Seeing Anew in 2020

As we in the U.S. end the second week of a national emergency due to the imperative of stopping the spread of COVID-19, the virus seems to have been checked in China, but here, we now have more cases than occurred in China, a nation with roughly four times our population and, globally, all of us now confront the emergence of the virus in poor countries without funds and facilities to respond in depth to the spread of the infection.

A time of difficulty and crisis brings on uncertainty, fear and missteps in our lives. Having to carry within us such psycho-social burdens can tempt us to sink, to lose hope and self-confidence. And we can let those burdens complicate our relationships with family, friends and co-workers. Or …

Or, as it is too easily said, we can rise above our personal anxieties and our concerns for the economy, politics or when stock markets will recover or our gainful employment will return. Crisis is an opportunity for becoming better as people – to make a good difference and find redemptive value in our being here.

Our colleague John Dalla Costa, now retired in Italy, has written a very sound and helpful comment on our time of troubles which you can read below.

John has written some of the best books I have read on ethics and business. He lived in Canada until he and his wife moved to Italy.

I think you will take heart in reading his reflections.

John Dalla Costa
Founding Director – The Centre for Ethical Orientation
Sansepolcro (AR) Italy

That Was Then:

Three months ago – when few had heard of COVID-19 – many of us were attempting to assign significance to the past decade as the new one approached. While the economy had prospered for some and markets were buoyant, the ten or so years then ending were in many ways still unravelling the harsh costs of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Inequality became much more pronounced. Work became much more precarious. And social institutions – including the church, election procedures and the Boy Scouts – lost incalculable amounts of social capital via scandal.

If the metrics used by economists showed a decade of growth, the actual social prosperity was paper-thin. Indeed, the fissures papered-over by the market figures were already producing destabilizing populism and protectionism in our biggest and wealthiest democracies. In 1988, the German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas observed that the “rationality crisis” produced by an economic meltdown invariably leads to a “legitimation crisis” for the public. In other words, when markets fail, suspicion boomerangs, undermining public confidence in its larger political and social institutions.

This suspicion becomes that much more toxic – as happened – when the recovery privileges the status quo; when those in positions of responsibility are exempted from accountability, leaving those largely powerless and most impacted by the crisis to fend for themselves. For several decades, we have watched public trust erode, always favouring the expedient over the necessary, seeking gratification and growth regardless of costs. That neglect of the public trust to satisfy self-interest has made our social immune system that much more fragile.

The global pandemic is now imposing its harsh measures on a world that mistrusts basic facts and that has lost faith in its experts, moral leaders and public institutions. Governments and policy makers had embraced globalization as a competitive necessity, but, as we’ve seen with the numerous failures to make good on climate change initiatives, there has been little to no investment in capacities for cooperation. Having created global structures for extracting personal advantage, we are now in the existentially disadvantaged position of having to deal with a viral threat which none of us can diffuse alone.

The View from Here and Now:

When the year began, (my wife) Lucinda and I told friends, with whom we were exchanging new years greetings, that our hope and prayer would be for us all to realize clear vision. The metaphor of 2020 from optometry has both practical and spiritual dimensions for us. Orthodox icons and Renaissance paintings of Jesus often depicted his eyes with a slightly different cast, intending to signify an ability to see both the temporal and the eternal. Most religions and all our traditions of wisdom teach this dynamic-seeing – looking at both the short-term and the long-term; recognizing what is needed to thrive practically, while recognizing what is needed to fuel the dreams, hopes and higher aspirations that are core to our being human.

In only a few weeks, 2020 has brought into focus many things that we preferred not to see or were too busy to glimpse. One is that we cannot escape our creaturely vulnerability. Another is that we are intimately interconnected. There are no walls or laws that can prevent us from breathing the same air or drinking the same water. For the sake of efficiency, we have created just-in-time supply chains and for the sake of cost-cutting, we have built just-in-time health systems, both of which have no capacity for the emergency we now face. And while our economy is now dammed by fear, the institutions we once relied on for solutions remain divisive or marginalized – therefore without credibility.

In only a few weeks, 2020 has also clarified many of the qualities we will need to go forward together. Rather than according preferential option to shareholder value, we must learn – as leaders, executives, managers and teachers – to develop and nurture the capacities to share. As researchers have long shown, trust is never simply an outcome from consistency or competence. It also requires demonstration of care – proof of character, which means being willing to sacrifice one’s self for the sake of principle.

Fear is understandable, but what few leaders understand is that the only effective antidote to such fear is generosity. On the day that President Trump unilaterally closed the U.S. borders to travelers from the E.U., a cargo plane from China landed in Torino, Italy with 2,300 cartons of much needed surgical masks. People here in Italy still remember the Marshall Plan and many could not but note that on the day in which the country that taught nations to hope turned inwards, an ancient trading partner gave proof and substance to its commitment to a new silk road. All to say that decisions we make in the heat of this emergency will undoubtably have consequences for decades.

In Italy, we are now entering our third week of ever-more restrictive quarantine. Most of us had been observing self-isolation – or cancellations of work and other activities – for several weeks before that. The crisis has by no means peaked, let alone passed. So, in addition to their understandable worries, people are also experiencing the paradox of growing fatigue with growing grief. An already fragile and uncertain reality is becoming more indeterminate and precarious.

Remembering. What’s Needed and What’s Possible:

In all that’s happened, there are also everyday signs of resilience. Because Italian society still has memory of the war, there is a sense that what comes next will not be so much recovery as rebuilding. The post-World War II social compact has long expired. Globalization here has taken its toll on the middle and working classes. With the devastation now unfolding, there is a sense that business-as-usual and politics-as-usual are not up to the historic task ahead.

The government has already committed to a vast rebuild of the healthcare system. Here, as elsewhere, there is growing discussion regarding universal basic income, aid for small businesses and commitments to cultural institutions. Being so exposed and vulnerable, people are heeding these words with both skepticism and a recall of long-held values. The sense I get is of a growing desire, if not impatience for the radical change to develop what is possible together.

Now into 2020, it is important to remember that in two years, this country will mark one hundred years since Mussolini came to power. Fascism was created in Italy to sweep aside the political and economic powers, which had left the country in taters after the great sacrifices of World War I and after the tragic trauma of the Spanish Flu. Our challenge now – here and elsewhere – is to not allow fear to so fester as to create the conditions for tyranny.

From history and from this moment, we can discern several lessons.

First, before changing our policies, we need to change our imaginations. In his newly issued teaching-document on the social, environmental and justice issues facing the nations of the Amazon, Pope Francis introduced a methodology based on four dreams. Rather than analyze and recommend, he first sought to dare thinking in terms of what is most liberating, dignifying and unifying for people and their children. What is our dream?

Secondly, we are witnessing the now threatening gap between our expertise for globalized commerce and our ethics for global responsibility. The coronavirus is a litmus test for our ability to cooperate everywhere on everything, so as to build the shared structures for dealing effectively with shared problems. What are the values we hold or need for what is happening and what is next?

Thirdly, for all of us, but especially for our leaders, the qualities that will earn trust – and that history will judge – require modelling the highest forms of generosity and self-sacrifice. The question to ask is not “what did you do?” but rather, “how did you change?”

Finally, this is a moment when we can demand that our technologies and social media mature into a force for good. Corporations, as well as individuals, need to shed adolescent likes and avoid simplistic blaming. Our time and attention are precious and so need to focus on learning how to collaborate and dialogue. Being so vulnerable together beckons each of us to conjure and respect the solidarity that we will need to rebuild our lives. What ideas or habits do we need to give-up to make space for real transformation?

Ready-made answers are not going to work for the hard questions we’ve not yet asked. For now, most of us need to adjust to doing nothing. The gift in this imposed pause is that we can – if we choose to do it – reflect in depth about the new world that is now in our hands to imagine and create.

(The text in visual above reads: “While all the EU states are retaining surgical masks for themselves as Italy runs out, China has sent to Torino an Air China flight with 2,300 boxes of masks. [On each box] is written” We are waves on the same sea, leaves on the same tree, flowers in the same garden.”

Below the Chinese text in red on each box, the Italian message reads: “We are with you. Forza Italia! (which is the slogan fans use to cheer the national soccer team).