The natives are restless out here in Quarantine USA. I am too. I want to dance with my friends, hug them in public, browse around thrift stores looking for bargains, shoot off my wide open mouth over coffee in a cafe. I want to touch everything in the grocery store just because I can. I want to be free to go to a crowded event in a big park and buy lousy food – and I don’t even like any of that.
But I’m staying home, protecting myself and my community – and writing blog posts. Others, however, are not so cooperative. They are itching to get out of corona confinement and mounting protests to push their Governors to give them a “get out of jail free” card.
“This is insanity. It’s gone way too far. We don’t live in Nazi Germany,” a protestor said outside Lapham Peak in Delafield in defiance of Wisconsin governor Tony Evers closing 40 state parks, forests and recreational areas. In Michigan where Governor Gretchen Whitmer imposed a shelter in place order, protestors chanted “Lock her up.” They dubbed the effort “Operation gridlock”, with the slogan: “She’s driving us out of business. We’re driving to Lansing.” The Hill reports: “On Monday, about 100 protesters crowded the Ohio statehouse as Gov. Mike DeWine gave his daily coronavirus briefing, demanding an end to the state’s stay-at-home order, which the governor extended to May 1 earlier this month.”
This attitude sets public health against personal freedom, a dangerous line. Camps are facing off, sides are being taken, and, as always, the US President is right there egging the “freedom lovers” on.
Covid Confinement raises thorny issues of personal freedom and social good.
- What’s the morality of Covid?
- Can a Covid etiquette be embraced enough to keep us safe, or do we need rules, or laws or enforcement?
- What rules do we need and how much can we trust our neighbors to “do the right thing?”
- Is social distancing like second hand smoke: absent consideration, laws are needed. Is it like traffic violations – speeding, running lights – where personal freedom and public safety intersect. Are stay home orders like condoms; if you want to stay safe, you enforce use before people get too close? It’s not their responsibility to keep you safe, it’s yours.
In the United States we’ve erred on the side of liberty. If it’s not prohibited, I can have/ do/ or be whatever I want. Not only do many or most Americans like to make our own rules and trust ourselves more than some bureaucrats, but we believe this entitlement is essential for innovations, inventions, prosperity, and winning. My generation grew up on the Lone Ranger, a self-appointed, rogue defender of justice. We grew up on cowboy lyrics like “Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, Don’t fence me in.”
Air-brushed out of this version of freedom, though, are the rights of the meek to ample space to unfurl their own destiny. “Westward Ho!” sliced right through the traditional freedoms of the original peoples who hunted across those wide open plains. Through the buffalo’s right to exist. The land seemed empty. When we “settled” it, we called it progress but we violated the rights of everyone and everything in our way. Not an unusual move for our species ever since we stood up on 2 legs, discovered fire and started making tools. We’ve just gotten better than other species in claiming space as our own. Until Covid started to occupy us.
Covid sets before us a new challenge to our right to have what isn’t under someone else’s lock and key and to go wherever we want that isn’t posted as “no trespassing” and to do what gives us pleasure and advantage. Before Covid, public health was not on many people’s radar. Protection wasn’t face masks and hand washing – it was law enforcement, weapons, the military and the wall. We thought keeping others out and away was enough to keep our way of life. Then this thing 125 nanometers wide made it through all our protections, including into mansions and halls of power.
What is freedom in this new Covid era?
A freedom primer
Even though US citizens live in a “free country,” most only have the “rights” side of freedom at all right, while the responsibilities side is more like hygiene. You do it in order to get on with the good stuff.
In the protests above, people are supposedly rebelling against imposed limits. They seem to be standing up for their freedoms, for the flag, America and wide open spaces, but at what cost to others? And themselves?
I’ve had a nose for escape most of my life. One small example was my escape plan for exiting college after a lonely, pointless Sophomore year. I concocted a program for study abroad, got professors to sign off on it before they knew what was happening, and got out without dropping out. I felt trapped in one of those admirable lives that make no sense, and escaped while appearing to play by the rules. Ha!
The experience of freedom can indeed be intoxicating. The first moments of release from prison. The warmth of summer when you can go outdoors without shivering. The ecstasy of orgasm. The day you graduate. Notice, though, that the experience of freedom comes after being up against a challenge. It is earned freedom. You have made it through the winter. You have completed your prison sentence. Passed your exams. If you don’t accept the constraints part of a bigger goal, you don’t get a PhD, learn your lessons, experience the French “petit mort”, exult in the exuberance of spring. To love the release without loving the challenge is to miss the point.
There is no such thing as “freedom” without “limits” – just like there is no up without down, in without out, yes without no, now without then, good without bad. Take away “up” and there’s no need for a word “down”. Take away limits in service to freedom and the world would disperse instantly like a lighter than air gas with no bottle. Take away freedom and the world would collapse into a black hole.
Limits (or constraints or rules or boundaries) are essential to even have any sense of freedom. Constraints are the design tools of everything in creation. When God separated heaven and earth, he did it by drawing a line. By saying yes to some things and no to others life achieves the ecology of a forest or the sturdiness of a house or the generations of an indigenous tribe in the Amazon jungle. Life likes the golden mean and the golden rule and the Goldilocks “not too much, not too little, just right.” Life balances elements so that everything thrives.
Here’s where we get to stand freedom on its head. To love freedom you have to love limits, because they are your design tools. You can call limits choices. What do you choose to have and not have, do and not do, eat and not eat, join or avoid, to make your good life. Everyone has their own lines. Some lines are givens – like gravity and breath. The smarter you are at setting some and accepting others, the better your outcomes. Your yesses and nos determine how you work, love, earn, save, give and on and on. Mastery of limits isn’t getting rid of them. That would evaporate your life. It is to design with them. To set limits that support your goals.
I had a housemate, a writer, who crackled with creativity. She was also one of the most disciplined writers I’ve known. She had daily goals, tasks assigned to days of the week, a business she grew in the midst of the pandemic. Her determination to have precisely the life she wants keeps her on task. She disciplines her time to liberate her genius.
Breaking the rules doesn’t make you free. It just makes you responsible for making new ones – and getting others to agree to them.
Tearing down the system earns you the right, duty, pleasure and headache of designing a new one that everyone will ratify. Sometimes it’s worth it, but the cost is great. To rebel is to earn the right to set new limits. When the old rules are broken, it’s time for new ones, new agreements between equals about how to structure our society for the good of all. I was in Chile during the uprising in the Fall of 2019. After all the destruction and water cannons and tear gas, the achievement was establishing a process to write a new Constitution.
Which brings us back to the Covid Confinement Protests. How are we going to be liberated from Covid? If not confinement, what? What do the protestors suggest? That we mix and mingle and sacrifice people for the sake of freedom? That we hasten herd immunity even if it risks more fatalities? That we battle for our rights even if it cancels someone’s right to life?
Freedom, then, actually belongs to those mature enough to design a game that works for all players. The less mature you are, the more rules you’ll have no control over. The more you want to be a rule-breaker, the greater your responsibility for being a rule changer. It’s like flypaper, you unstick one finger and 3 others get trapped.
Freedom is a skill.
The freedom skill-set
If freedom comes to those who can design with limits that work for all, how do we become good designers?
One step is to understand the function of walls. Cells have walls. Houses have walls. For many years Berlin had a wall, as did China, as did fortresses and as do seaside communities keeping back the tide. The United States, of course, is currently trying to stem the tide of immigrants by building a wall. Covid is showing us how much we need immigrants to harvest our food and take care of our moms as home health workers.
Which walls work well? Which fail? It depends on whether the wall is the best strategy for achieving your goals. Sometimes a door works better. Or a fence with a gate. Or no fence at all.
Let’s look at the smallest wall, a cell wall. It is a sturdy membrane that holds every level of life together. Cells are factories, converting inputs into energy. Cells differentiate into bones and blood, skin and organs, nerves and muscles. Every cell wall has to do its job well enough for the whole organism to thrive.
Cell walls actually have proteins that serve as gatekeepers. They ask, in their own way, “Is what’s outside food or poison?” If food, the proteins turn to let it in. If poison, the proteins line up a different way to keep it out. So walls both protect us from what we don’t want and connect us to what we do want. Our bodies also have ways to discern what is food and what is poison. We have 7 orifices that let the outside in so we can function as well as possible. We need to eat. Our nose asks, “Food or poison?” Our tongues guard our throats, “Food or poison?” Our ears listen, “Friend of foe.”
Talking to Walls
In other words, we need to talk to the walls we encounter so we can see if they are protecting us from harm or connecting us to nourishment of any sort (food, love, safe shelter). We need to select what comes in and reject what needs to stay out so that we can thrive. If we select or reject the wrong things, we can perish. Or miss opportunities.
Imagine you hit a wall and stick to your guns. “Nobody and nothing gonna stop me.” You might break down the wall or break through it or generally break something so you can keep on going. While it might feel good to flex your muscles and get your way, you might have broken something you need. Maybe you broke the bank – bought what you wanted and maxed out a card. Maybe you broke someone’s nose, punching your way back to freedom, but maybe that person is the wife you are quarantined with or a neighbor whose dog barks at night. Maybe you broke the law. Or broke doctor’s orders and left the hospital AMA. If freedom for you means breaking through, or in, or out, or up, you might destroy your perfectly good marriage or opportunity for advancement.
When you hit a wall, don’t hit it again. Stop. Look. Listen. Here you are. Frustrated and angry. You want out (of the job, marriage, college dorm room), but something is stopping you. You can ask:
What is this wall for? What is its function?
Does the wall say, “Wait until the time is right?” Does it say, “Go back, this way lies death.” Does it say, “Enter at your own risk?” Does it say, “What wall?” Is it a sparring partner, making you stronger? Or a temptress, making you weaker?
Before you act, ask, “Is this wall my fear? Have I been here before? If I chose to back off before, did I miss a big opportunity out of fear? Or did I dodge a bullet? Was the fear merited or was I spooked by my own shadow? If I am shirking my destiny, where do I apply courage to walk forward, whatever the cost? By pausing to ask, you can tell whether you are acting out of bravado or bravery. One is cowardice. One is courage.
Talking to walls isn’t easy. It’s not easy to pause and wonder why something just got in your way. It takes looking at a bigger picture. It takes self-honesty. It takes more maturity than most of us have. Because of that, these encounters with walls are like vision quests: they make us grow.
Mirror mirror on the wall, showing me who I am when I am at my limit of patience, knowledge, strength, wisdom, tolerance, sloth.
Freedom in the era of Covid
Does this help understand the face-off between the Covid Cowboys and the Covid Cautious?
Looking at the wall from the Governors’ point of view, you see protection for their populations. Looking from the protestors you see protection from a State intent on limiting civil liberties.
Is it an issue of selection? Could there be a more nuanced policy that allows a few more businesses to stay open with a few regulations about masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and keeping a close eye on data? On the other hand, could there be a more nuanced understanding that just because you can’t go party in crowded clubs, you are free to do whatever you want in your 4 walls with your quarantine mates? You aren’t without all freedoms. Just those that can harm others. And if you want to have Covid parties and Covid cook-outs with bigger groups and risk your life, well you can’t come into public spaces. You are free to take your own lives in your own backyards and churches, but not ours. For example, the Governor of Florida is opening up the beaches, even though Spring Break turned out to be a super spreader event. How do people get to risk their lives enjoying the beach in a virus constrained world? Is social distancing the price of beach parties? Are beach parties even parties if everyone is 6 feet apart?
Maybe those who favor strict stay home orders are delaying herd immunity. Maybe those who want to keep gathering in groups will be super spreaders who infect many others, some of whom die. My freedom stops where your aerosols begin. Your freedom stops where my responsibility to the well being of all my citizens begins. You can’t cry fire in a crowded theater. You can’t sicken people with second hand smoke. And you can’t go into public with Covid, and for that you need a passport stamped with “14 days self-quarantine”.
This thing called freedom isn’t easy.
Where to draw the line isn’t obvious. What to limit and what to let loose for the maximum safe freedom is tricky. America aspires to be the land of the free. We aren’t there yet. It’s the land of the entitled, the land of getting the most for the least. Covid is giving us a golden opportunity to grow a bit more beyond “my way or the highway” – whichever side of whatever wall you are on. Hopefully this crisis will be like a teething ring, giving teeth to our ideal of liberty and justice for all.