There Are Only Hard Facts and Harder Decisions
One thing this pandemic has shown is that people have a problem facing facts.
I don’t mean facts in the sense of the scientific data (although that’s clearly a problem as well, judging by the litany of conspiracy theories that have become acceptable even in polite company). I mean “facts” in the more colloquial sense — of coming to terms with reality and accepting it on reality’s terms.
We’ve taken a merciless but increasingly well-understood virus and turned it into a divisive, partisan argument. We have somehow come to believe that what we think about the virus, or our own personal needs in relation to it, have some relevance to its spread from person to person, and its ability to kill with ruthlessness and painful efficiency.
Because we can’t bear something, we believe it doesn’t have to be borne. That’s why we see people going ahead with large, in-person weddings, or looking for hookups on Tinder because they “need the spontaneity.” It’s why our Instagram feeds are filled with vacation photos and stories from nights out.
Perhaps nothing captures this sense of entitlement better than a tweet I saw from the Fox News host Laura Ingraham:
Okay, sounds great, let me just get Covid-19’s manager for you.
Back in reality, it is a truth of human existence that some crises are inescapable. They force us to stop doing things we’d like to do, and to live instead in a state of extended uncertainty. They cost us things we really can’t afford.
Imagine someone living in America during World War II. No one could have told them when they’d be able to travel to Europe to see their aging parents again. No one could have told them when the rationing would stop. No one would have been able to say when their son would be released from the Army. No one could promise them that they were safe in their homes and would ultimately survive. The war was a fact, and everybody had to live with it.
Life is like this. It’s uncertain. It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t really care whether we really want or need something. It doesn’t care about us at all, really. It just is.
When we talk about facing facts, we are in part talking about making the hard choices that life demands. “At the top,” Secretary of State Dean Acheson once observed about the presidency, “there are no easy choices. All are between evils, the consequences of which are hard to judge.” He meant that all the simple, easy stuff gets handled by people lower down on the chain. The obvious stuff never makes it to the Oval Office.
And so it is with life, too — we don’t give much thought to the easy stuff. We don’t need to. There’s never any uncertainty about the things that don’t require any sacrifice and pain.
I think Acheson also meant that it’s not the choices that are hard. In fact, the right thing is often obvious. It’s the consequences and the costs of that choice that are hard. It’s the complicated, difficult, unpleasant stuff that we end up having to wrestle with on the other side of our decisions that make them seem so difficult.
I see this with some of my friends, pushed to a breaking point after so many months in lockdown, making choices they would have considered reckless not that long ago. What they’re saying when they throw up their hands is, “I have a sense that I’m not making the right decision, but if I act bewildered, it excuses me from the consequences.” Or, “I get that generally, this is a really bad idea, but my specific circumstances should be exempt from the otherwise unfavorable facts.”
How has the track record for not listening to expert opinion gone in the United States over the last five months? Oh, right, it’s created one of the worst coronavirus breakouts in the world. We’re zeroing in on 200,000 dead. Sixty-seven 9/11s. Four Vietnams. Eight American Revolutions.
Yet here we are, talking about how life has to go back to normal sometime.
We all need a lot of things. I do. My kids certainly do. But the facts come first, so we’re staying home. They aren’t going to school, and my businesses remain closed. Not because that’s what any of us want, but because, in truth, there is no choice.
There is not much upside in a pandemic — certainly not this one. But there is a lesson in it.
It’s a lesson that we have done our best not to learn, that we have resisted for some time now. That lesson is this: Life is hard. It is filled with hard facts and hard decisions. We have to face the truth and do the hard thing.
So now the question is: How do we adjust our societies and lives based on these hard facts in a way that supports everyone? This might mean calling for schools to send students hot spots so they don’t need to use Taco Bell’s Wi-Fi to do their class assignments. It probably means paying people to stay home. It means asking colleagues what you can take off their plate. It means listening, really listening, when friends and neighbors tell you how they’re doing. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” Eleanor Roosevelt said.
Do the hard thing. Even if we think we can’t do it. We can. We have to.