addition to health itself, this pandemic has laid bare the lack of security most Americans experience on a daily basis. As the medical guidance to slow the spread of the virus has been for all but the most essential workers in societally essential fields to stay home, we’ve come to see in flesh-and-blood terms what statistics and studies have told us for years: our society does not offer security to most of its members. While some Americans have jobs that they can do remotely, many do not, especially those who least have the financial cushion to manage a loss of income. Even before social distancing became a commonly understood term, workers in many fields were put in an untenable situation in which they had to choose whether to go to work and potentially catch or spread the coronavirus or stay home and risk losing their jobs and their homes. It is likely that when the final analysis is done on this virus’ spread, the lack of financial security of frontline workers will be found to be a major reason for its quick spread. Even as the US federal government has responded with the promise of quick aid for displaced workers and small business owners whose livelihoods are at grave risk, both workers and business owners fear that the checks being cut to rescue them won’t arrive in time to stave off eviction from homes, shops and offices. This source of anxiety can be solved in the short term, but it reflects just how tenuous most people’s financial lives really are. “Living paycheck to paycheck” is a phrase used so often that we have become inured to its precariousness. Our society is not fostering security.

At the root of good mental health and a cornerstone of security is interpersonal connection – supportive relationships. One of the most distressing elements of the public health measures enacted to slow the virus’ spread is that they have eliminated the most common forms of relationship and connection building. When we can’t spend time together at work, at school, at places of worship, at rec centers and gyms, at restaurants, or anywhere else, we realize just how critical those opportunities for human connection are to our well-being. We also discover that many people already struggle with isolation and loneliness. Nowhere is this more powerfully revealed than in long-term care facilities. As states moved to shut off nursing homes and assisted living facilities from outside visitors in order to protect residents, who are most likely to be vulnerable to hospitalization and death from the virus, heart-wrenching stories of residents being shut off from loved ones – spouses, children and others – emerged daily. While many families had moved aging relatives into these facilities as an act of love and care, and while facility staff in many cases went to great lengths to provide facsimiles of connection through technology, it has been hard for those involved not to feel like these homes had been transformed overnight into prisons. Those vulnerable elders who remained in their lifelong homes, in many cases, have suffered isolation and loneliness just as much. Our society has not been fostering healthy human connection.

Much has been made of the comparisons and contrasts between the call to sacrifice of families in World War II versus the call to sacrifice in the time of coronavirus. In past crises, citizens are called to join together, to put forth effort, to collaborate in action to overcome the crisis. To slow the spread of coronavirus, the primary sacrifice to which we were called was to stay home. And while that is a sacrifice – especially for extroverts – and it has significant costs in terms of health, connection, and income security, the call to do nothing highlights another essential need that has gone neglected: the need for a sense of purpose. As the pandemic and associated shutdown has dragged on, it’s been harder for people to deal with an extended period of time in which their lives were not organized around a sense of purpose, a reason to get out of bed, something in their day worth doing. Of course, the disruption has also increased a sense of purpose for others – those on the front lines of serving the community, those thrust into new roles as homeschool teachers, etc. For others, the disruption underscored what they already knew: that their work wasn’t really giving them a sense of purpose beyond their paycheck anyway. Our society has not been fostering a sense of purpose.

Finally, even in the mandated “time out” of lockdown, many people have found that this phase of enforced leisure hasn’t left them renewed at all. Play, leisure, carefree time – is a necessary part of human thriving as we renew ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally in ways that give us rest and energizes us for future challenges. But over time, play has morphed into a consumptive non-activity. Bingeing streaming entertainment passes the time and can stimulate our emotions. But it doesn’t in the end seem to be restorative. Our society does not foster a renewing sense of play.

I will argue that these five dimensions at which our society is failing – Health, Security, Connection, Purpose and Play – are the five essential elements for human thriving. I will also argue that we can reorient society to better address these five elements if we change two things about the way we approach our common life together. The first is what we hold up as measures of success. The second is by adopting a core philosophy of solidarity through subsidiarity. 

We focus on what we measure, and what we measure, we focus on. We have gotten where we are today by focusing virtually all our measures around a few economic ones – GDP, stock market returns, unemployment rates – to the detriment of every other aspect of our life. If we want a society that fosters health, security, connection, purpose and play, we’ll need to be more intentional about what we focus on as priorities and what we measure.

But measuring the right things isn’t enough. We also have to develop a strategy for improving those measures that works, and I will argue that one of our biggest challenges will be changing our frame of mind as to who does the work of building our society and how we do it. And for that change of mind frame, I’m going to draw on two principles that are pretty obscure, unless you’re a student of Catholic social thought. I promise it will be a less wonky discussion than it sounds.

Once I outline those changes, I’ll spell out what a new focus on human thriving might look like in practice. I certainly don’t have all the answers – as you’ll see, the change of mind frame is much more about having more fruitful disagreements than it is revealing universally acceptable policy prescriptions – but I can at least give you a starting point for discussion.

This is not fine, but this is not hopeless, either. As bad as the news has been about coronavirus and its impact here, there have been glimmers of hope. Neighbors have banded together to help each other out in big and small ways. Companies and non-profits have retooled on the fly to address immediate needs in their community and society at large. Governments, especially local ones, have shown an ability to innovate, collaborate and lead in finding new solutions. And many of us have adopted new habits that will serve us well in the long run.

Were it not for coronavirus, I almost certainly would not have gotten around to writing this. My master’s thesis, decades ago, was on the principle of subsidiarity, and as a non-partisan voter who is involved in issue advocacy on a local, state and national level, I’ve often thought that our tired political discussions would benefit from the changes of mindframe that I’m about to outline. But I never intended to write a book to outline that argument; I figured eventually someone else would handle it.

I guess I finally decided to acknowledge the flames.

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