Every so often, some calamitous event happens that shatters our complacency and forces us to take a deep look at ourselves.
That moment is right now, and I was reminded of it after my office received a book called Life After Covid-19: Lessons from Past Epidemics (Bandovallum Books), by Bob Gordon, a Canadian journalist and popular historian.
I’ve been reading the book with some fascination because it makes the case that every major pandemic had a profound effect on reshaping society.
If you think we had it rough with Covid, just take a tour, as Gordon has, through the major pandemics of old, from the Black Death through yellow fever, typhus, cholera, and Spanish flu.
Take the Black Death (1347-1351). This bubonic plague wiped out a third of Europe’s entire population, devastating cities, trades, the labor market, families, even monasteries. With so many ecclesiastics visiting the sick (and so getting infected and dying) the church work force was utterly decimated.
As Gordon writes: ‘On the deepest level, for the medieval psyche the plague was merely a proximate cause; a manifestation of something more profound. The essence of the experience was, as everything was for citizens of the 14th century, spiritual. The cataclysm was an instrument of God’s wrath.’
The economic and cultural changes of this feeling of divine retribution were profound – and not all to the good. The fact that so many upstanding and holy citizens had died rattled Christian belief, says Gordon, ‘inspiring spiritual questioning and laying the foundation for the Italian Renaissance.’
With such a shortage in the workforce, workers and even the clergy began demanding higher wages and ended up with higher purchasing power. Gains in productivity led to technological advances, most notably the development of the first printing press.
But spiritually, the world, in Gordon’s words, had ‘gone mad and mean.’
He quotes French historian Jean de Venette, describing the situation in Paris: ‘For men were more avaricious and grasping than before, even though they had far greater possessions. They were more covetous and disturbed each other more frequently with suits, brawls, disputes, and pleas.’
In Italy, Italian historian Matteo Villani wrote of disintegration, both economically and societally. With far fewer in line of succession, men ‘abounded in earthly goods, they forgot the past as though it had never been, and gave themselves up to a more shameful and disordered life than they had led before.’
A similar live-for-today mentality occurred after the Spanish flu, starting in 1918, which killed one per every 100 people in the world (200 times more than died of Covid 19 thus far) – even exceeding the mortality rate of the Black Death.
With the Spanish flu arriving on the heels of World War I, the very ‘legitimacy of society, politics and the economy was being questioned,’ says Gordon.
That crisis of belief gave birth to everything from new left politics to the Jazz Age.
Gordon quotes cultural historian Modris Eksteins: “Old authority and traditional values no longer had credibility. . . The Twenties, as a result, witnessed a hedonism and narcissism of remarkable proportions. . . A profound sense of spiritual crisis was the hallmark of the decade.’
At the moment, as we take stock of ourselves in the wake of our modern pandemic, it is time to examine our own spiritual crisis – borne from our reliance on economic prosperity above everything else. It is this winner-take-all mentality that is killing us on every front, Covid included.
Virtually all developed countries are founded on a culture of individualism and individual gain. For hundreds of years we have followed a false trail of individual satisfaction as our primary motivation, at great cost. As individualism rises, the indices of every major aspect of life satisfaction, from health care and education to life span and urban safety, fall further among every member of the population, rich and poor.
We stand at the crucial point in our evolution where we must make a choice. We are one of the most important generations in the history of humanity. With all the calamities in our midst, our choices will affect our children’s children – and indeed the world for all time.
We can continue to operate against nature, and connect less and less with what we regard as other than ourselves. Or, we can embrace the opposite impulse, our natural drive to seek wholeness and connection.
There are tiny signs here and there that the game is changing. Herbert Gintis, professor emeritus of University of Massachusetts, discovered if a culture of selfishness falls apart, all it requires is a small group of individuals committed to strong reciprocity to “invade” a population of self-interested individuals and turn the entire thing around.
‘Even if strong reciprocators form a small fraction of the population, at least occasionally they will form a sufficient fraction of a group that cooperation can be maintained in bad times,’ he says. ‘Such a group will then outcompete other self-interested groups, and the fraction of strong reciprocators will grow. This will continue until an equilibrium fraction of strong reciprocators is attained.’
Gintis is saying that both selfishness and altruism spread easily, but that altruism is the more contagious impulse. Although this contagion spreads more rapidly in a small group, once one group has a small, stable level of cooperation or selfishness, it may spread.
As it has done in the past, the pandemic has afforded us an opportunity to take stock of ourselves and do it all better, this time around.
As Arthur Miller wrote in All My Sons, about the aftermath of World War II:
‘Everything was being destroyed, but it seemed to me that one new thing was made. A kind of . . . responsibility. Man for man. To bring that on to the earth again like some kind of a monument and everyone would feel it standing there, behind him, and it would make a difference to him.’
This is our moment to do this. We can stop our own hedonistic culture of ‘I win, you lose’ economic gain at all costs. Let’s not blow it, this time around.
Sign up and receive FREE GIFTS including The Power of Eight® handbook and a special video from Lynne!