George Santayana famously taught that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Friedrich Hegel less famously taught that the great lesson of history is that no one learns from it.
We are now living through possibly the worst pandemic in modern history. What lessons should we be learning? Here are a few suggestions.
#1 Everything you do matters
Authorities believe that the coronavirus originated from a wet market in China’s Wuhan province. These unregulated marketplaces offer a bizarre menagerie of creatures not conventionally found on the menu, including donkeys, foxes, badgers, bamboo rats, hedgehogs, and snakes, many of them traded illegally. This allows for easy transmission of viruses from animals to human hosts.
So here’s the question: if I want to go shopping to make bat stew for dinner, what’s wrong with that? I’m not hurting anyone else. Probably not… unless I unleash a global pandemic. Private actions can have very public consequences.
That’s why personal ethics and moral discipline are so important. If you don’t set standards for yourself, even in private, the fallout from your actions can seep into the world, and you may set in motion destructive events you never intended or imagined. Conversely, the more you refine your personal conduct – especially when no one is watching – the more naturally you will make a positive impact on the people who share your world.
#2 Don’t expose yourself to unhealthy people
Jim Rohn observed that you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Character traits transmit like viruses. You absorb attitudes from those around you, until eventually you become just like them.
Associate only with ethically healthy companions. That’s the best way to protect yourself from contracting debilitating moral infections. And preserving your own ethical health will help keep your work, family, and community environments healthy as well.
#3 What you don’t see can hurt you
Before Louis Pasteur discovered germ pathology, scientists refused to believe in anything they couldn’t see. Now we know better. But the danger to our well-being isn’t limited to microorganisms.
A cruel word, a thoughtless remark, or a disdainful glance causes real harm to those around you. Gossip, sarcasm, misinformation, slander – these are the pathogens of modern society that break down your ethical immune system and leave you vulnerable to the influence of immoral people. Just because we can’t measure how words affect us, we still have a responsibility to anticipate the impact they will have on us and on others.
#4 We need one another
The ease with which technology allows us to connect with strangers has left our connections shallow and unfulfilling. Now we are left with nothing else, as we’re told to keep our distance and self-quarantine.
We can’t live with others, but we can’t live alone either. Retreating behind closed doors has created a whole new constellation of problems as commerce grinds to a halt and livelihoods are threatened by a paralyzed economy. Experience teaches that when we don’t appreciate what we have, it’s often taken away from us – and that includes genuine human relationships and interaction, as well as the economic health of our society.
#5 Don’t wait for the next crisis
We will make it through this. But the best way to prevent a future crisis is to learn from the last one. Aside from whatever medical safeguards we end up putting in place, we will serve our own best interests by learning the lessons of personal responsibility and discipline, surrounding ourselves with people of ethical quality, becoming more aware of how our words and actions affect others, and making time to preserve and deepen our relationships with friends and family.
In his Psalms, King David praises those who have clean hands and a pure heart. The actions that define our lives – the work of our hands – cling to us persistently and creep into our hearts, changing us either for better or worse.
We need more than soap and water to stay clean. We need genuine commitment to a life of ethical idealism. We need awareness that our moral health affects others and is affected by others. We need to know and believe with all our hearts that the world needs us to make it better, and that we benefit from living in a world we make better by leading ethical lives.