“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
In his preamble of A Tale of Two Cities, the immortal Charles Dickens delivered an appraisal of the disruptive state of affairs in 18th-century London and Paris. Today, seeking perspective for the past 12 months, Dickens’ perfectly paradoxical passage continues to serve – our heads nodding resolutely as his 19th-century words overlay our 21st-century reality.
Let’s employ Dickens’ literary device in pursuit of our own perspective on America’s currently disruptive state-of-affairs.
It was the best of times: When January 1, 2020 dawned, the U.S. economy was firing on all cylinders with unemployment and employment setting records in both directions respectively. On the first day of trading on Wall Street, January 4, major indexes achieved new records, including the Dow climbing 800 points. Interest rates promoted investment over saving, and inflation was something only older people remembered.
Out here on Main Street, NFIB’s Index of Small Business Optimism was stringing together an unprecedented three consecutive years of record high sentiment by the heroes of the marketplace, and doing business was so much fun, senior owners were rethinking retirement.
U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan were at the lowest levels since those conflicts began, about 2,500 in each country. And the unprecedented Abraham Accords, forging peace agreements between Israel and three Islamic states, had all the markers of an impending positive domino effect.
Halcyon: A peaceful and happy, if not idyllic period.
It was the worst of times: January 2020 began with reports hitting the wires of a viral outbreak in China, but not yet a global concern. When February brought evidence of a novel coronavirus spreading round the world, an old term, “pandemic,” was used to introduce a new one: COVID-19.
On February 14, interviews on my radio program with several China experts motivated my “Black Swan” article, specifically encouraging Main Street to gird its loins in anticipation of a global economic disruption caused by a deadly micro-organism.
February 20, 2020 is recognized as the beginning of a global stock market crash, with the Dow Jones dropping over 1,000 points that day, six days before the U.S. recorded its first COVID death.
In the two weeks following the Ides of March, more than 30 states acted on two more new terms: “lockdown” and “social distancing.” These instructions were as unsettling as they were intuitive but made Constitutional only by our compliance. Meanwhile, Congress passed the bipartisan CARES Act, appropriating $2.2 trillion in aid for the still-impending pandemic. And as President Trump signed the bill on March 27, which included survival cash for millions of small businesses, barely 100 souls had been lost to the invisible invader.
It was the age of wisdom: The definition of wisdom is “the application of experience, knowledge and good judgment.” In the spring of 2020, politicians, business leaders and citizens alike, seeking wisdom in the face of a 100-year plague, recognized we were in uncharted territory for any living person. Bold and oft extreme actions were proposed and taken based on a paradox-creating premise: the only thing more perilous than doing too much was doing too little, both unknown quantities.
It was the age of foolishness: As the progressing pandemic took its toll, wisdom succumbed to base politics and poor behavior as assistance from Washington – once bipartisan and urgent – shrank into political smallness. Meanwhile, as governors and mayors were rightly exposed as elitist hypocrites for flaunting their own oppressive orders, the liberties of Americans continued to take the hindmost.
It was the epoch of belief: When the lockdowns began, another new and hopeful term – “flatten the curve” – was coined based on the belief that our consensual social restraint would be rewarded in weeks. In dutifully complying with lockdown orders, small businesses believed it was for the greater good.
It was the epoch of incredulity: The summer heat proved ineffective against a determined coronavirus as lockdown weeks turned into months. Infected relatives died alone in hospitals and were buried administratively. In the face of little to no revenue, fixed expenses piled up and innumerable small businesses collapsed after PPP funds washed through their accounts.
Meanwhile, many Big Boxes and all of Big Tech thrived. If you remember nothing else about this epoch, remember this: When a small business collapses, a family collapses, often more than one.
It was the season of light: All stops were pulled to develop and deliver COVID-19 vaccines in months, not years. Even though no one knew when we would be allowed a syringe of life-saving vaccine, we allowed ourselves to imagine a light at the end of our pandemic tunnel. Forecasting plans for life and living were couched in anticipation of the fulfillment of another unfamiliar term, this one as hopeful as it was crude: “herd immunity.”
It was the season of darkness: As fall gave way to the winter of 2020, experts began recording the mental and emotional toll seemingly endless lockdowns were taking on Americans of all ages, but especially school children. As digital natives, all but the least of these took well to virtual learning platforms, but it soon became clear that there is no digital synthetic for the sociological nutrient children derive from analog face-to-face connections. It’s too soon for national statistics, but regional reports indicate a pandemic-related spike in youth mental and emotional distress, including tragic extreme behavior.
It was the winter of despair: With millions of Americans in some degree of lockdown, January 2021 ended two consecutive months of record pandemic-related deaths. And on the anniversary of the first reported U.S. COVID-19 death, the national number of victims crossed over the half-million mark.
It was the spring of hope: The return of Daylight Savings Time on March 14 closed the circle on our pandemic year. The physical warmth and emotional therapy of more waking sunlight coincided with new hope based on precipitous drops in positive tests, hospitalizations, and deaths. And as the vernal equinox gives birth to spring, the U.S. will have administered 120 million doses of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines, now on a daily pace of 2 million inoculations.
The human experience is pregnant with paradoxes. Indeed, it’s in our nature both to be paradoxical and to create them. Passing over the rear horizon, our paradoxical pandemic will leave us with the hope of this truth: Up to now, humans have more or less survived both our inherent and invented paradoxes.
And we will again because of the belief in the enduring genius of another piece of Dickens’ wisdom: “From the death of each day’s hope another hope sprung up to live to-morrow.”
Write this on a rock … It was the best of times; it was the worst of times – as it has always been for humankind, and likely ever will be.