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The bottom line is a circle: Reflections on the pandemic

If the pandemic has taught us anything, hasn’t it taught us that it’s in our best interests that others are doing well?

healthcare worker
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Now that our COVID-19 emergency has ended, we’re breathing a cautious sigh of relief. What a sobering time it’s been. We were brought to our knees by a microscopic virus, of all things, that wreaked havoc in our communities and our lives, causing immense disruption and loss – of loved ones, jobs, health, our very way of life.

While the pandemic is fresh in our minds, let’s excavate that experience for whatever wisdom we might glean to illuminate our path forward, lest we waste this tragic yet “teachable” moment.

What have we learned? The preciousness of life? Good. Well, yes, if you’re wearing pajama bottoms on Zoom, don’t stand up. Useful.

What struck me most, though, was the stark reminder of how vulnerable we all are, how dependent on others. Notions of self-sufficiency? Gone. We needed each other. Literally. What good is rugged individualism when the store is out of toilet paper, the clinic can’t see you due to staff shortages and there are no hospital beds available? We learned, viscerally, the meaning of “essential workers,” how critical they were to our lives, workers we often overlook and underpay – warehouse employees, bus drivers, grocery stockers, nursing home staff. Indispensable.

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Even longstanding, seemingly invincible, businesses discovered their vulnerability. Your supply chain is interrupted, materials left on coastal docks due to worker shortages. Your workforce dwindles as employees sicken, some die. The final insult: your market dries up, as struggling consumers cut spending. Chain reactions in this web of life. “How could this happen,” business owners lamented, as they had to confront their dependence on others. Every link in the chain mattered, every stakeholder, including customers, communities.

As it turns out (trumpets, please), the bottom line is a circle – always dependent on countless people making the venture go. No initiative flies on its own. We need each other. This is the truth – may it go viral!

I was born into a farming community that lived this truth. If someone got sick and couldn’t milk their cows, they called a neighbor. Harvest time, collectively they rented a threshing machine to separate grain from chaff, then worked together, going farm to farm until the job was done. This cooperative spirit also led them to form a creamery coop and communally harvest ice on the lake – everyone had ice well into the summer. Shrewd farmers, they knew the wisdom of mutual aid and they all reaped the benefits. Their bottom line was a circle.

According to Dr. Dean Ornish, our species evolved to survive by supporting and caring for each other. Species that didn’t, disappeared. Communal caring gave us a survival advantage.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead presented fossil evidence for prehistoric caring among Homo sapiens – a healed femur. A broken femur was totally disabling, inevitably causing death, unless you received care.

There’s more.

Jean Greenwood
Jean Greenwood
In a leadership seminar, we did the “snowbound” exercise: a vehicle caught in a storm with 40 potentially useful items. We each ranked the items on their usefulness, then shared our lists in the group and re-negotiated rankings, creating a new list. We were surprised to learn that in all the years they’d used the exercise, the group was always smarter than any individual. Another circle asset, we’re smarter together.

Political scientist, Robert Putnam wrote, “For the first two thirds of the 20th century greater national prosperity and greater equality in sharing the wealth went hand in hand … We were collectively richer and more equal.” Add prosperity to the balance sheet.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said so eloquently, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

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In other words, we are in this together, whether we like it or not. We cannot go it alone, no matter who we are – no “self-made” people here. We need the goods, services, not to mention caring relationships others provide. We celebrate independence; isn’t it time we celebrated interdependence?

If the pandemic has taught us anything, hasn’t it taught us that it’s in our best interests that others are doing well? The virus unmasked the myth of self-sufficiency. Seldom has it been more evident that our own well-being rests in the hands of others. We’ve got to look out for each other.

Jean Greenwood is Minneapolis educator, mediator, Presbyterian minister, fostering vibrant people and communities.