Ever watch old speeches from back in the day? Even the mediocre orators were still pretty good, and they really knew how to get a crowd riled up. No matter what era you most long for or which side of the aisle your political heroes tread, I invite you to picture your favorite black-and-white, or at least grainy color president addressing the nation. Return to this any time you need a boost.
My fellow Americans … I speak to you this evening in the midst of a crisis. The global pandemic that epidemiologists have long feared has moved off the pages of emergency operations plans and into our daily lives. With no precedent and no clear answers, we stand at the edge of a precipice and cannot see the bottom. All we know for certain is that we cannot and must not go over the edge.
No matter who you are or where you live, the disruption to life and commerce has been abrupt. The dependably brisk cadence of modern life has slowed to a dirge, and we cannot escape our own gravity. Never in the history of our great Republic have the instruments of governance been used to prevent friends, colleagues, and even family from helping each other bear the psychic and spiritual burdens of daily life. I wish I could tell you the end is in sight, but it’s not. Not yet.
One way or another, this crisis will end, but it will not be a Hollywood ending. There will be no armistice, no sudden end to hostilities. Restrictions will be relaxed in some areas, then later re-imposed. The virus will seemingly disappear in one region only to crop up in the next. On and on this will go for months, by which time we will all have realized that life as we knew it will never be the same. We will never be the same.
Inconspicuous acts of gallantry are the glue holding American society together. Scores of healthcare workers are slogging through brutal shifts in an environment where it is virtually impossible to avoid exposure. Truckers are driving through the night to deliver needed goods to our grocery stores, where everyone from stockers to cashiers are still showing up to do their jobs. Teachers are adapting in astonishing ways to bring instruction to their students. Meanwhile, scientists and companies from around the world are working around the clock, and with unprecedented cooperation, to find a solution. The rapidity of these developments is astonishing. These people, and many more like them, deserve our gratitude. On behalf of the American people, thank you.
But most of us aren’t on the front lines, such as they are. Many Americans, from small business owners to hourly workers, now find themselves out of work. The uncertainty that confronts us at home is every bit as scary as the monster at our door. We wonder when our jobs will return and what will happen to us and our families if they don’t. Without a clear precedent, we can’t look to the past for answers, and the future now just seems like a distant place where we have parked our plans and hopes.
And, so, we find ourselves hopelessly mired in the present. Like an unwanted houseguest, it lingers, consuming everything and giving little in return.
It has been a very long time since multiple generations of Americans had to contend collectively with sacrifice or a scarcity of goods and services. Most of us grew up in times of peace and prosperity, to such an extent that the notion of shared sacrifice is practically foreign. During World War 2, government rationing affected everyone. Goods like metal, rubber, and many foods were tightly controlled to help with the war effort. It was easy to see how one’s personal sacrifice was linked to victory.
Now, the link is less clear. We will never know the people we didn’t infect by staying home, nor will the infected call us to account for acting selfishly. At this point, we can’t even see that the steps we are taking have even begun to flatten the so-called curve. Instead, we only see the numbers of infected and dead climb, and climb, and climb. No matter how well we understand the progression of such a disease, it feels like the steps we are taking aren’t linked to anything but our collective misery. At a certain point, it starts to feel futile.
But it is not futile, my friends. It’s not. You want the truth, there it is. What you are doing matters. The fact that you can’t see it yet is immaterial.
As quickly and precipitously as we saw the number of cases rise, they will drop. Not today, not next week, but soon. The number of deaths will drop even more sharply as needed supplies return to hospitals and testing becomes more widely available. Restrictions will slowly be lifted. By and by, elements of life as we knew it will return, and with it, jobs and investments. The virus will recede to the dark place from whence it came. The great mill wheel of the American economy will creakily resume turning, and we will all get to feel hope again. We will attend to our friends and loved ones, and make plans, and have fun.
And when that day comes, how different will it all feel to us? How will we have been changed by this experience, and what will we do about it? Will we hold a stranger’s gaze long enough to let them know we see them, or will we avoid eye contact and move on? Will we be more attuned to the ordinary acts of heroism around us, or will they fade into the background of daily life?
Blaise Pascal once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Perhaps now, more than ever, we see the truth of that aphorism. We were not meant to sit quietly in a room alone, but to interact. To see, and talk to each other, and touch. Whether to laugh or cry, to celebrate or to mourn, we were meant to do it together.
What delicious irony would it be for a deadly virus to be the thing that reminds us, now and forevermore, of the depth of our shared humanity?
Look around you. The technology that many of us could only dream about as kids is here, right now, in our homes. Technology so powerful, it can bring us together when we aren’t even together. We can deliver knowledge and entertainment across oceans instantaneously. We have clean water and cutting-edge medicine. Our global community has never gained more distance from poverty ,though there is still a long, long way to go. There is much to hope for, and to expect, from the future. It’s worth waiting for.
We’re all tired, we’re all scared, and we’re all eager for things to return to normal. But how often in a lifetime do we get to step out of its continuum and see it not as participants, but as observers? Let us all seize this opportunity to examine our lives and all we’ve taken for granted. Let us assign new value to human connection. Let us finally acknowledge the towering difficulty and monumental importance of educating our children. And let us finally define health and wellbeing as inalienable human rights.
Most importantly, however, let us restore and renew our faith in the truth, for nothing is more virulent or destructive than ignorance. Any society that does not hold the truth among its highest ideals would be better served by stepping into the abyss.
Nothing is less American than giving up. And, so, we will not. While the storm rattles our windows, we will sit quietly in our rooms and wait for it to pass. And when we emerge, by God, we will see the sun with new eyes. Earlier I told you we stand together at a precipice. The only way to do that is shoulder to shoulder, heel to toe, and heart to heart.
Hold fast, hold true, and I will see you all on the other side. Good night and good health to you all.