“The past can teach us, through experience, how to accomplish things in the future, comfort us with cherished memories, and provide the foundation of what has already been accomplished. But only the future holds life. To live in the past is to embrace what is dead. To live life to its fullest, each day must be created anew. As rational, thinking beings, we must use our intellect, not a blind devotion to what has come before, to make rational choices.”—Wizard’s Seventh Rule, The Pillars of Creation, Terry Goodkind
So, in a bizarre way to treat optimism let’s first look at how bad this is going to get. That may seem very counterintuitive but go with me on this for a minute. “Of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme,” says the Buddha as he calls for an awareness of death (maranasati)…and some research shows that there are emotional and intellectual benefits to contemplating our death. When you have faced the worst end, analyzed it, accept it, and moved on, you are no longer bounded by the fears of the the worst-case scenario.
The same is true of any terrible situation.
So, let’s deal with the worst that this could possibly be. COVID 19 at worst has a fatality rate of 4%, and we will probably have a second round of it next cold and flu season. That is upwards of 8% dead. In the US that is 26.4 million people. Worldwide that is 624 million people.
That is beyond tragic. That is over four times more than communism killed in its entire existence. That is somewhere between 56-100 times the deaths of the Holocaust. It is nearly everyone you know over 65, parents, friends, certainly grandparents, and depending on who is reading this, possibly you. A new word might need to be invented to deal with death at these levels.
I want everyone reading this to take a few minutes, maybe even days to consider this, and let it sink in. It will be horrible.
It’s okay, it’s worth crying over, worth being horrified by, and worth being revolted that more could not be done.
Let it sink in.
Okay? If not, maybe this is a time to stop reading and think about why you’re still not okay with this. Do you need to make amends with people who might be gone or who might lose you? Then why are you still reading and not doing that? Didn’t accomplish all you wanted in life? Again, if that’s what is really bothering you, you might want to deal with that while you have time. Didn’t’ go on that trip or buy that car or retire to that beach…you know these are the kind of moments that are supposed to make it clear that life isn’t things, and you may need to think about what is bothering you.
Okay, have we come to terms with this worst-case scenario?
Now let’s move on.
This is unspeakably terrible, but there is one thing it is not. It is not the end of the world.
The Black Death killed 50 million people in Europe. That sounds like a lot less but it was closer to 35-65% of the population of Europe. (Data on what it did in Asia is a little harder to get, but over the course of centuries it probably did a bang-up job there too). And you know what happened? Europe survived. Possibly two-thirds of the population gone. Two out of every three people dead. And Europe survived. This is a disease that strikes hardest at the elderly, which was a disease that was indiscriminate to age. And they survived. We will survive 8% of the population dying.
Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t’t care about the people who die, not do every reasonable and even a few unreasonable efforts to save them. But understand this will be tragic deaths of people we love—it will not be the end of the world. If a bunch of illiterate peasants who are civilized only by the barest of definitions can survive two-thirds of their civilization, we will survive. *
This is not the end of the world.
Let that sink in.
Really, let that sink in because to get to the optimism for the future this might come off as a little callous if you haven’t accepted the previous points.
The plagues that struck Athens which led to their conquest by the Spartans led to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The Black Death was followed by the Renaissance. The Napoleonic Wars led to the Industrial Revolution on the European Continent, and the Civil War was followed by the Industrial Revolution in America. WWI and the Spanish Flu were followed by the Roaring ’20s. And the post-WWII economics was nothing short of miraculous. The universe has a way of balancing great tragedy with a spectacular moment of growth economically, intellectually, and spiritually. I’m not saying that everything about these periods was great, but the good certainly outweighed the bad. And granted, not every great tragedy is followed by prosperity. But assuming we get better at what we’re doing (either by toughing it out until January, or maybe blessedly COVID will walk down Pennsylvania Avenue) and learn that the free market with light direction is often a better innovator to our problems, and then hopefully set the groundwork for prosperity when this passes—and this too shall—then we will rise from this better than before.
That might not seem logical, but consider that we’re already coping remarkably well. Restaurants are still serving people via delivery and so while they won’t be in a great situation come to the end of this, they will still be there and ready to grow again. Companies will find that most people can be more effective from home, and will probably find out that 30 hours from home (so long as they have support from the corporate office) will be more effective than 40 in the office for a lot of jobs, which will not only help bring about a new jump in productivity but hopefully give vast new hours for people to spend on pet projects, artistic endeavors, and side business possibilities. This is giving us the opportunity to put in a lot of automated systems that unions and regulation had previously stood in the way of, which will raise the quality of life for numerous people and drop the costs of products worldwide. I’m sure we will see a massive increase in the money for self-driving cars and drone delivery to help reduce human to human transmission of the COVID, which will have an unspeakably massive drop in transaction costs of almost every economic transaction. We have been on the verge of a change as great as the change from an agrarian culture to an industrial one—and it promises to be a world where there is far less poverty and institutional injustice, and it’s sad this is the price we may have to pay for that change, but it is a better world on the other side of this.
And if you’re still not convinced, let me be exceptionally coldly rational here. The average person over the age of 65 in the US has an average net value of over a million dollars. In the worst-case situation, you’re looking at 20 million senior citizens dead. I hate to be callous but, that’s $20 Trillion being pumped into the economy. Granted a good deal of that is in housing, which that kind of glut on the market will radically drop housing prices (but that is affordable housing that isn’t bad) …but that’s still about $10 Trillion being pumped into the economy in the next year and a half. This is terrible, but it relieves a huge strain on our safety nets which can give us the opportunity to fix them properly without having to cut the benefits of those who depend on them while we fix them to be sustainable.
If we think long term here and amidst trying to save as many as possible, but we also need to work to set the groundwork for the world that comes after. And that world is better with less government (which I think we can easily see how stupid and short-sighted government is), with more guardrails in government to prevent the idiotic and unethical from achieving power over anyone, with more efforts put into the technologies and innovations that can make our lives better, and by using the time to reflect on how much we do need human connection in our lives and how we need to re-establish a greater sense of community with others in our lives after this.
What I am not saying is that we should help those who are vulnerable to this disease, who are suffering from it, or who are afraid. We most certainly should be there for them in any way that we find we are able to without going further than we feel comfortable doing.
That we need to understand that it was globalization that gave us exposure to so many diseases before this that we had better immunities and that this will only be, at worst, 8% and not 20% or 70%.
We should take time to ask if this is the best plan to save the most people unlike right now which only cares about deaths from COVID ignoring that the economic harm we’re causing will also cause death from more suicide, accident, stress, domestic violence…and the fact is that I can’t find anyone seriously asking which will have more death, it would likely be COVID is the greater danger, I would just love to know somebody looked toward the long term…you know in a way the government never does.
That science and free markets are working hard to find solutions while governments dither and sputter in incompetence.
And that life is a mixture of good and bad, and we shouldn’t give up on the good just because of terrible, but undeniably momentary, bad.
The world on the other side of this is easily a better one than behind us. Take comfort in that.
*A caveat. I know there are some older parents out there who are worried that they might not be there for their children. I wish I could transfer my faith that the universe is an ordered place, and that they will not be challenged with anything more than they can take, and any loss they endure will be a loss they knew about coming into this life and that it will give them the opportunity for growth. But I can’t transfer that faith. I can only advise that you seek some reconciliation with your own beliefs. But I understand that logically there is probably nothing I can do to ally your fears.