“If you think you have to wash your towel, maybe you are not showering properly.”
“The world has changed” many have said to emphasize the impact of the COVID19 pandemic, but the most precise phrase would be: “The pace of change has accelerated” since the world has always been changing.
The changes of era – normally – are the product of a disruptive technology that causes a transformation in the mode of production and consumption (the economy), which in turn produces changes in human interactions (society), which ultimately produces changes in power relations (politics) and combinations of these factors make a change of era identifiable. In the prehistoric era, the model was hunting and gathering, strength was the form of wealth, society was tribal, and the leader or chief was the one who monopolized power. In the agricultural era, the model was agricultural, land was the form of wealth, society was feudal, and power was distributed between a nobility and a clergy, headed by a monarch, in which these groups controlled the land. In the industrial age, the model was capitalism, wealth was monetary and capital goods. Power was liberal democracy (in market capitalism) or fascist or communist dictatorship (in state capitalism). Changes have usually happened through violent processes (“Violence is the midwife of history” is a phrase attributed to Karl Marx) since the old order is usually resistant to change.
An itinerant teacher was on a road with his pupil and it was getting dark. In search of shelter they approached a cabin that had a cow tied outside. They knocked on the door and were invited in. The student noted great poverty in that home; they were all dirty, wasted and sad. The teacher and the pupil were offered some milk and a cheese. The teacher asked what they did for a living and the father replied that they were very poor, that they only had their cow which they milked and from which they made cheese. The next morning the travelers said goodbye and, when they were outside, the teacher told the student, “Throw the cow over the cliff.” The student could not believe it; This wise and good man told him to carry out an act of absolute cruelty, both to the animal, whose milk they had drunk the night before, and to the family, whose only source of sustenance was the cow .”Throw the cow over the cliff” insisted the teacher. After hesitating a moment longer, and at the third command of his teacher, the student threw the cow over the cliff and they continued on their way.
Many months later, they walked through this area again and the teacher indicated that he wanted to go to visit the family whose cow they had thrown over the cliff; the student thought it was a very bad idea but said nothing and followed his teacher. As they got closer, they saw the house was cleaner and tidier, they even noticed an additional building, they saw planted fields and abundant crops, they came to the door and knocked. A smiling young woman opened the door and ushered them in, the father recognized them and invited them to eat together. The table was well prepared with a rich and varied meal. The teacher asked them what had happened in those months that, having seen them in poverty, today they had abundance. The father told them that the day they left, the cow fell over the cliff and died, so he had no choice but to sell its meat and, with what little that provided, he bought seeds and planted his field; While it was growing, the family cut wood and made furniture which they sold in town, they also bought threads and fabrics so that his wife and daughters could make handkerchiefs, napkins, tablecloths and curtains… and so one thing led to another and now they were more prosperous. “Thank God the cow fell down the cliff.”
Wouldn’t it be beneficial that, from time to time, your cow is thrown over the cliff?
This change of era is generating transformations that -until a short time ago- were unthinkable. Likewise, great tragedies mark us indelibly, and societies that learn from the experience and then rise again, usually reach higher standards. Japan suffers 1,500 earthquakes a year and experiences 1,000 tremors a day; not to mention periodical typhoons and tsunamis. It is not surprising that Japan is a highly resilient country and that the United Nations conferences called to establish the rules and regulations to face and recover from catastrophic events, have been held in Hyogo and Sendai. These conferences developed building standards and increased population readiness, thus creating resilience.
Frugality is also typical of Japanese culture. In Japan nothing is wasted: the broken ceramics are glued again – sometimes with precious metals – and the scar of the joint becomes part of its beauty; at the tea ceremony, each movement is orchestrated to save time and avoid waste; the industrial concept of just in time was adopted by the Japanese with almost religious fervor; as in many eastern cultures, the old and used is the most valuable; Japanese houses are entered barefoot, so dirt from the street does not enter the house with the shoes, hence the house is kept cleaner; the houses have very little furniture and the rooms are multipurpose. This culture of foresight, frugality, and resilience explains much of Japanese success. It is not surprising that the fatal impact of COVID19 has been much milder in Japan than in other countries of similar population and development.
It is foreseeable that we will prefer the reliable to the unknown; that we will favor the durable over the disposable; that we will opt for the natural and fresh, against the prepackaged and with preservatives; that we will only physically approach those we know and that we will keep a healthy distance from others; that we will prefer the custom made to the mass produced or generic. It is also foreseeable that we will seek better security in food, health and shelter by preparing for the next pandemic or disruptive phenomenon, opting for closer and more reliable supply chains, and identifying the indispensable food staples and health systems.
There are all kinds of predictions that, after the Coronavirus, the Chinese communist model will have triumphed with others betting on a resurgence of western capitalism. Most likely, however, is that COVID19 has thrown our cow over the cliff to the point that a new paradigm will emerge: A New Normal that will be significantly different from the previous one, in either of its two dominant modalities.
But we will also have realized what is truly important in life and we will have discovered other ways of working and producing that generate more health -both physical, mental and emotional- and less waste -be it of time, energy or materials- so that -at a personal, family, community and social level- we will be healthier; since we will have understood how our health depends on the others being healthy too. We will exercise more, we will eat better – both in quality, quantity and frequency – we will dedicate more time to family and friends; We will cultivate all our dimensions, be they physical, mental or spiritual. All this generates enormous opportunities for well-being, but also for businesses and enterprise – both at a professional and at a business level – as long as we have learned the lesson and shield ourselves with the new elements that the pandemic has left us.
My friend Ramón Gateño once told me: “In crises there are two kinds of people: those who cry and those who sell handkerchiefs.” Thanks to the pandemic, we have had to adopt frugal and inventive behaviors that propel us to the new era with greater capacities and skills, not only for a good life, but also for a life for good.
If we come out transformed by this experience, we will have learned to bathe well so not to dirty the towel and to make handkerchiefs instead of crying.
Milton Cohen-Henríquez Sasso