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A crisis provides an opening for two kinds of people: which are you?

From Pennsylvania to the Carolinas, from Minnesota to Virginia, throngs of protestors have taken to the streets demanding an end to stay-at-home decrees and a return to normalcy.

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“There’s no reason [that] we can’t do both — protect our lives and livelihoods,” said Representative Aaron Bernstein of Pennsylvania. “I think every job is essential to help people provide for their families.”

The truth is, both our lives and our livelihoods are threatened by COVID-19.  The empathic response is to protect those at risk by sacrificing the economy. The utilitarian response is to accept loss of life while preserving the economic health of the country.  Both arguments are defensible. Neither alternative is particularly attractive.

So how do we determine the right answer?  We can start by acknowledging that there may be no right answer.

2000 years ago, the sages of Israel uncovered a sinister plot to destroy the great Temple in Jerusalem.  They convened an emergency meeting, where a variety of options were suggested for averting catastrophe.  But to each proposal, one of the sages, Rabbi Zechariah, raised an objection why that course of action could not be pursued.

Rabbi Zechariah’s reservations were reasonable, and his observations were sound.  But he never offered a positive alternative. Instead, he paralyzed the council of sages into inaction.  And, since no decision is also a decision, history blames him above all other parties for the tragedy of the Temple’s destruction.

THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME

Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

In the face of an unprecedented national and global crisis, it’s easy to point fingers and lay blame; it’s easy to find fault and level accusations.  But let’s be honest – there’s no playbook for the morbid game we’re being forced to play, weighing potential loss of life against crippling economic recession and the preservation of civil liberties against the general welfare.  There are no good options, only a haphazard choice between the lesser of very great evils.

A decade ago, a prominent white house adviser responded to the 2008 economic meltdown with the now infamous remark, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  And, sure enough, the same former adviser repeated the same remark last month in the context of the current pandemic.

The quote – which apparently originated with Machiavelli – offers a profound insight into the difference between an ethical and an unethical mindset.

WE WON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN

Any crisis provides an opening for two types of people: opportunists and heroes.  The former eagerly pounce to advance their own agendas, regardless of what is wise or popular, indifferent to the consequences their actions will have on others.  And, if they can’t take advantage of the winds of fortune, they will sit back and snipe at those who are charged with taking the lead, editorializing without regard for facts or context.

In sharp contrast are the heroes who step forward and try to do whatever they can, working with limited resources against mountainous obstacles, striving to find a way forward while those around them wring their hands and catastrophize.

Is the government handling the current crisis the best way possible?  I have no idea. But I have far more respect for those who are trying to respond rather than react, who are attempting to employ positive solutions rather than find others to blame while the sky is falling.

Our convenience culture has made it too easy for use to forget that complex problems resist easy answers and quick fixes.  Accepting reality and working together to do the best we can is ultimately the only practical response. If we get it right, the benefits of our collaborative efforts will extend far beyond the eventual resolution of the current crisis.

So don’t let this crisis go to waste.  Let it bring out the best in you, and let it draw you into the circle of those who have let it bring out the best in them.

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Rabbi Yonason Goldson is director of Ethical Imperatives, LLC. He is an ethics speaker, strategic storyteller, TEDx presenter, and author. He is also a recovered hitchhiker and circumnavigator, former newspaper columnist, and retired high school teacher. Visit him at http://ethicalimperatives.com.