Larry S. Persons, PhD
To live, we make assumptions. We sit on chairs assuming they will hold our weight just fine. We step into elevators assuming they will take us to the precise floor we’ve chosen.
But assumptions can be risky because they’re invisible and rarely scrutinized. They lull us into a false sense of confidence that we are in control and life will be true to the present trajectory. In short, assumptions can betray us.
In the blink of an eye, the Coronavirus pandemic is accosting our assumptions. Seven billion members of our “global village” are rethinking things that, just yesterday, seemed tried and true. It has left us feeling naked and unprepared.
Most of us jumped right on the globalization train years ago. We embraced the interdependence of the world’s economies, the intensification of worldwide social relations, and the expansion of cultural ties. With reckless abandon, we welcomed ideas like integration and connectivity. We leveraged all these things to build a future for ourselves.
But in a heartbeat, the nations have been humbled. Our unabashed attraction to globalism has collapsed into skepticism. Globalization feels more like a Trojan Horse. We let it in, and now we’re paying for it dearly. How could no one see this coming?
“The pandemic of 2020 has brought doubts about globalization into the mainstream. Decades of open borders, unceasing intercontinental travel, study abroad…have created unexpected vulnerabilities in populations and economies thanks to unfettered openness” (Michael Auslin, Real Clear Politics, March 18, 2020).
Yes. And that wide openness now has us hiding from each other—shuttered in, battened down, fearful, and disconnected from face-to-face interactions. How ironic.
This will not last forever, but in the moment, we are disoriented and dispirited. Our assumptions have betrayed us.
1. “Life is safe.”
First, let’s agree together that, for millions of people on this fair globe, life almost never feels safe. These are the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the exploited, the abused. They hang on by their fingernails just to survive, struggling to feed and protect themselves and their children. There is no justice, no place to hide. They have no illusions about life being safe.
But now the playing field is significantly leveled. In a few short weeks, all humanity is feeling less secure. From millionaires to day laborers, from corporate CEOs to small business owners, from urbanites to country folk, from the educated to the uneducated, from Boston to Seoul to Milan to Nairobi to Perth, we all feel like someone just changed the rules of the game and we are exposed to danger. Life feels fragile, and we don’t know how long it will take to feel safe again. Which leads to the next faulty assumption.
2. “I am in control.”
As willful creatures we discover early in life that we can influence our surroundings. Yes, life has its surprises, but most of the time it feels like we have the energy, resources, and opportunities to chart our own course. We study hard to earn a degree. We work hard to earn a promotion. We network with passion to gain social capital. We save money for a “rainy day,” or for retirement. We choose to be in or out of relationships. We set the direction of our lives. We are in control.
But if world leaders can’t control the colossal economic and social damage of this coronavirus (and they can’t), we have to admit that outside of hygiene and social distancing we are rendered powerless to this ravaging pandemic. We are being held captive, beyond our control. A month ago most of us felt reasonably secure with our jobs, our investment portfolios, and our health. Today it feels like an unwanted and uncontrollable scourge is stealing our birthright to be in control of our futures.
3. “It’s great to be connected.”
Just days ago, the connectivity of globalism felt like a wonderful thing. The world was our playground. Daily the skies filled with planes full of happy tourists crisscrossing the world, ready to explore the delicacies and treasures of a strange culture. Multinational corporations acquired foreign companies and discovered fresh markets in new corners of the world. Leaders of nations held summits in exotic locations to discuss world problems. It felt right to go across borders, to engage cross-culturally, to exchange ideas and customs, and even to welcome an immigrant from a far-off land.
Now we are paying the price for being so connected. An insidious virus is spreading like wildfire, touching every corner of the earth precisely because we are so interdependent. We just didn’t see this coming. It’s like when a very, very good relationship suddenly turns very, very bad. And buyer’s remorse fixes nothing.
4. “It’s all about me.”
Nope. Sorry, it just isn’t. This pandemic tends to jolt most of us into hypervigilance, but in the end, this is not about you and it’s not about me. It’s about us, the “global us.” Because asymptomatic carriers can spread this virus to others, you and I are being reprehensibly selfish and cruel if we do not challenge this assumption.
One antidote for containing this virus is to live radically different from self-absorbed ways we were living before this all hit. By all means, take good care of yourself, but absolutely think of others. Isolate, even if you’re young and think you’re invincible. Wash your hands well and regularly. But go beyond. Order a delivery of groceries for an elderly friend. Call a grandparent. FaceTime a quarantined friend who’s feeling lonely. Enter deeper into your children’s worlds because now you have the time. Make this about someone else.
When assumptions fail us, we must adjust expectations and behaviors, and that’s not all bad. Life is actually quite fragile. We have less control of our destinies than we think. There are real risks (and rewards) to being so interdependent. And though it’s easy to be egocentric, great joy is to be found in showing a drop of kindness to others.