The past few months have been a mess in many respects. I don’t need to be another person to tell you about the massive amount of death, of political idiocy, and economic disaster. You know it- you’re living it with me.
Coronavirus is tiring. Not just the news (which I have limited myself to viewing one day a week). It’s the seeing little children wearing masks. It’s the hour I spend wiping down my groceries. It’s the fear I feel when there’s a leak in my apartment. Not from the leak itself, but from the fact that building maintenance will have to come and how will I keep my social distance. Will they be wearing a mask? Will I have to disinfect my (soaking wet) couch that they moved since they touched it? Can I even disinfect a couch?
It’s the endless litany of questions you ask yourself every day to stay safe but still build a life worth living. Balancing that need for safety with the desire to see friends, to go outside, to live in a lively way at a time when there is so much pain and fear. When you find yourself avoiding people on the sidewalk as if they were the plague itself. Because what if…
In a lot of ways, America has proven utterly inept at responding to this crisis. Our fierce independence and distrust of authority, which helped us create this country, become liabilities when communal responsibility is required to survive.
This push and pull between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, libertarian and communal that can be a source of creative tension. Or destruction. It lends itself to an interesting question. How honest are Americans as they have this debate and what does it have to do with COVID-19?
Having lived in Israel, one of the most common tropes I heard about Americans was that we were fake. That when we asked “how are you?” we didn’t expect a real answer. I often found myself pushing against this notion, because clearly Americans are a diverse lot, capable of being as fake or authentic as everyone else.
And yet as I watch people coping with the COVID-19 crisis here, I can’t help but think there’s a grain of truth to this Israeli stereotype. Because the expected answer to “how are you?” in American culture is “I’m fine, thanks”. Which is not an answer. It’s a lie. Especially at a time like this- nobody’s fine. Some days might be good, some days might be shitty. But none of them are just fine. Well and swell. It’s just not real.
My question is as we debate the political and social ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis here, could we learn something from Israeli directness? Could we, instead of packaging our comments in “please” and “thank you” just drop the charade and let ourselves be angry, be sad, be surprisingly happy in the face of it all. Whatever we’re actually feeling. And share that with those who agree with us- and yes, with those who don’t.
It’s not because I live in a dream world where I think emotional honesty will all by itself heal the rift tearing our country apart, as Democrats and Republicans fall ever deeper into ideological pits harder and harder to climb out of. Nor does it mean assigning the blame 50-50 to each side. Hardly- I’m a Democrat and I think 95% of the irresponsible political behavior over the past few months has to be owned by Donald Trump and Republican governors disregarding public health experts by opening their states too soon. I also believe all of us have ideological biases and gaps in our logic.
But see that’s the thing- I was honest. I didn’t sugarcoat. And it doesn’t make me any less willing to engage with (or want to persuade) someone who disagrees. I didn’t take my ball and go home. Because what I learned in Israel is you can be direct and respectful. That being upfront about our personal emotions and opinions can do good not only for ourselves, but perhaps for society. It’s not easy at first, but once you get used to it, it’s hard to go back.
Back to the “I’m fine, thanks!” era. That era is over. Thank God. The new one is up to us to define. May we do it wisely.