March 24, 2020 – Our world today is laser-focused on COVID-19, as it should be. It is a medical problem requiring a medical solution. Doctors and other healthcare professionals around the world are working at a frenetic pace to prevent further spread and to find treatments and vaccines to keep the virus from claiming more lives. May God be with them in that essential mission.
Since most of us are neither doctors nor healthcare professionals, we watch from the sidelines and hope that their efforts yield quick results. However, this doesn’t mean we are powerless to help eradicate — or at least tame — the many negative effects of COVID 19. Indeed, the “lay” population, society, has an essential role to play. The first is strict adherence to experts’ advice about social interactions: Wash our hands and stay a safe distance from others! It seems simple in concept but harder to do in practice.
Social interactions in the form of civility also plays an essential role. Civility matters more than ever. Working at home, distancing oneself from family and friends, or working and studying at home with family in close quarters are both sources of stress for virtually everyone. Small businesses are struggling to stay in business for their employees, their customers, and themselves, usually in that order. As one week rolls into the next, the novelty of being at home and sheltering in place will become trying, testing and a temptation for harmful, hurtful behaviors.
Healthcare experts agree that stress can have a negative medical impact on any of us, whether we are already ill or still healthy. A phrase useful in business and in life is “control your controllables.” In order to mitigate the stress of all that’s happening in the world today to we can focus on what we can control — being civil, kind, thoughtful, and patient with each another. That means resisting the temptation to blame or demonize those with whom we may not like or with whom we disagree about the handling of this virus. There will be plenty of time to look in the rearview mirror to place blame and hold accountable.
While anger, frustration, and fear are understandable, these emotions rarely beget positive, productive outcomes. At a time when the fiscal and physical health of the whole world is at risk, the wisest and healthiest course is to put disagreements aside and treat our kindred human beings civilly.
How do we do that? Let’s begin and end with respect, which is a fundamental hallmark of real civility.
We respect each other’s space.
We respect that people emotionally process stressful events in their own way.
We respect that no one, including those in the medical community and our governments, have all the answers, but we respect that they are trying to get answers as quickly as possible.
We respect that businesses large and small are trying to figure out the very complicated issues around staying open or closed, laying people off or trying to keep them on the payroll.
We respect that we must take personal responsibility as part of the greater society of man to do what we individually can to arrest the spread of this invisible villain.
We respect that incendiary social media posts don’t serve the higher purpose of bringing us together.
We respect that in free societies like ours, the government works for us. However, that also means that our government struggles to balance issues of civil liberties and societal imperatives. In non-democracies, governments may have more power to lock everything down, but ordinary citizens have no say.
In a crisis, we sometime expect a leader to say, “Here’s what you will do.” But, we are citizens of a free society, so we too must also step up and take some personal and civic responsibility for how we help minimize the effects of this crisis.
No, we cannot control much, but we can be civil, kind, and patient with one another, even when we don’t want to do so, and even from the new proper social distance.
How we behave can make a difference. Showing respect and kindness to each other may not reduce the risk of being infected with COVID 19, but it may enhance our ability to resist and overcome it. Blood pressure and heart rates stay even when we remain calm and show kindnesses to one another.
Think about the YouTube videos circulating on the internet. Those who show people doing things to bring communities together are getting the most views. Watch the people of Italy singing from their balconies together, and the Italian Air Force creating an Italian flag by painting the sky with their contrails in unison. Civility can create that opportunity for unity, and we can accomplish the greatest of things when we are unified.
The enemy is the contagious virus, not individuals. Negative, uncivil behavior can poison us. Social distancing should not be an excuse to behave uncivilly. Kindness and compassion are also contagious. Let’s test positive — for civility.
Shelby Scarbrough is the author of the upcoming books Civility Rules! and The Joy Journey.