Wisdom is Transmissible
In grueling and revealing ways, the COVID-19 pandemic took our measure, both as individuals and as a society. It tested our empathy and compassion, our ability to regulate emotions, to self-reflect, to accept divergent perspectives, to advocate for the common good and to act with decisiveness.
These are all components of wisdom, empirically determined and the subject of ongoing scientific research. They are based in biology, correlating with distinct regions of the brain, which means they can be measured and modified. Each of these wisdom components, in combination with others like curiosity, sense of humor and spirituality, provide insight into how wise we are, where we excel and where we fall short. You don’t need maximum scores for every component to be wise. That’s nearly impossible. All humans are mixed bags.
And so too were our results in terms of how wisely we handled the pandemic. In the beginning, we all were scared, uncertain of what to expect or what to do. We received contradictory and changing advice from experts who were themselves unsure of what was happening. But then, slowly, the reality became clearer. We knew the danger but also developed an idea about what the eventual solution would be — vaccines.
For some of us, the pandemic prompted personal growth. We tapped or expanded reservoirs of compassion. We deepened relationships with our families and friends. We listened to others and acted reasonably and responsibly. We discovered new strengths. We became wiser.
For others though, things got worse, especially in the first months of the crisis. Rates of alcohol and drug use rose, as did overdose deaths and suicides, though the last two phenomena predate the pandemic and are consequences of very complicated social trends. Divisions and disputes abounded; the components of wisdom, like personal protective equipment at times, seemed in short supply.
But I cannot fault those who fell short, at least not too severely. The COVID-19 pandemic was a crisis unlike any other for most of us. It affected more people around the world, directly and indirectly, than any previous public health crisis in recent memory. In the early days, before widespread vaccination began to turn the tide, uncertainty, despondency and fear felt universal. Racial and socioeconomic disparities exposed and exacerbated harms.
Traditional customs and values were set aside. Social distancing became a necessary norm, but it initially brought with it a sense of rejection and rebuff. Why is that person crossing to the other side of the road? I remember attending meetings before we all retreated into the digital world of Zoom and extending naturally, automatically, my hand in introduction, only to quickly withdraw it. Fist and elbow bumps don’t quite convey the same personal connection.
However, as a society, I think we responded well overall, even in the context of divided and divisive leadership in different arenas. Arguments and public displays over mask wearing were common. Opposition to this simple and extraordinarily effective way to reduce viral transmission and protect the health of others was notoriously vocal at times and in some places, but the fact is that most Americans wore masks when and where required — and they began doing so from the beginning.
Similarly, we got better at washing our hands and keeping our distance. We didn’t panic. There were crazy and unexpected shortages — remember grocery store shelves devoid of pasta and toilet paper? But these didn’t lead to riots. People, businesses and institutions found workarounds and solutions. We learned how to live differently.
A decade or two from now, historians and others will look hardest at case rates and deaths. In some ways, these massively tragic numbers reflect the successes and failures of our individual and communal behaviors, but mostly they are the product of a previously unknown virus with extraordinary transmissibility and a penchant to kill those with underlying risk factors, such as old age or pre-existing diseases.
To our credit and to all of the scientists and health care professionals at all levels, as well as others who raced to understand the novel coronavirus and how best to treat COVID-19, humanity has come out on the winning side. Not entirely and not without deep wounds and scars, but we’re here. Having largely controlled the virus in the U.S., we have started working on helping the less fortunate people in other parts of the world.
The question now is whether the pandemic has made us better and wiser, as individuals and as a society. No one predicted the precise scope and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is an absolute certainty that other pandemics will follow. The French novelist Marcel Proust (1871–1922) once wrote: “We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
Are we wiser now than we were before SARS-CoV-2 became a well-recognized and much-dreaded collection of letters and numbers? I think so. I hope so. Time will tell.