As a cultural psychiatrist, I endeavor to bring big-picture perspective to our time’s important questions and challenges. In particular, I try to highlight how our times are requiring more “grown up” human skills and capacities—what I call a new Cultural Maturity—and how this relates to the challenges we face. An obvious question for today as we confront the corona virus pandemic is just what we can learn from it. Most important immediately is the advice of public health experts and epidemiologists. But more long-term, there is a lot that ties quite directly to the task of thinking and acting in newly mature ways. Here are the four such insights I find most key:
Foresight is critical to our future well-being—and a capacity we are only beginning to fully appreciate. People have spoken as if the pandemic were a surprise. But in fact the only surprise is that it did not happen sooner. Epidemiologists have been warning us for decades that it was only a matter of time before we confronted something like what we are seeing. With SARS, MERS, H1N1, and Ebola, in each case we dodged a bullet.
How could we have failed to head the obvious warnings? In fact thinking with the needed depth about the future is something we are only beginning to become capable of. Note that we have all had classes on history, but very view people have had classes on what may lie ahead. The needed responsibility for our future well-being could not be more important. But it asks of us a level of human maturity that we are only beginning to understand, much less manifest.
We need to be comfortable making decisions in the context of real uncertainty. The coronavirus was a “novel” virus. Initially we knew almost nothing we needed to know to manage if effectively, and what we did know was always a moving target. Even well into the pandemic, there were often more questions than answers. Each step along the way, we had do our best to assess risk and plan in the context of dynamic circumstances and real uncertainty.
This is not something we tend to be comfortable doing and something we have rarely done effectively in times past. We like to know for sure. And in times past, culture has been sure we didn’t have to do so too often, providing us with ready ways to keep uncertainty at bay—God-given rules of right and wrong and the simple answer solutions of ideology (whatever the persuasion). Increasingly, today, we confront challenges where hiding from uncertainty could well be our undoing.
The kind of sophistication needed to effectively tolerate uncertainty and think in terms of assessment of risk is new. It requires a level of maturity we are only becoming capable of. But it will be increasingly essential. I argued twenty years ago, for example, that the climate change debate was essentially over, but not because the science had provided the needed evidence (science can’t provide once-and-for-all answers to such questions), rather because climate change is a question of risk assessment. You need only ask how comfortable you are with your children playing Russian Roulette to decide whether climate change should be take seriously.
Like it or not, the most important questions in life involve significant uncertainty. They are “creative” in this sense, not about final answers, but about effectively assessing risk (and possibility). But it asks a lot to hold questions this way. We are just beginning to become capable of the maturity of perspective needed to do so.
Our times challenge us to define human advancement in more mature and complete ways. When self-described futurists talk about the future you are likely to hear about traveling to Mars or self-driving cars. And the average person is likely to think about progress primarily in terms of new inventions and material growth. The coronavirus pandemic makes one of the central messages of the concept of Cultural Maturity hard to escape. Wealth and progress today need new, more complete definitions.
Needed foresight would have produced some very different priorities. Certainly hospitals and health care systems more generally would have been better prepared and mechanisms needed to support them more in place. And governmental agencies tasked with keeping an eye on potential pathogens and with emergency preparedness would have been better funded. But more than this, our priorities more generally need to reflect what is required for societies to be robust and vital. The list can seem rather mundane, but it addresses what is needed for a healthy future. A few things it might include: more attention to essential infrastructure like roads and bridges, establishment of widely available mental health resources, better addressing poverty and homelessness, and a greater emphasis on renewable resources and the well-being of the environment. And those things are just a start.
Defining progress in terms of the requirements of healthy and resilient societies and of an environmentally sustainable planet can at first seem less “sexy” than our more familiar onward-and-upward imagery. But what I describe is not about settling for something less interesting. It is about finding the place in ourselves where we experience larger well-being as the goal that is ultimately most life-affirming, and thus most ultimately sexy.
What we can learn from confronting death. The coronavirus pandemic has required a more intimate relationship with death than many people have before experienced. If we have not found ourselves personally standing face to face with mortality, certainly we know someone who has. This is legitimately frightening. But it is also the case that death is one of life’s most profound teachers. And arguably it is a teacher of exactly what we are most needing in our times to learn.
I’ve written extensively about the importance of realizing a new maturity in our relationship with death. The topic has implications not just for our personal lives, but for the choices we make as a species. The need to confront death as directly as the coronavirus pandemic demands can help support the needed new maturity in our relationship with death more generally. And that in turn can help support the greater human maturity that we need to bring today to concerns of every sort.
Both personally and collectively, today, we confront what I’ve called a Crisis of Purpose. Too often people feel rudderless, without a deep sense of meaning and direction in their lives. I’ve described how we find the necessary antidote in asking about what matters in deeper and more complete ways. I also describe how confronting death can help us do so. I put it this way in my most recent book Rethinking How We Think:
“Coming face to face with mortality in our individual lives teaches us about what most matters to us as individuals—death is a personal life’s most pointed teacher of meaning, and ultimately of wisdom. As we learn to engage death collectively with a new maturity, it is reasonable to think that this engagement should help us in a similar way to more deeply confront what most ultimately matters to us more broadly—as humans.
“Death confronts us with the fact that life as we know it ends. But it also confronts us with what is an even more final and easily disturbing limit. Death confronts us with limits to what is possible to control, and perhaps ultimately to understand. The humility required to accept this limit should play an essential role in helping us generate the wisdom that effective future decision-making in all parts of our personal and collective lives will increasingly require.”
Confronting the pandemic and its consequence is at times simply wrenching. The best we can do is deal with the pain and disorientation as we are able. But there are also ways in which what we are experiencing provides an important “teachable moment.” All of these lessons pertain at every scale of life, from the most personal, to the health of neighborhoods and communities, to the global connections that will be needed if we to act together effectively. That is another lesson. In a way not before the case, that future is making it inescapable that we are all in this together.