It was, by far, the worst snowstorm I’ve ever had to endure. Early January of 1979, Chicago was hit with over 20 inches of snow, on top of 12 inches that had fallen just days earlier. My car disappeared under the massive drifts and the city did a terrible job trying to clear the streets. It was chaos for weeks. It eventually cost the mayor his job.
For a few days people got all lovey and concerned for each other. Shoveling together, chatting, sharing hot chocolate and offering help…for a few days.
Then it got nasty.
Folks started carving out their parking spaces and threatening those who infringed. One man was murdered over a parking spot. Riding the “L” was a perilous first-come-first-served elbow-fest. It was dangerous.
We’re in a different kind of snowstorm now. Right? But it feels the same to me.
In the beginning of the COVID crisis (was that just 6 months ago?), everybody seemed to be understanding, sympathetic and kind. Then we got stir crazy, frightened and anxious. And in short order, many people turned selfish. I experienced this firsthand just a few weeks ago while shopping in Whole Foods. I observed a woman, mask in hand, screaming her objections to being asked to put it on. I wrote about it.
Why are we this way? Why, when everybody, from experts to governmental leaders, tells us to mask up for the sake of others, do some say nope?
There are two forces at work within us. One is learned. The other is innate.
What’s been learned is American individualism. Some call it a cult of individualism. It is a national value that prizes personal freedom and free will over everything else.
“It’s always been the orientation of America on balance, compared to other countries, to put a priority on individual freedom and liberty,” says Andrea Campbell, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the intersection of politics and public health.
This has been handed down from our forefathers who unfurled this as one of this nation’s earliest battle flags.
Anti-Mask lady was carrying that battle flag in her heart!
The second force at work within us that makes us fiercely self-oriented was also handed down to us. Here is where I reveal my perspective of the human soul. We were “bequeathed” selfishness from Adam. All human beings, from our earliest moments, lean greedy. So much so that one of the biblical prophets mused that the human heart is “desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9 KJV).
Those two forces are powerful and unyielding. Medical experts and governmental leaders don’t stand a chance against them. Supplanting them will have to come from within. It will take a series of decisions, time after time after time, in which I and you and she and he choose our actions on behalf of the other.
My son, Barry, my successor and my pastor, has made a small powerful phrase a key part of his hopes and dreams for the people he leads. It’s good. It’s hard. It’s essential. It is the way to ward off the forces of individualism and selfishness. He calls it self-giving love.
I’ll say it again. We will have to choose self-giving love time after time after time. It goes way beyond masks but certainly includes them. It includes understanding, patience, sharing, tenderness and forbearance. I like that word. We need to bear with each other.
Only an army of self-giving Good Samaritans, wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart are going to be able to dig us all out of this once in a lifetime storm.