Right now, parts of Los Angeles are ablaze with violent protests in response to racial tensions boiling over after the death of George Floyd. There were more than 500 arrests downtown last night with buildings and cop cars set on fire. The city has imposed a mandatory curfew, and I just watched a crowd on KTLA smash the windows of MelroseMac and escape with anything within arm’s reach. This is on top of guidance to shelter in place from a Coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and infected nearly 2,000,000. Unemployment in our country has hit nearly 40,000,000. Just one of the sentences above would be enough to tear at the fabric of a society. Oh, man. These are trying times.
The last time I wrote was March 13th, two days after the WHO declared that COVID-19 was an official pandemic. Humans have since drastically modified behavior for the public good. Stay at home. Now, we are living in a different world. The one thing I suggested we do at the outset of this crisis (surf), we literally could not. And for good reason. Minimizing human travel and even incidental interaction saved lives. Metaphorically, however, surfing the constantly-evolving landscape has been essential.
Each of us is having a very different experience that informs the structure of society. Everyone has their own unique set of multi-dimensional challenges to face. The virus, however, has laid bare racism and classism in America that is playing out through fires in the streets and body counts in hospitals and morgues.
As deep-seated tensions have boiled over, I’ve questioned how and if The Inertia can productively contribute to this conversation. Watching the world burn absent any unifying, compassionate, conciliatory leadership, it’s hard to know where or how to participate. Many of us are at a loss for how to contribute, and while an Instagram post or even an editorial like this one feels like disingenuously swatting air, I believe communicating can be effective and cathartic. Like peaceful protest, it’s one of our rights as Americans, and when deployed thoughtfully, that expression can help push us forward. Moreover, the feeling of powerlessness that’s gripped me and many others when confronting so many powerful forces at once has helped clarify what we can do. And, maybe more importantly, what we cannot.
We can’t control how other people behave.
We can’t control nature.
We can’t control the economy.
We can’t control the future.
Ever. None of them.
This situation is no different than any others in that respect. Those things have always been and always will be, beyond our control. We can try to control them. We can endlessly obsess and worry about each of them. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’ll make a dent. They’re impervious. And we’ve tricked ourselves into believing we’re able to impose our will on these things. We simply cannot.
The only thing we can control is ourselves. At times, even that can feel impossible.
But, at our absolute best, we can control our attitude, the decisions we make, how we respond to the world around us, and how we treat other people.
And, actually, that’s quite a lot.
I believe people model their behavior on what they experience and observe from those around them. We’re social creatures. We mimic what we see and feel.
It stands to reason that placing compassion, respect, and empathy at the core of our actions will make an outsize impact on the world around us. No, it’s not a pragmatic economic policy. Or legislation aimed at creating a more egalitarian society. It’s certainly not medicine. It’s not even profound or novel. But I do believe it’s true. And, most important, it’s within our grasp in a time where the woes of the world make us feel helpless.
Which matters a lot. We can control our thoughts and actions. That’s about it. So we need to embrace it and the impact they have on our community.
We can also have thoughtful conversations aimed at understanding each other better. At empathizing with pain and circumstances that are institutionally unfair and unequal. We can become more aware of the roles we play in those structures and we can rethink the assumptions we take for granted on a daily basis.
Among other things, I believe our country is so badly missing that fundamental pull toward empathy. The civility. The kindness. The understanding that there is pain and hurt, and it needs to be expressed in order to repair.
Right now, we’re in the middle of a deep wound. Fires blaze around Los Angeles. A deadly virus is killing our families. Joblessness soars to levels unseen. Institutionalized racism hasn’t gotten better – just more visible.
I don’t know how deep this wound will get. Hopefully, we’re nearing the end of the immediate rupture, but I suspect it will get worse. Things are raw and painful. We need a vaccine for all of this.
Well, we don’t have one yet.
So our best bet is to apply sincere compassion, empathy, and kindness to our dealings with all people and issues – no matter how complex.