A Big, Good Thing
One of my favorite short stories by Raymond Carver is titled, “A Small, Good Thing”. The title comes from a line in the story, when a baker is encouraging a couple to have some fresh, warm cinnamon rolls to eat, and says, “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this”. During the global Covid-19 pandemic, there have been many small, good things, too. For example, our family has taken more meals together during the past few months, and I venture to guess that many families have. That is for sure, a small, good thing. But I realized it would really be a shame, a tragedy even, if at least one big, good thing didn’t come out of all this human suffering and sacrifice.
We have heard the phrase “the curtain has been pulled back” as an analogy for the way the pandemic has now revealed many iniquities in our country, from the way the virus has disproportionately impacted minorities, to flaws in our education system, and certainly to flaws in our political system. We have also heard for a while commentary on going “back to normal” and, wisely, many have questioned if we should go back, or at least in every way. So I have at least felt somewhat optimistic that we might make some progress, and really think hard about the good old ways of doing things. Things like going to work in a car, alone, on a congested highway, spending as much as a quarter or even a third of our work day simply commuting. Or the role of police and what the role of police really should be. Or perhaps even our place in this world, as Americans, where many have referred to Covid-19 as our ‘9/11’ for pandemics, as we had been fortunately spared for quite some time from the likes of MERS, SARS, and Ebola.
During the stricter quarantine periods of late March and April, a pleasant, if not outright beneficial, side effect of the lockdowns was better air quality than some areas had seen in decades. Suddenly, people in hazy, smog-laden urban centers could see clearly now. Scientists estimated that lives were actually saved as a result, even upwards of tens of thousands of lives. Articles on this topic are numerous; simply Google “cleaner air during lockdown”, and you’ll find lots to read and consider.
The impact of all those parked cars was almost boundless. The air got cleaner. Companies truly realized that their employees could be just as productive, even more so, while working from the comforts of home. Companies also realized they could cut leasing expenses and would not need so much office space. Think of the long term savings on car maintenance and fuel. I recognize that not everyone would agree that far more telecommuting would be a big, good thing. If you are the guy running a little cafe in the lobby of a tall office building, and suddenly there’s 50% or even less people working in that building, that is no bueno, for sure. The impacts could be significant and have unintended consequences, not all of them necessarily good for everyone. But I believe this would just lead to innovation and opportunity, just as every other big change has. I definitely think the good outweighs the bad.
Police reform is a topic for a book. Suffice it to say, if we make some progress in our criminal justice system towards a more just, fairer system, we can at least say that all the many black lives lost to negligent police behavior, not just this year, but for decades, have not been in vain. In fact, we could say that all the lives lost — black, brown, or white — mattered and got us to this point where it seems real, impactful police and criminal justice reform will become reality.
Maybe the biggest, good thing would come from American “acceptionalism”. I try to imagine us accepting a lot more and excepting a lot less. If the pandemic teaches us only one thing, I hope it is that we are all part of this world. We have always been nothing more than another species sharing this planet with all the others. Covid-19 didn’t stop at the oceans, didn’t turn around at the airport. It found it’s way to nearly every nation on the planet, no matter how remote, no matter how small.
A lot of bad things have happened because of the pandemic and during the pandemic. A lot of bad things are always happening in the world, and have always been happening. The big, good things are how we can balance the scale.