“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth…” — Jesus, John 14:15-17
When we are confronted with a great deal of uncertainty, simple rules that govern personal conduct (called heuristics) may need to change. This is not a matter of a loss of rights, that is not needed. It is simply to adjust how we do things, to keep from doing harm.
For instance, how far from others is the correct distance for conversation? Recent understanding is, “maintain a minimum social separation of six feet.” For some, that has always felt about right, for many others it feels very distant. Now, people can be seen constantly adjusting this distance, unconsciously showing feelings of trust, and liking, and safety, and discomfort. Here is no intention to harm, and no erosion of rights — only need to communicate.
How fragile is our understanding.
Economist Geoff Riley wrote “In general terms, a heuristic is a method or technique that people use to help them make a decision or solve a problem more quickly.” He went on. “Heuristics can best be described as mental short cuts or rules of thumb for decision making to help people make a quick, satisfactory, but perhaps not perfect, answer to a complex question… The outcome from using the heuristic may not be perfect or optimized but is usually ‘good enough.’”
What is “good enough” when claimed necessity for change includes social distancing, use of face masks, hygiene, staying at home, emergency financial assistance, economic shut-down, future employment—and the heuristics of trust reside in diametrically opposed camps?
What is “good enough” when the importance of one of these (take your pick) seems far off, and disregarding it is perfectly compatible with the perceived rights of personal choice? Then, the heuristic is: we make our choice and we live with the results. Amen.
That is frequently what we say we believe.
What is “good enough” when your own life or livelihood is on the line? For many, the heuristic is the same, although there is general agreement that consequences which may come to impact our loved ones, particularly our children, need to be considered. So, what is “good enough” when the lives or livelihoods of others are affected by our choices? Then the heuristic perhaps becomes modified: We talk to trusted others, we make our choices, we pray and we wait for the results, Amen. This is often the way we live.
What is “good enough” becomes yet further modified when a behavior of coronavirus infections is involved. This insidious factor is that the peak carrier of an infection is most often several days away from experiencing the symptoms of illness. That can happen with the common cold or flu and with COVID-19, which adds many times the lethality. We have an imperative to modify our heuristics.
We need heuristics that limit harm to others and increase benefits to all.
We need simple rules of thumb for the way forward, in difficult times. It is difficult to provide for the essential needs of the people of our community and state and nation and to renew the forms of respect and social cooperation in which civil life can flourish. There is not even a possibility this can be come from the simple options of individual choice we have become so habituated to. There is no menu of fast fixes that allows us to just pick one and go on.
This is a season in which the blessings of our institutions can prosper us, as battered as they are, as needful of reform and as beleaguered as they deserve to be. For along with the command to love one another comes both the knowledge of the ways in which we have failed to do so — and the experience of ages and generations of all who have loved and lived and walked successfully in the Spirit of truth, the way of love, and the hope of what we may still become.
• The Rev. Gordon Blue is rector for the Church of the Holy Trinity. “Living Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders.