One thing this pandemic has shown is that people have a problem facing facts.
I don’t mean facts in the sense of the scientific data, although that’s clearly a problem as well judging by the litany of conspiracy theories that have become acceptable even in polite company.
I mean “facts” in the more colloquial sense—of coming to terms with reality and accepting it on reality’s terms. Just look at COVID-19.
We’ve taken a merciless, apolitical, indifferent but pretty well-understood virus, scientifically speaking, and turned it into a divisive, partisan argument. Every molecule seems subject to debate, because we have somehow come to believe that what we think about it, or our own personal needs in relation to it, have some relevance to its airborne spread from person to person, and its ability to kill with ruthlessness and painful efficiency.
Perhaps nothing captures this impotent rage better than a tweet I saw from Laura Ingraham…
OK, Karen, would you like to speak to COVID-19’s manager?
Back here in reality where the rest of us live, it is an inescapable truth of human existence that there are some crises and problems so bad that they force those affected by them to live with the uncertainty that the crises create. They force us to stop doing things we’d like to do. They cost us things we really can’t afford.
But, alas, there is no degree of forcefulness to an opinion nor staggering amount of need that can change those facts.
Imagine someone living in America in 1942. No one could have told them when they’d be able to travel to Europe to see their aging parents again. No one could have told them when the rationing would stop. No one would have been able to say when their son would be released from the Army. No one could promise them that they were safe in their homes and would ultimately survive. The world war was a fact, and everybody had to deal with it. Like it or not.
Life is like this. It’s uncertain. It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t really care whether we really want or need something. It doesn’t care about us at all, really, it just is.
Many years ago, I wrote a piece about our tendency to think that we could “vote on reality,” and how the internet was designed to encourage this impulse. From Twitter to Facebook to blogging, the platforms of social media are designed around the insidious idea that your opinion about things changes what they unflinchingly are.
I think this is what Foster the People is singing about in their song, “The Truth”:
Well an absolute measure won’t change with opinion
no matter how hard you try
It’s an immovable thing
We are seduced by the idea that not liking some element of reality is powerful enough to will it to be different. That a simple objection is more powerful than objectivity. Of course, the Stoics had no time for this. Facts are facts, they say. Fate or Fortune or death have no care for your opinion.
They were like Civil War historian James McPherson who, responding to Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 claim that European allies seemed to care more about tiny Northern defeats than his major victories, said simply: “Unreasonable it may have been, but it was a reality.”
When we talk about facing facts, we are in part talking about making the hard choices that life demands—which usually means doing the harder thing. “At the top,” Secretary of State Dean Acheson once observed about the presidency, “there are no easy choices. All are between evils, the consequences of which are hard to judge.” He meant that all the simple, easy stuff gets handled by people lower down on the chain. The obvious stuff never makes it to the Oval Office. And so it is with life, too—the easy stuff is never much of an issue. There’s never any uncertainty about the things that don’t require any sacrifice and pain.
I think he also means that it’s not the choices that are hard. In fact, the right thing is often obvious. It’s the consequences and the costs of that choice that are hard. It’s the complicated, difficult, unpleasant stuff that we adults end up having to wrestle with on the other side of our decisions that make the decisions seem so difficult.
In reality, when it comes to a pandemic or a bankruptcy or a failing marriage, the choices are easy to the extent that they are simple and clear. It’s this or this. It’s A or B or C. The difficulty comes with the hard facts that must be swallowed as a consequence of picking one of those easy choices. Don’t you dare think that Acheson, when he said the consequences were hard to judge, was excusing leaders who preferred their own fantasies or wishful thinking to the hard realities of geopolitics.
I see this with some of my friends, now considering whether to send their kids back to school. Even though most of the advice is against it; even though they regularly go overboard protecting their families from all sorts of much less dangerous things than a pandemic; even though they are otherwise good people who care about how their actions affect others—here they are saying something to the effect of “Well, it’s just so hard to know what the right thing is.”
Or my favorite: “How much longer can this go on?”
Truth goes on as long as it’s true!
What we’re saying when we throw up our hands at something like reopening the schools is, “I have a sense that I’m not making the right decision, but if I act bewildered, it excuses me from the consequences.” Or they are saying, “I get that generally this is a really bad idea, but my specific circumstances should be exempt from the otherwise unfavorable facts because it hasn’t been a problem in my town yet and the consequences of the other choice are more difficult than I’m comfortable with.” No!
How has the track record for not listening to expert opinion gone in the United States over the last five months? Oh, right, it’s created one of the worst coronavirus breakouts in the world, one that has seen US citizens banned from international travel en masse, and has mayors from Texas to New York City requesting extra freezer trucks to support their overflowing morgues. We’re zeroing in on 200,000 dead! 67 9/11s. Four Vietnams. Eight times more than the American Revolution. (And the fact that lots of people also die of heart disease is not a response. They are dying of that too.) The country that, for a century, was called to rescue other countries from natural disasters is now the unlikely recipient of pity from New Zealand, Italy and Denmark. People love to talk about American exceptionalism—well, we are being exceptionally stupid.
And so we are now entering another phase of the crisis that will undeniably be shaped by people who, instead of dealing honestly and critically with the reality of the situation, are letting all sorts of other factors shape what they’re seeing (note: obviously the real blame lies with the feckless leaders who put them in the position in the first place). No sane person would look at a country with tens of thousands of new cases and 1,000+ deaths a day and think: “I should probably send my kid to hang out with thousands of other kids in small rooms, right?” Yet here we are, talking about how life has to go back to normal sometime…
But kids need school! you reply.
I am reminded of a conversation between Col. Harry G. Summers and a North Vietnamese colonel after the Vietnam War. Summers pointed out that the US was never beaten on the battlefield. The man replied, “That is true. It is also irrelevant.”
We need a lot of things. My kids certainly do. But the facts come first, so we’re staying home. Not because we want to, but because, in truth, there is no choice. It’s why my businesses remain closed too.
There is not much upside in a pandemic—not one that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans and close to a million people worldwide. But there is a lesson in it.
It’s a lesson that we have done our best not to learn, that we have fought for some time now.
That lesson is this: Life is hard. It is filled with hard facts and hard decisions.
You cannot flee it. You can only defer the consequences for so long or, perhaps, if you are content to be an asshole, shirk them onto some other innocent person.
Facts don’t care how hard they are. Just because you can’t bear something doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be borne. Just because you have an opinion—or a need—doesn’t mean it’s relevant.
“There is a truth,” it says in the song I mentioned earlier, “I can promise you that.”
It’s time to wake up, put on our big boy pants, and accept that we are living through a period of great discomfort and frightening uncertainty, and what you think or feel about that fact has precisely zero impact on the truth of our new reality
We have to face the truth. Do the hard thing.
*Two wrap up notes:
If you really really disagree with me on the school thing, just plug in any number of other examples: People going ahead with their weddings. Random hookups on Tinder because they “need the spontaneity.” People going on vacations. Pro football stadiums in Florida filled with fans. People who say things like, I like Trump but hate his tweets.
And most importantly, if you disagree with me so much that this article makes you angry? Do me a favor and don’t reply. Your opinion will not change the facts, and I’m too tired to deal with anyone’s cognitive dissonance these days.