We’re Discovering Our Character

The pandemic is reshaping how we understand ourselves and our world.

A health worker wearing an American-flag face mask
Noam Galai / Getty

Foon tsuris wird man a mensch was one of my grandpa Sam’s favorite proverbs. It means, roughly, that tough times turn a person from being just anybody into being, well, a mensch. That proverb speaks to our COVID-19 world.

Sam knew tsuris reasonably well. He did not experience the worst that the previous century had to offer his people, but he experienced enough. He grew up in a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement at the end of the 19th century, without much of a formal education. He swam a river one night to escape the border guards (so family lore insists), and got a ticket in steerage from Hamburg to the United States. He had no English, no money, and no skills that would be useful here. He tried his hand at chicken farming, but, as he often said, one day he went out to look at the chickens, and they were all on their backs with their feet in the air. He became a leather cutter in a shoe factory. He ended up owning the shoe factory, and had a long and comfortable retirement in a suburb of Boston.

He lived through pogroms, World War I, the influenza epidemic, the Great Depression, World War II (to which he sent two sons off in uniform), Korea and Vietnam, the civil strife of the 1960s, and much else besides, including family tragedy. But he was a menschgenerous, upright, and principled, even if those principles required sacrifice. He nursed his wife through many years of inability to function, and died as he lived, standing tall, at age 96.

There is much talk about the impact of the coronavirus on electoral politics, on America’s position in the world, on higher education, and on large swaths of small businesses. All of those are, in their different ways, important. Some of them can be evaluated systematically. But none is so important as the virus’s impact on our character.

There is a social science of measuring happiness, which reminds one of the words G. K. Chesterton put in Father Brown’s mouth  about the early lie detectors: “What sentimentalists men of science are! And how much more sentimental must American men of science be! Who but a Yankee would think of proving anything from heart-throbs?” There are not, and cannot be, quantitative measures of character, but what Sam understood was that in the end, character dominated all else. Today the biggest, probably the most important, and almost by definition the least answerable question is what the coronavirus will do to our character.

Anecdote and impression would suggest that the coronavirus may prove Sam right. There is immense human misery: We read about or know directly some of those who have died or who keen over loved ones who are dead or dying; those who suffer illness and isolation; those whose livelihoods have vanished overnight, or who feel the claustrophobic pressures of isolation taking them beyond the reach of sanity. But for the most part, what is striking is the decency and fortitude of average citizens, their willingness to comply with onerous and suffocating restrictions, their willingness to help one another.

It has been troubling for a long time that healthy 21-year-olds who happen to be in the armed forces get boarding priority over grandmothers in their late 60s. This is a misguided tribute to courage and self-sacrifice—misguided because that 21-year-old may have experienced no combat whatsoever. Now, however, we have a more thoughtful understanding of heroism. We know that it is also embodied in the nurse and the doctor, the police officer and the firefighter, the taxi driver and the grocery clerk, the neighbor who goes shopping for an elderly shut-in. In short, we see the heroism that is often latent in everyday life, and—the precious thing—we appreciate and celebrate it.

The United States has the misfortune of being led by a man utterly devoid of character, a razboynik, as Sam, with a curl of the lip, would have termed him—a man who can whine about journalists while seated at the feet of Abraham Lincoln’s statue, disclaim responsibility for anything and everything, bully and abuse subordinates who are infinitely more valuable to public health than he, muse about injecting bleach, and generally disgrace himself and his country with his antics. But that only calls into higher relief the virtues of all the others—the mayors and the governors, the public-health officials and the ambulance drivers, the home manufacturers of masks and ventilators and, yes, the billionaire philanthropists.

It is by now a cliché that the post-COVID-19 world will be different. Unquestionably so. This difference will encompass not just the impact of lives snuffed out or irreparably marred, jobs lost, companies bankrupted, and an economy twisted out of shape. It will encompass how we think about ourselves and our world.

One great seduction of modern times is the notion that human beings can control their environment and their destinies. This belief has manifested itself in many ways. Economists in the 1960s figured that they had discovered the secret of perpetual full production at limited unemployment rates; our legal system implicitly says that when an accident happens, it is somebody’s fault rather than, well, an accident. Clever social scientists come up with ways to “nudge” people into behavior that they are certain is good for them. Predictive analytics, large data sets, and clever algorithms promise to be able to anticipate human desires and behaviors, and even control them. And in some measure they do, until disaster strikes.

At that point, the world changes. Human beings recognize that they are small, the universe is vast, and they are not in charge. Their own machines, connected with one another in unpredictable ways, yield flash crashes of the stock market; their quest for prosperity unleashes climatic changes that almost seem vindictive in their destructiveness. Their cities flood. And suddenly they find that the emergency rooms are jammed with a disease emanating from a bat half a world away.

Generations long past, and the ancient Hebrews and Greeks in particular, understood very well the limits of human control of individual and collective destiny, and accepted them. Which is why so much of their writing and thought returned to the question of character—not because it protected them from life’s vicissitudes, but because it allowed them to survive them with head held high, with personality and integrity intact, no matter how great the suffering. Sam, the product of one of those civilizational streams, understood this intuitively. In the face of the coronavirus, many more may be figuring that out too—and therein lies hope.