Editor's Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
With most of the United States under lockdown orders in an effort to “flatten the curve” in the fight against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the time spent isolated in our homes should offer an opportunity to reflect on how we got here.
While we are still in the middle of this enduring crisis, there is one clear lesson that can already be learned. It is found in the feeling of helplessness that many are experiencing while alone and confined at home. It is found in that question we keep asking ourselves when confronted with images of the sick and dying and stories of the health care heroes on the front lines of the virus’ spread. That question repeats in our heads, in different forms – “Why didn’t we see this coming?” “What should I do now?” “Where are our leaders?” and, finally, “How can I help?”
The answer, in my estimation, is surprisingly simple. We, as a nation, should all serve.
I previously published an article in this same publication espousing the idea of national service. This current COVID-19 crisis has only strengthened the argument. In one capacity or another, our country would be better prepared for crises if all of us took part in a program of national service. Whether it’s service in the military, in humanitarian efforts abroad, or in our own communities here in the United States, the experiences gained through service would improve our ability to function as a society even in the most difficult of times.
The first way national service would improve our ability to deal with crisis focuses on our leaders — or, more specifically, on leadership. When it comes to most elected officials, a service experience would improve their performance. This is not meant as commentary on any one specific leader or a partisan attack of any kind; the objective truth is that serving in some capacity, in some type of organization, significantly improves one’s leadership abilities.
Through training and experience, the act of serving improves a potential leader’s ability on multiple fronts. They would be better trained to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. They would be able to make better decisions with incomplete information. They would be more decisive when it matters most. They would be exposed to different types of people and learn to empathize with others. They would be able to persevere through stressful situations and, finally, they would understand that, as a leader, they are responsible for everything.
A second area national service would be impactful is on the personal level. The act of serving has both practical and moral implications. On the practical side, when you serve in the military you gain valuable skills that are directly applicable to crisis preparation and response – decisiveness, operational planning, mental toughness, physical and mental endurance, and the list goes on. The Peace Corps and American-based community service offers similar benefits. They take you out of your comfort zone, teach you new ways of thinking, force you to enter an uncertain often dangerous situation, and push you to achieve an objective or accomplish a difficult task. These are valuable skills that translate to our current situation.
On a moral level, there is something almost universal about the need to help others. We innately understand we must band together against the dangerous forces of the world – whether they are man-made, like terrorism, or found in the natural world, like COVID-19. When we do things that are in line with this instinct, it can have powerful effects on our own well-being. In addition, all these experiences offer the opportunity to learn about the world, about one’s own place in it, the fragility of life, and the hardships that face everyone regardless of race, creed, or culture. In most cases, this provides a stronger foundation for personal growth and, by extension, an improved society.
Ultimately, it is in our society as a whole where we find some of the clearest benefits of national service. One cannot help but be heartened to watch scenes of our healthcare workers trying to save as many lives as possible, or military medical ships sailing into key hot spot cities, or non-profit organizations erecting field hospitals, or even grocery clerks remaining at their posts in order to provide a key service to the community. Now try to imagine this sort of commitment but from everyone across the country. Imagine this sort of commitment – neighbor helping neighbor, people providing essential services – but, instead of only happening when a crisis hits, it is a constant. Imagine the second and third order effects that can permeate our society if we were to agree to such a commitment as a nation. It is not hard to imagine us being able to better tackle many of the interminable ills of our society while also being better prepared for the next time a significant crisis challenges us.
Of course, in order for this idea of national service to take root in the country, we must come to grips with the fact that we need to do something different. The crisis has laid bare the evidence: indeed, in a time of pandemic, in a time of thousands of our fellow Americans dying, we still see our political and cultural divisions playing out. We scream at each other about everything from scientific models to who is to blame to who deserves tax breaks, and on and on. This is because we are not united in purpose. We lack a common bond that requires us to do much of anything besides pay our taxes. So, yes, those scenes of people helping each other are heartening but they are inconsistent. They rely on people who volunteer. Which is not everyone; not even close.
The pandemic has taught us the value of being able to go out to eat, to socialize with each other, to watch sports, to do any number of things we could do when it was safe to congregate outside. However, it should also teach us that we are all in this together and that everyone needs to contribute in some way. Everyone in the country should do their part. It should not be a question of if you will serve but, rather, when and where. We all have a duty. Not to the government but to each other. The pandemic is a reminder of this foundational tenet. It was learned by previous generations through the sacrifice and service of their times. We would do well to recognize this is our time to learn the same lesson.