Originally published June 2 on Medium
What I have to say about life in a pandemic doesn’t seem particularly important this week. But this space has always been about what it feels like, to me, to live in this moment. This week feels like when you can hear electricity buzzing so loudly it tingles down your spine — any words or movement will cause you to get zapped and burned. But in silence, the buzzing becomes deafening and threatens to burn you anyway.
I used to teach Western Civilization to high school freshmen. By the time we got to the fall of the Roman Empire, the students were done with ancient history. Admittedly, I was too. But that’s not why I liked teaching about the fall of the Empire.
I’d use a handout similar to this:
Some years, kids would immediately make connections, other times they needed some coaching. Their homework would be to find a recent news article highlighting one problems we have that is similar to a problem the Romans faced. Depending on that month’s news cycle, the articles would usually favor one column in the chart above. I always thought the lesson had the biggest impact was when they’d come in with all different articles highlighting a variety of problems.
After some discussion about similarities and differences in the two eras, there would inevitably be the student who would throw up their hands and say something like, “so you’re saying this is the end of our civilization? We’re all going to die?” Then a chorus, “that’s so depressing.”
The hardest part of teaching the lesson was getting kids to understand it didn’t happen over a year, 10 years or even 50 years. It took nearly 200 years. It was generations of people making mistakes. We’d then go back and try to organize the chart into long term, short term and immediate causes. Then some math kid would calculate 1776 to the current year and say, “ok, but this could happen in our lifetime.”
At which point I got to sing the song all history teachers love. It’s not depressing! This is why we’re here — to not make the same mistakes! This is our opportunity to act differently, to do better. Then they have to brainstorm ways the Empire could have saved itself. What could they have done differently?
But how did it feel to an ordinary Roman citizen in the years plague by problems? Did they know their system was growing unsustainably? Did they try to speak out, enact change? Was it not enough? Or just the wrong kind of action? Did they become desperate and paralyzed? When did they know the avalanche was too close to get out of the way? Did their world feel charged?
I am not a Roman scholar but I know enough about history to know change is hard. It helps to have good leaders and scholars pushing and guiding but sometimes they aren’t found where we expect them to be.
By the end of our lesson, my optimistic students would have a robust list of things the Empire could have done differently. Changes the Romans could have made. Never, not once, in all my years of teaching, did the list include: do nothing, or wait for another problem to overshadow the first, or wait for someone else to make changes, or think, pray and hope for problems to disappear, or watch in silence, or run away or hang your head.
The charged atmosphere does feel scary and depressing but let it also be hopeful. The buzz of electricity is power to bring light.