It is good to see you here.
I have missed you.
We’re all missing somebody. Grandparents are missing their grandbabies. Our teenagers are missing their friends. Parents are missing their children’s teachers.
And all of us want to go out to eat.
It’s always so fascinating how we realize what we once had and enjoyed once it’s gone.
Although things will improve and will get back to some sense of normalcy, things are really different right now.
And you know what? It’s not all bad.
What is bad, of course, is the staggering number of test-positive cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus coursing its way into the lives of every single human being on the planet.
At this writing, Kentucky alone is in the mid-200s and the United States has outpaced the rest of the world. That number, sadly, will grow. Hopefully not by much.
Worse than the rising number of positive test results is the rising number of deaths: 22,000.
That is the horrible news.
But there is good news, too.
The good news is that, by and large, our fellow Americans have heeded their national and state governments’ warnings to shelter-in-place, stay healthy at home, and to avoid fraternizing with other people who are not in our in-home family units, and if we must, to do so 6 feet apart.
We have listened. We’re doing well. We’re trying to beat it. And we will.
That’s good news, too, it’s just a little too far off for us to determine whether it is an oasis in these barren days, or a mirage.
Time will tell, and all will one day again be well.
There is other good news, another benefit to this public health crisis (We have always to look for the silver lining, right?).
We will finally learn once again how much we depend on one another.
We tend to think that we are personally responsible for the choices we make about how we behave, and we assume that what we do is based on our own will.
Of course it is up to us whether we monitor our children’s Non-Traditional Instruction work, what personal news we share with our neighbors, whether we’re going to keep the plan for spring break or Sunday family dinner, even though we know that the warnings are there, and that we mustn’t.
We forget that most of these behavioral choices are far from personal. They are often influenced by what other people think, say, do, and by what they believe is “right” and “wrong.”
In short, our behaviors are choices that we make within the context of and bound by social norms and shared moral values.
Most people across the world adhere to a similar set of norms and moral values. For example, we generally consider being kind to others as “good” and being cruel as “bad.”
But what this means exactly can change from one situation to another.
And when everything changes, suddenly it is not so easy to take guidance from prior habits that always seemed “right.”
Only a few weeks ago, visiting relatives in nursing homes was an example of caring and “good” behavior.
Now it represents a health threat for them, and is seen as “bad” or morally “wrong.”
Morality, which is the name we give to that code we agree to live by, has not been established by law. Ethics is the behavior we employ to live inside the confines of that code. That isn’t a law either.
We never formally decided to say hello and goodbye to fellow human beings, nor did we officially establish that people waiting for an elevator should not board before the new arrivals get off.
Social contracts come into being because they offer a quick and easy way for individuals to coordinate their daily practices, without having to consider every time how this should be done.
They give us a way to make room for others, so we all can live comfortably and in peace.
Morality gives us a framework and ethics a set of practices that allow us to work and live together without too many questions or difficulties.
But these norms are relative, tailored to specific situations.
When a lockdown prevents people from visiting the hospital and visitor elevators are deserted, it no longer matters when you get on.
And this is where we are now: the public health crisis has turned the world on its head and everything we once did as a matter of normal everyday living is no longer relevant or appropriate.
It is suddenly not so clear how we should behave to get through the difficult period stretching in front of us.
Nobody has been through this before.
What should we do?
Being the first to conclude that some choices, behaviors, and practices are no longer acceptable takes moral courage. People usually resent this type of leadership: we all think we know best what is good for us.
Our teenagers sure resent our choices. “No, you may not spend time with your friends.
We have to keep them and ourselves safe!”, is heard as, “We want to ruin your life and make you miserable.”
So when others criticize our habits and choices, tell us what to do, or think they know better, we tell them to mind their own business and stop behaving like they know-it-all.
Sometimes they file new legislation that aims to limit such leadership.
Everything has changed. Only weeks ago it wouldn’t have entered your head to ask a colleague if their children are managing with all this self-paced learning, or what their protocol is for disinfecting when they arrive home from the grocery.
But now that many people have been forced to work from home and schools are closed people can only work together smoothly when they consider these practical problems faced by their colleagues.
It takes moral courage to question existing norms and reconsider daily habits. The call by world leaders to stop shaking hands or touching our faces is a good example; it shows the power of informal agreements.
There is no basis in law for it and infractions won’t be fined.
Then the leaders themselves showed how difficult it is to break these lifelong habits by shaking hands with officials immediately after the announcement and then scratching their noses.
And yet, the new norm of not shaking hands was adopted remarkably quickly, and has been upheld by most of us without any grumbling. How unusual?
Many more social norms and habits will have to be revised or eradicated in the coming weeks and months.
Apart from being a nuisance this also offers a unique opportunity.
It will give us a chance to have another look at things we took for granted, to reconsider the sustainability of common choices, and to determine once more what is morally acceptable or not.
If there is one thing this crisis has brought home it is how much we depend on each other to do what is good, right, clean, and healthy for all of us, and on our willingness to keep to the rules we set ourselves.
The world will never be quite the same again, but this also allows us to find new and more sustainable ways of living together in it.
We will get through this. This will pass.
I just hope we don’t forget everything we’ve learned when it does.
Dr. Jonathan Eric Carroll, KLPC, NCPC, NCCE, is a state-licensed mental health professional, is an ACPE Psychotherapist, and is the Founder of The Clinic @ The Montgomery in downtown Owensboro. Dr. Carroll serves as the Grief Therapist for six funeral homes in the region. He also co-created and cohosts “You’ll Die Trying,” a podcast available everywhere. Visit www.themontgomeryclinic.com.