Our Common Divide

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM
LinkedIn
As I was composing my most recent COVID reality check video commentary, principally addressing the salient, current concerns- vaccine efficacy and safety, the emergence of new viral strains- an unintended theme insinuated itself to me. I found myself reflecting on our shared experience, even within our current, emphatic divisiveness. Those inchoate intimations from the other day have inevitably ripened into fuller expression on this, Christmas Day, at the encouragement of this season’s native aspirations.
Snowy landscape on a sunny day with rocky hills on the back left and right, cross country ski tracks through the snow.

My thoughts turned to the work of my Mother, an accomplished literary teacher and widely published poet. Among her celebrated poems is one entitled “Two Halves of the Same Silence,” and another entitled “The Separate Sides of Need,” a title extended to a published anthology of her work.

Well, that’s just how it is. We have been living through our separate sides of the same pandemic, and many variations on the theme of common needs. Silent, or noisome, we have viewed this historical passage from dueling halves of the same, shared experience. In other words, my friends, we truly have all been “in this” together, however much at odds, however much at times we may have wished it weren’t so.

The last pandemic fully great enough to capture the world’s attention and leave an indelible mark on history was a century ago. These 100 years later, we are living through the long-anticipated sequel. What a remarkable, rarefied experience that is.

Though formally educated in epidemiology and public health, including the many great historical episodes that populate that domain- I never paused to consider how it felt to live through the flu pandemic of 1918. I never thought about being a family worrying about one another, wondering who might be next. Admittedly, the situation back then was far graver than ours now, but still- we all own some inkling of how those people felt. We are feeling it now.

We are feeling it together, even if differently. Whether you have suffered more from the fact, or threat, of infection- or have suffered more from our haphazard and arguably heavy-handed interdiction policies, all but inevitably…you have suffered. And so, we have all suffered together.

We may have prioritized different sets of worries, but all but undoubtedly- we have worried together. We may have wished for an end to this mayhem by alternative means, but almost certainly- we have wished together.

We may have raged against this unkind fate- and sought some target for that rage. Perhaps we had different targets; perhaps we chose disparate protagonists to bear the blame and deserve our ire. But still, in all probability, we raged together.

Perhaps even the act of sharing the same set of deeply felt emotions seemed to drive us apart. On this topic, a quite vivid metaphor comes immediately to mind, courtesy of my frequent hikes in the woods outside my door, and the deep snow a recent Nor’Easter deposited there.

I know these trails well, and have my preferred route over every stream, my preferred course through every rocky scramble. But in the deep snow, the obvious if not irresistible path to choose, is the one already walked. The unpacked snow is a heavy effort, the packed snow of an established trail, much less so. On a snowy trail, one follows the literal path of least resistance.

So it is that those who expressed their opinion and preference with the tracks they left behind pull me in their direction, whatever my predispositions. I, in turn, accentuate the lure of that particular fall of steps by adding my own just there, further differentiating the packed trail from the untrod snow around. Simply, the more people who follow the path of lesser resistance, the more distinguished it becomes from every other path – until it is really the only choice.

Opinions are rather like that, too. We were not far into the pandemic before the only blazed trails of thought were “shut it all down to flatten the curve,” or “hands off my civil liberties.” We cannot really be blamed, and should resist the inclination to blame ourselves or one another, for choosing among the paths of lesser resistance. Alas, those trails diverged in the winter wood of prevailing ideology, and that has made all the difference– notably, the difference dividing us. But we have the lure of that blunt bifurcation in common, even if we chose alternative roads.

We will tell tales of the pandemic of 2020. We will tell them to children or grandchildren; to family, or friends, or larger audiences. We will tell them in print, or oratory, or homely conversation. We will tell them with some particular emphasis and aim, or just nostalgia. But we will tell these separate tales of a common trauma we endured, together.

Peace on earth, good will toward all echo in our heads today, and to those ideals, I say: amen. Perhaps that agenda native to the better angels of our nature is advanced when we concede that even the duress of divisiveness- is something we have shared.

Here’s to better understanding in the offing. Here’s to common cause on common ground, an asset that seems all too rare. But perhaps we have been traversing it more than we know, along tracks that diverged and took us with them. We have carried many burdens on the trek, including the burden of our divisions. Perhaps the load is immediately lighter when we concede that even the frustration of one another – is something we have in common.

Merry Christmas today, and tomorrow- may we find better things to be in, better ways to be together. May better angels leave a track wide enough for all.

-fin

This article was first published on LinkedIn.

Dr. David L. Katz is a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health.

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Click here to access a library of Dr. Katz’ “reality check” videos on the pandemic

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