Calamitous events uniquely shape a generation. For my grandparents’ generation it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For my parents it was the assassination of President Kennedy. For me, it was the 9/11 attacks. And for my children, I presume it will be the current COVID-19 pandemic.
During this pandemic, the sense is that most children do not experience the illness the same way adults do. As a result, most children are impacted by a normalcy disruption as opposed to a personal health setback. Likewise, when we recall each event, the memories sometimes make it difficult to catch our breath — the first time we saw our parents cry; the first feelings of uncertainty about safety; the military presence at the train stations and airports; the continued interruptions and disruptions. But each event – each moment – is not actually about the memories or the moment. What shapes each generation is what happens thereafter. How society responds to misfortune shapes the narrative for that generation far more so than the memories of the event itself.
A change in values
Pearl Harbor, JFK, 9/11 — after each, our nation’s values changed. After this pandemic, the same will be true. And we can play a role in shaping those values now.
First, as a society, we can become less materialistic. Already we are dressing differently and spending differently, working from home, out of our homes. This, hopefully, will lead us to transform our homes to be more family-focused. Parents’ memes about the challenges of serving as parent and teacher and coach and nurse and [insert role here] all at once are cute, but in truth, the togetherness is unprecedented for many households. Some families are having family dinners more than ever before.
Second, we can become more aware of the vulnerable and at risk in our community. There have been movements and campaigns toward increased inclusion and accessibility in our public spaces and institutions. But what about our personal approach to senior living and nursing homes? Will specialty hours at the grocery store – and elsewhere – remain for our immunocompromised? We should not view those at risk as weak, but instead consider them the precious responsibility of each community.
Hopefully, we will likewise become more praiseworthy and less critical. It is so easy not to give others the benefit of the doubt. But now we realize that each of us has so much happening in the background, that we should not berate others when mistakes happen.
More respectful of private and public space
Further, we can become more respectful of private and public space — and the gray area between. The “wait behind” line at the bank and the doctor’s office may become ubiquitous at so many other places we frequent. Or, perhaps, we may no longer need those lines and will respect that each of us has a bubble of personal space. This, in turn, can lead us to value more deeply the space we share with friends and loved ones, and even strangers.
We can begin to regard those strangers as heroes and servants of the greater good. We will no longer overlook those service personnel who perhaps were ghosts to us previously. We can consider the hospitality industry as a communal obligation to uphold and maintain. We will no longer take for granted fresh produce or the earth with which we are blessed to grow that produce. In turn, we will no longer take for granted those sweaty brows tilling the soil, or the gloved hands stocking the shelves. And we will have new understanding about what is “essential in life.”
If the way we respond to the current pandemic shapes the narrative for this generation, then there is much for us to do.
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.
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