The Way We Were

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I grew up with stories about America’s role in World War II. My uncles were members of the armed forces and served in various posts. My dad got in late due to his younger age, but he too eventually enlisted in the army. My mother often boasted that women took up the slack in businesses and factories once the men were gone. She proudly spoke of the sacrifices and rationing that everyone endured as the nation pulled together to defeat the enemy. Later I would hear similar stories from my mother-in-law who showed me a her high school yearbook which was printed on newspaper stock and featured class pictures that were virtually devoid of male students because all of them had enlisted. She still had a ration book with coupons her family had never used because they thought it was a very small matter just to totally give up certain things for the cause. 

I suppose I somewhat romanticized those stories and felt a sense of pride that people in my country had been so noble. It never occurred to me that there may have been those who dodged the draft or rankled at the idea of having to do without certain resources. I naively assumed that everyone had gladly played a part in the efforts to defeat the authoritarian forces that were threatening the world. In truth there probably were naysayers, but it seems that on the whole there were heroes all across the globe who pulled up their sleeves and did whatever seemed to be needed at the time. 

This July was four years since hurricane Harvey inundated the city of Houston and its surrounding areas. I remember feeling a sense of great pride as the citizens rallied to help one another. Things like politics, religion, sexual preference, race did not seem to matter. We pulled together and people from all over the world supported us. It was a tragic moment in our history, but also one that demonstrated how truly good people are. Sharing, caring and heroism were dramatically on display in a way that made me so happy to be a Texan and an American. 

When Covid-19 came along I expected the response from my fellow humans to be much the same as other times when we needed a united effort. I was appalled when I realized that people were using the virus to bolster their political power. This should have been a moment when republicans and democrats came together even in an election year. I would have loved to see our lawmakers working unselfishly for the common good rather than using the misery and death as a way to divide us. Unity would have been a beautiful thing, and would no doubt have resulted in fewer deaths and far less suffering. 

Even after the ballots were cast and the winners were named, it would have been quite wonderful for the two sides to shake hands and then vow to work together to control and ultimately destroy the virus. We lost an opportunity to demonstrate what has so often been the best of our country. Instead we doubled down on rancor. Covid has continued to spread and so has our anger and unwillingness to make even small individual sacrifices for the good of all. 

Seriously, how terrible is it to wear a mask in public? Sure they are uncomfortable, but I’ve found myself noticing the mask less and less as I have adjusted to wearing it. I see it as being like wearing a suit and tie or high heels and panty hose. Neither of those things is particularly pleasant, but we still dress up when the occasion calls for more than jeans and a t-shirt. All of the whining about masking up in certain situations seems to ignore the fact that this small step makes a huge difference in the spread of Covid 19 only if everyone is doing it. 

I hear people attacking others with the vilest of language and I note phrases that are repeated over and over again. Those words are coming from those who are supposed to be our leaders. They are useless soundbites designed to simplify the very complex situation that we face. Their intent is to pander to political bases rather than to consider the needs of everyone. Politics should have no place whatsoever in determining the measures we take. We should be focused on attacking the virus, not each other.

When Abraham Lincoln became president the nation was on the verge of a civil war. Lincoln did not surround himself with “yes men” who would agree with everything he said. Instead he invited some of his sworn enemies into his cabinet. He understood that keeping the nation together would require differing points of view and a united front. Even as we devolved into a civil war, his wisdom ultimately paid off because he was not making decisions in an echo chamber. He understood that unity as a nation depended on working together.  

Likewise, Franklin Roosevelt relied on expertise rather than political sameness. He used the knowledge of prominent republicans almost as often as he depended on the members of his party. He understood that we would be destroyed if we were unable to work together. He needed everyone in the war effort, not just those who agreed with him. Luckily both parties were willing to set aside differences.

I recently read an interview with a climate guru who is a professor at Texas Tech University. She outlined the growing effects of climate change and described the kind of measures we must take to avoid a global disaster. When asked if she believed we would be able to halt the growing dangers, she sadly tempered her optimism. She noted that our response to battling Covid-19 had shown her that we are probably not ready or willing to take the measures needed to prevent the cataclysms that will surely come if we choose to do nothing. She worries that we have been led astray by groups who do not seem to care that sometimes the only path forward comes with a willingness to work together. She warned that it is a dangerous error to believe that things will miraculously work themselves out. 

I dream of leaders who will bring us together. I hope that they will come to help our nation before we hurt each other anymore than we already with our arrogance and selfish behaviors. Surely such individuals are out there, and surely we can learn again to be brothers in arms with whatever challenges come our way. We can learn from the past and choose again to become the way we once were. Surely it’s not too late.