I am in my second week of “working from home self-quarantine”, and I found an old photo of my grandfather as a young Air Force pilot, taken just before the US formally entered into WWII. He went on to fly fighters throughout Europe and the Pacific and was one of those that returned home alive. At the time the photo was taken, the war was underway in Europe with bombs raining down on London, while the US was nervously watching a rising danger that still seemed far away to many.
Looking out my window at the quiet woods surrounding my house I feel safe and am grateful for my health. I am grateful as well that this fast spreading virus hasn’t yet claimed any lives in my family or network. This will change, and the death and suffering carried by this emerging threat will be upon us faster than many understand or currently admit. This is not the case among my friends in healthcare who see what is coming and are grim. They are preparing for “the surge”, where our hospitals will be overwhelmed. As they get ready they also know that many of them will fall sick as they struggle to save as many lives as they can while comforting the dying. While it seems that too many Americans are still trying to carry on as normal, those on the healthcare frontlines are steeling themselves for the realities of triage where they will decide who to treat and who to let die. They see the rising danger, and it is no longer a far away threat to them.
The tragic reality of this pandemic is that it is still “far away” for many Americans. While the call to stay at home and flatten the curve is slowly gaining traction, it seems that too many of us are continuing with business as usual. As I look at my grandfather’s young, innocent face in this photo, I can only imagine his thoughts as he prepared for a war that was still distant and far away to many of his peers. Their fragile innocence was quickly shattered as more and more families said goodbye to departing young soldiers knowing that many would not return. These families and their neighbors quickly adjusted to a new reality of rationing, sewing bandages and planting victory gardens. Whether flying repeated bombing runs over a distant battlefield or working on a domestic aircraft assembly line, this war experience shaped and defined these men and women, and changed our culture. Tom Brokaw told the stories of the “The Greatest Generation”, and their actions, mindset and sacrifice provide a stark contrast to our current culture focused on individualism, comfort and consumption.
As we hear about the grim reality of Italy’s overwhelmed healthcare system, many of us are starting to realize the gravity of our situation. This growing awareness is awakening our instincts to contribute, and many are beginning to help in many ways: sewing masks and fabricating face shields, delivering food to the homebound and vulnerable, converting craft-distilleries from vodka production to hand sanitizer. Thousands of small businesses are going into hibernation as they prioritize community health over their own economic self-interest. The inspiring courage of our nurses, orderlies, med-techs, first responders and doctors feels contagious as they scramble to face a growing danger with a shortage of the masks, gloves and gowns that they need to protect them from this invisible enemy.
My grandfather and his generation were shaped by WWII. His role in air combat was just one part of a massive collective effort that defined him and the nation while more than 400,000 Americans died in the war. That horrible chapter in our history brought massive suffering and pain, yet it also birthed a culture where selfless contribution to community became stronger than selfish individualism. If today’s epidemiological models are right, the US may loose more lives to this viral enemy than my grandfather’s generation lost during the war. Will our generation rise to the occasion as his did? Will our efforts mirror the collective sacrifice of “The Greatest Generation” and reshape our culture?
As I continue to see so many not yet taking this pandemic seriously, I am not sure we will. My grandfather’s generation was also shaped by the great depression, and our world today is vastly different than his, so strongly influenced by a media driven popular culture infatuated with pleasure, distraction and consumption. While millions have continued to suffer from calamity and war around the globe, many of us have largely insulated ourselves from this pain, focusing instead on the pleasures and distractions that are beginning to appear trivial. Though our economy has promoted a culture of self-indulgence, I don’t believe that this is who we truly are or how we are meant to be as humans. At our core, our species is meant to be interdependent, working together for group survival. Perhaps these traits are reemerging and our deepest survival instincts are awakening as a response to this new existential threat growing on the horizon.
Looking at this photo in my hand I feel grateful to have spent a lot of time with my grandfather during my youth; his influence on me was pretty significant. His strength of will, determination, and confidence to lean into challenges are traits I have aspired to as I raised a family, built a business and lived my relatively comfortable life. As this virus begins to challenge that comfort and we react and change, how will our culture shift? Decades from now how will our grandchildren view our generation?
Though my observations often make me feel cynical, deep in my heart I am an optimist. I am far from confident in this outcome, but I do have hope that this virus might awaken the best parts deep within all of us. I have hope that as we respond to this threat we join together in collective action and relearn to genuinely care for each other. This existential challenge on our horizon could be our chance to become a second “Greatest Generation”, with a new norm that values the good of the whole over our individual pursuit of comfort and false security.
We did not choose this challenge, yet it is upon us and we will all have a part to play. I am inspired by Teddy Roosevelt’s call to action: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”. I do not know how our grandchildren will come to view us years from now but I am hopeful that they will see us as heroes similar to the way I view my grandfather. We are all a part of this story, and in the coming months our choices will determine its outcome. This is our turn.