Franke: Our Post-Pandemic Selves
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”
These haunting words of poet William Butler Yeats were written in 1919. His poem “The Second Coming” was a reflection on a world in chaos, spiraling ever downward. Think of what confronted him then: a world war that caused 14 million deaths; a bloody revolution in his Irish homeland and an even bloodier one in Bolshevik Russia; a map of Europe being redrawn in a non-recognizable way; an influenza pandemic that would claim an additional 50 million lives.
No wonder he despaired for the human race.
Are things the same now? Fortunately not in terms of deaths either due to war or pandemic but I suspect the level of despair might be similar.
My grandparents lived through World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic but I can’t recall they ever mentioned it. My parents were born right after the war and their early recollections were mostly about the Great Depression. We were raised to never waste food; there were never any leftovers at our table. If something wasn’t absolutely necessary, it wasn’t bought. If it were purchased, careful shopping ensured that we paid the lowest price.
All this was simply the remnant of adaptive habits learned during a time of want. This way of living was not based on despair but on rural Midwestern frugality tempered at the forge of practical experience.
I can’t help but wonder what our post-pandemic lives will be like. Will we revert to a pre-pandemic lifestyle? Most people who express an opinion on this think not. It will be a “new normal,” a term I dislike intensely and will never use again after this paragraph. This may be a harsh judgment on my part but it seems to me that the never-again-to-be-mentioned term represents an abject failure to acknowledge a basic human tendency to continually adapt.
So then how will we adapt? Will our better natures take charge and the most sensible changes come about? Or will we continue in a malaise of pessimism bordering on despondency?
Worse yet, unsettled times lend credibility to the extremists who offer simplistic and dangerous solutions to our problems. We have seen that over the past year or so as the very foundations of our culture and society have unraveled in the face of these well-orchestrated attacks.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
This line from Yeats’ poem describes our times with eerie prescience. Who gets the headlines? Those with the most violent speech and actions in promotion of a dystopian future for us all. Where do we see a total lack of conviction to protect our common heritage? In corporate boardrooms, school classrooms, professional sports and the media—those most invested in the status quo and with the most to lose if it all comes crashing down.
Does any of this make sense?
It didn’t to Yeats in 1919 nor to me in 2021.
Yeats named his poem “The Second Coming” and used Christian imagery to warn of what was to come. What makes these theological tropes interesting is that Yeats had left the church for an atheistic belief. Perhaps this can be attributed to his Church of England clergy father, who converted to Unitarianism. Doctrinal subscription was fluid in that household, to say the least.
Perhaps that’s why Yeats sees this second coming not as a glorious messianic event but an apocalyptic one, brought on by a “rough beast . . . slouch[ing] toward Bethlehem.” Was his fear realized in the aftermath of WWI? The Roaring Twenties was arguably the most exuberant decade of the last century but was followed by the Great Depression, World War II and the Soviet Union’s enslavement of eastern Europe.
Will we greet the end of the pandemic with reckless abandon, discarding what we learned during the difficult times? Will we continue to live in fear, cynicism and despair as if the worst is yet to come? Either is a path to nowhere, at least nowhere good.
Or will we carefully reflect on what we learned, winnowing the useful from the anti-liberty and simply wrong-headed, and continue along our historical track of American progress. Will the extremists, nihilists and totalitarians in our midst let us?
We have been a resilient and optimistic people, as our history shows. Here’s hoping we still are.
Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.