We’re Not All In This Together Anymore

Crisis brings community together. When we experience tragedy, we reach out. 

  • Natural disaster…volunteers flock to the scene 
  • Someone dies…friends and family come together for a wake, funeral, shiva, etc. 
  • Acts of violence…we hold rallies, vigils, and take peaceful action together 

There is something inside of us that instinctively calls us into community to respond to an external threat. In that response, we close ranks, circle the wagons, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder together to take down the enemy. 

COVID is different. Biologically, our instinctive response to come together actually increases the threat of spread. So we have to fight that instinct for community, and stay separated out of individual survival. It is this contradiction that makes this a different kind of threat. People are dying alone in hospitals or care facilities without friends and family around them. Compounding this is the inability for us to be with the survivors at funerals or wakes or celebrations of life so our individual suffering is lingering longer and deeper. That feeling that we should have been there, should have done something goes untreated. 

COVID is different on another level. How we are responding to it through our institutions–government, media, business, faith, etc.–is different than I have ever seen. Before, we would respond as a nation. Americans would rise up together to meet any challenge. Today, our COVID response is much more local, more variable, more tribal. 

Each state is different. Each county has its own perspective. Each city is responding differently. We are even seeing stories of different individuals responding to the different guidelines differently, and having city, county, state and federal governments respond differently to different people. I’m thinking of the barber who was arrested vs. the billionaire who was not – both for opening their businesses against the different city, county, state, and federal guidelines. One for putting himself and his customers at risk (all who chose to come together) vs. the other who called his employees back to work under the threat that not returning to work would constitute a resignation and disqualify them from unemployment benefits. Yet, the former was arrested and the latter cheered as a hero for individual rights.  

It is this lack of consistency, lack of community, and lack of equality that will cause the next wave of damage. It will also clarify some important things for all of us. 

The Next Wave(s) 

We talk about waves of COVID meaning numbers of infections. Here, I am talking about waves of dis-integration. Waves where individual differences of opinion will pull us further and further apart as a whole community, and closer and closer to our respective tribes. 

The first month, we were all in it together. We had different experiences, often by virtue of the industries we work(ed) in, the roles we play, and the type of work we perform. The only distinction really was ‘essential’ vs. ‘non-essential’ employees. That distinction was fairly clear. Front-line health workers, food/groceries, supply chain are essential employees, the rest of us are not. It was that all-in-this-together that enabled large swaths of our economy to move on-line, to pass sweeping legislation in a divided Congress, to look out for our neighbors who had compromised immune systems or were in higher risk categories. It wasn’t great, but we were together. 

Then, we weren’t. As states started opening on different timelines, as counties and cities pushed back on governors (on all sides of the spectrum), as individuals started to take actions consistent with their beliefs, we started to see us pulling apart. Protests broke out demanding to open up business and beaches and churches – while those who chose to shelter-at-home sheltered at home and cursed at the crowds on their televisions. 

As stores are opening with different policies and practices –some required by local, state, or federal guidelines–customers are responding differently. Some people willingly and happily wear their homemade masks or their N95s, others defiantly choose to wear no face covering.  

It is this us vs. them, me vs. we, I-can’t-believe-they-are-doing-that-and-we’re-so-much-smarter-because-we’re-not…that is what is taking us tribal. 

And the dividing lines are not unique. It is not based on anything new. It’s not that we are looking at COVID research and data and interpreting them differently. The fronts are familiar: 

  • Which news outlet(s) we watch/trust 
  • Which politicians and their proxies we believe 
  • Which party we belong to 
  • Whether we believe science and scientists, or are skeptical about them, their motives, and their recommendations 
  • Who we are connected to on social media and what they believe, tweet, post, and forward
  • How we frame the actions and messages of those we agree (and disagree with)

Essentially, it all comes down to which tribes we belong to. Are protesters rallying for reopening the economy and ending safer-at-home orders COVIDIOTS or Freedom Fighters? Are they pushing back against government overreach or are they accelerating the spread by standing close to one another, without masks, and screaming at the top of their lungs (and spreading their germs)? Can they be both? Is there any subtlety or nuance or grey area left in this debate? 

As these divisions grow firmer, deeper, and on more issues, we have to wonder if there is any positive outcome. United we stand, divided we fall. So, are we destined to fall one by one? 

I don’t think so. 

Things Clarified

As our tribes are getting defined more clearly, and the consequences of our beliefs and actions become greater and greater, we are gaining more and more clarity. 

Governors can order us to shelter-at-home, but they can’t (really) make people stay home. Governors can “reopen their economies” but they cannot make people get out there and dine at restaurants, hang out at bars, go to their gyms, or send their kids to school. Those choices are still ours. And we have all pretty much decided which side we are on, and what we are willing to do, and what we are not going to do. 

And, not surprisingly, most of our friends and family agree with us (whoever we are). Our friends tend to think as we do– that’s how tribes work. We surround ourselves with like-minded people and look out for one another and reinforce our values and beliefs. We are getting much more clear on what we believe and who is in our tribe and who is not. 

We are also getting less and less interested in changing other people’s minds about these issues. We’re disengaging from debate and discussion about the issues to convert people on the other side or recruit new believers. We are simply cheering for our team louder and louder–just to drown the other side out. We are also losing patience with those who believe differently than we do. We are (at best) disengaging from the discussion. 

We are allowing people to make their own decisions, and hoping that the consequences of their decisions don’t affect us too much. If people decide to stay at home, hopefully they are able to work from home and they will shop enough and order enough takeout to keep the economy going. If people go out to protest opening the economy or head to a bar as restrictions are lifted, we hope they don’t cause a spike in cases and overwhelm our hospitals, first responders, and other front-line workers. 

We are simply not all in this fight together any more. We may all be in the same ocean, but we are in very different boats, rowing in very different directions, to different destinations.     

So What? Now What? 

This is where I want to write something about coming back together as a country, a people, as humans. This is where I want to pivot and end this on a high note with some sense of optimism and hope. Here is the best I can do right now:  

Leaders make things happen that would not have happened on their own. We are seeing leadership in this crisis, but it is not the unifying leadership we historically would have and hope for. We have leadership in pockets, in places, in domains, and in tribes. 

The “so what?” for now is more of the same. Your tribe will tell you you’re right. You will believe who and what you want, and you will make the decisions you want to make. As Twitter says, “You do you.” 

Let’s agree to a few tactical things so we can all co-exist in the same time and space while believing very different things: 

  1. Let’s not waste our time and energy trying to convince strangers to do otherwise. We have enough on our plates right now taking care of those in our tribes. We are all trying to simultaneously fulfill the roles of spouses/partners, parents, teachers, coaches, IT support, friend, son/daughter, and healthcare expert. Trying to change your beliefs is not on my to-do list.
  2. Let’s not yell at each other about how smart we are and stupid you are. It’s likely we are working from different data. The one thing we know is yelling at people never changes their minds. 
  3. Let’s agree to not argue about wearing a mask in public spaces. If your laws require them, then wear one. If the store you want to enter requires it, then mask up (or don’t shop there). If not, then you don’t need to. Now, it may be polite to wear one when those around you are wearing them. Treat it like shoes. You don’t have to legally wear them many places, but yet we mostly all agree to wear them when we go out. 
  4. Let’s remember to give everyone (yes, everyone) a break. Everyone is going through something right now. Some have lost businesses or jobs or have been furloughed. Some have lost parents or loved ones (to COVID or other things). Some are battling with depression, isolation, and addiction. Some have had to cancel or postpone vacations, weddings, graduations, divorces, surgeries, etc. So give people a break. Don’t. Be. An. Asshole. 

We all hope that the same scientists that some malign are able to find a test, a treatment, a vaccine, or something to change the game or that politicians that some malign are able to come together and pass important legislation to change the dynamics. Until something like that happens, this is where we are. So we can hope and work towards a new drug, a new law, a new innovation or something that lets us be together again while being less scared, frustrated, and angry by, for, and about one another. 

Until then, let’s realize that we are not all in this together. We are all in this. We are now redefining who is with us and who we want to be together with. 

Regardless of your tribe and your choices, I hope you are physically healthy, gainfully employed, surrounded by loving family and friends, and helping your neighbors who might not be as fortunate as you.

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