Day after day, I have hesitated to write here because the onslaught of news has kept me off-balance. There have been few times in my life when the matters of politics, social upheaval, public health and dysfunctional economics have all come together with such overwhelming force. Every one of the issues is daunting. Facing them all together is nearly beyond our imaginations. But here we are, and the national nightmare will not be gone when we awaken tomorrow.
We are living within a perfect storm of challenges. It’s as if the crises before us conspired to come together at the same moment to test our individual and national resolve. In the past we have demonstrated strength and resilience and prided ourselves in the effort. But what about our capacities to triumph over all of this? Surely it seems that we are being tested. It’s a little bit like recovering from a physical injury: we nurse ourselves and rest and rehabilitate, and then we’re whole again. But facing an injury, an illness, an emotional strain and loss of eyesight is an entirely different proposition; recovery is not so simple, nor so assured. That’s when looking at our circumstances requires a more holistic diagnosis, because often the presence of one infirmity causes others.
Over the past year, I have faced a multitude of physical challenges, a sequence of oddities that have offended (and physically hurt) my beloved sense of fitness and well-being. First it was my hip. Then my lower back and joints. This rheumatological malaise was followed by a spinal matter. The adjustments I had to make for that gave rise to tendonitis in the left ankle. And, of course, favoring the left ankle caused bruising of my right heel. Add in a first-ever bout with kidney stones and the picture becomes rather self-explanatory: where one part of the whole is ill, the rest of the parts are not far behind.
Nationally, we are ill. We have a political system that is failing us, exacerbated by a president whose sole objective is narcissistic self-service. That dysfunction has amplified a malaise of polarization which prevents even a pretext of collaborative problem-solving. Those fixed contrapositions have laid a fertile groundwork for a Covid-19 pandemic in which to gestate, taking more than 100,000 lives in our country so far. The resultant unemployment, loss of stability and economic collapse have fostered a hopelessness not experienced since the Great Depression. And that despair is the powder keg which the murder of George Floyd ignited, now into our seventh day of dystopian unraveling. We are loathe to wonder what the next pain might be, what disablement is yet to come.
While I have no single diagnosis for all of the symptoms of our current disease, I do know how some of our best organizations go about the process of problem-solving. The process is intended to “drill down” to the root cause of the ailment, to identify the most underlying base of pain. In the present instance, I submit that we know what that root cause is.
Underlying our national malady is a persistent and growing inequality- racial, social and economic- that has been the bedrock for growth and power in our country since its founding. There is no disputing the foundation upon which the U.S. grew to unparalleled prominence in the world: the lands we control today were territories inhabited by Native Americans long before the presence of the first Caucasian. The labor upon which the “new” landowners relied for expansion and wealth creation was provided substantially by black slaves imported from other lands. Inequality is a cornerstone of this nation’s history, whether we feel justification for it or not. And it persists.
From obscene pay equity issues within our economy (Really? A CEO is really worth 500 times the compensation of his her workers?) to the knee of a white police officer on the neck of his black suspect (for maybe passing a counterfeit $20 bill?), hostile inequality remains at the forefront of national policy, practice and preference. It’s there because we allow it. We prefer it. In the aftermath of daily upheavals, we hear elected officials or neighborhood residents making the claim, “This is not who we are.” But it is. Otherwise, neither the inequality which spawns it nor the rioting in response to it would be happening.
That is not to say that it must be this way, only that it is this way. The central mantra of our economic system says that if one works hard and applies creativity and motivation to opportunity, financial and social success can be had. What is not made clear in that proposition is that in today’s culture of winner-take-all, that achievement will be at an often dangerous expense of others. This isn’t an argument against free enterprise or the promises of risk-reward. Rather, it’s simply the underlying truth, the underlying cause, of the inequalities that are driving many of the awful symptoms witnessed this summer so far.
Holistic well-being exists when the body is in synch with itself, when the systems and appendages are well and complementing one another. A nation’s health is exactly the same: no individual can achieve maximum well-being as long as others are not well. As a result, we’ll have some decisions to be made in the months ahead, once the smoke clears and political actions have been promised. We’ll either have interventions that we’re willing to embrace, or we won’t. We’ll actually deliver the systemic change promised over decades of disparity, or we won’t. At the end of the day, it will be up to us to determine whether the level of inequality has finally become intolerable, or whether a knee to the neck is just something we prefer to live with….