I was listening to the Smartless podcast episode where they interview Tom Hanks, and he talked a bit about what it was like to play war characters. He told the story in particular about a man he knew that routinely met up with his former unit members, and what it was apparently like to go to war and have absolutely no idea where you would be in a few days, let alone several months. That uncertainty, he said, likely had a permanent effect on the way people viewed life.
I think most of us in my generation, the Gen-X'ers, have no frame of reference for that. We have often been able to choose our paths, though obviously not in a particularly equitable way across the many socioeconomic lines we draw. The point though is that we've never had something like a war big enough to disrupt "normal" (again, even if our normal hasn't been just). The pandemic has been the first real test for us and the generations that followed, and I don't think that we've entirely lived up to the challenge. At the same time, I think we've managed to realize that we must do better. Maybe the real challenge is ahead of us, to make a new normal that is better. We're questioning what freedom really means, and I think seeing that it comes with responsibility.
The pandemic early on required two things of us. The first was to sacrifice being around other people. This had the serious effect of causing some businesses to go under, jobs were lost, and maybe the widest effect, we got to be pretty lonely. As we better started to understand the mechanics of transmission, the second thing the pandemic required of us was to mitigate the risks as best we could with masks, social distancing and still restricting our activity. The seriousness of these effects varied largely around socioeconomic lines and also what we did for a living. I think the honest truth was that, social effects aside, this was not a heavy lift for those of us who did desk work and could do it remotely. It felt like a great many people in that category were the loudest voices against the two things the pandemic required of us.
There was a trade-off bargain we had to evaluate: Are the behavioral changes we have to make, for an amount of time we can't predict, worth helping to save lives? For the first six months, it seemed like we were generally willing to deal with all of the negatives, but as we got closer to the availability of vaccines, we got impatient. Things got much worse, in fact, with infection rates spiraling out of control and health systems bordering on collapse. In some places, it got much worse months after the vaccines were generally available. My neighbor had to get a few minor stitches from a fall while sitting on a counter in the lobby of the ER, because it was overwhelmed with Covid patients.
Much of this decline happened in part because the freedom we were accustomed to was eroded by the conditions necessary to slow or limit the spread of disease. I would argue, however, that by not taking responsibility for the situation, however difficult it was, we largely delayed the return to freedom that we were so anxious to achieve. There are so many parallels.
I was kind of a dumbass in my 20's when it came to financial responsibility. We could debate about whether or not financial stability results in freedom, or even happiness, but let's not kid ourselves. It's better to have more money than not. But in my post-college years, I didn't save anything or invest in anything. Sure, money could be tight, that's how it works when you're young, but I simply made bad choices. Saving money and making simple investments is not a big secret formula. You get wealthy when you put some of it away, and I chose not to. Now I'm trying to make up for lost time, which is hard. My financial freedom is directly tied to my willingness to be responsible for it.
You can see where I'm going with that. Enduring and possibly sacrificing a bit through a difficult time goes a long way toward enabling freedom. It's not unlike going to war against a fascist regime conquering Europe. Death overseas and rationing at home unquestionably limited individual freedom in the short-term, but taking that responsibility certainly led to greater freedom, and a much friendlier map, in the long run. The pandemic also shows us that freedom and responsibility go together.
In fact, this idea has seeped into every part of our culture. Public health is a stunning example of showing how responsibility, whether it be individuals getting vaccinated or government stepping up to fund and distribute vaccines, leads to greater freedom. Getting a shot is not a heavy lift, either, and certainly not like being asked to go to war. We see in plain terms that diversity, equity and inclusion will lift all boats with better outcomes for all. Taking responsibility by acknowledging the institutional biases baked into our society will result in greater freedom for all people to exist in that society. One of our biggest responsibilities is to make meaningful progress on transitioning to a sustainable energy economy. We've already seen a preview of what climate change does to weather, to our lands, and to geopolitical stability. Being free of our own planet's wrath means being responsible for its care.
Responsible freedom is getting over "what's in it for me, right now?" because being responsible, for our actions and for each other, inevitably leads to greater freedom. This is the great revelation that I think we're on the edge of. If we invest a little now in things, some of which are hard, the payback in terms of our freedom is going to be huge. Who doesn't want greater prosperity for everyone? We're not playing a zero-sum game here. Taking responsibility for each other is not antithetical to freedom, it is the freedom that we desire. We can reduce that uncertainty and increase stability, that is, our freedom, by being responsible.