Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I’d been thinking that were I to get a tattoo, it would be of an ampersand, like this “&.” And if I had a wish for our nation, it would be that we would ditch the cult of “or” to make “and” our national conjunction.
Now, for obvious reasons, I’ll shelve getting an actual tattoo to focus on the need for our nation to get behind “and.” I’ll go so far as saying many lives and our nation’s future depend on adapting the spirit of “and.” And fast.
By the cult of “or,” I mean our feeling that “You’re either with me or against me.” Most obviously, “or” is the poster word for our national partisan divisiveness — red or blue, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, you get the picture. “Or” spills over locally as well. (At times, it seems that NextDoor should be called NextOr given all the divisiveness that oozes there.) Here in Encinitas, “or” has dominated our discussions about the Leichtag Foundation parking lot for the homeless and the lawsuit over the Cardiff School rebuild.
What’s most dangerous in the way we make “or” our go-to reaction is the way we automatically refuse to believe what “the other side” says. Now in the heat of COVID-19, some people are still refusing to believe scientists and doctors (and the journalists who quote them), in part because “the other side” believed them first. In Washington, it seems our so-called “leaders” are loath to work together lest the other side score more political points. That’s perilous for our individual health, the lives of at-risk populations and our ability to recover from the COVID-19 crisis once the threat passes.
What I like about “and” are the American values it represents.
First off, diversity and inclusion, the old idea of the great American melting pot. We are Republicans and Democrats and independents and Libertarians and Peace & Freedom Party members, and we belong to other smaller parties as well. We are black, white, brown, blue-haired and ruddy newborn. We and our ancestors come from a magnificent collage of nations and tribes. We are able and disabled, LQBTQ+ and straight. We are a mosaic of many identities, all bound by the grout of “and.”
Next, unity, in the face of crisis. It’s that unity that we tapped into to face crises of the past, be they world wars, the Great Depression or the gut punch of 9/11. It’s that quality of “and” that I heard when members of Congress sang “God Bless America” on Sept. 11, 2001. Other versions may be more on-key, but that rendition will always be my favorite.
And then, our responsibility to act with compassion and respect. As Americans, we have a responsibility to listen to each other. We have a responsibility to treat each other with respect, to try to understand each other because we believe we each have value. We have a responsibility to make compassion our go-to reaction, rather than debasing our great country by being quick to judge, to shame, to blame. To “or.”
Lastly, “and” requires a new value — embracing nuance and complexity. We want the world to be black and white, this or that, us or them. Politically, we do not all fall into the polarity of our parties, which is partly why so many people don’t vote in elections. Our assessments of how to handle COVID-19 do not necessarily fall into two camps. Someone can, for instance, practice social distancing and wash their hands umpteen times a day but still wonder whether the radical measures we’re taking now are commensurate with the risk. We can have these in-between thoughts and still be “and”-loving Americans. And since this is a complex and evolving crisis, we must embrace nuance and complexity if we want to survive.
To be clear, I do not actually want Congress to use its precious time to declare “and” our national conjunction.
I do want Congress, and the rest of us, to act as if it were.
For us, that means being kind: sharing your toilet paper and your food, letting that car ahead of you merge into traffic, and checking in on those in quarantine.
And maybe when this COVID-19 crisis is all over, I’ll get that tattoo. And maybe you will too.