Our Intentionality Laid Bare
Who you are is more apparent than ever in the post-pandemic world
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“All I can say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims — and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.” — Albert Camus, 1947
In the past year, we’ve seen a number of epidemic-related books of the past surface as relevant again. Decades or even centuries old, their lessons hold relevance for us even in the modern era.
One common thread? Intentionality.
What we set out to do is guided by our values. And what we actually do is what others perceive our values to be.
Integrity vs. Corruption
When Thomas Mann wrote Death In Venice (1912), it was a year after an experience visiting Venice during an epidemic. This paragraph starkly outlines authorities’ desire to maintain the economy while denying the truth:
“At the beginning of June, the pesthouse of the Ospedale Civico had quietly filled…and a frightfully active commerce was kept up between the wharf of the Fondamenta Nuove and San Michele, the burial island. But there was the fear of a general drop in prosperity. The recently opened art exhibit in the public gardens was to be considered, along with the heavy losses that in case of panic or unfavorable rumors would threaten business, the hotels, the entire elaborate system for exploiting foreigners—and as these considerations evidently carried more weight than love of truth or respect for international agreements, the city authorities upheld obstinately their policy of silence and denial. The chief health officer had resigned from his post in indignation and been promptly replaced by a more tractable personality.”
There is a glimmer of hope there with the resignation of the health officer, but similar-minded people simply got in line. An intention of corruption overwhelmed an individual’s intention of integrity.
Still, how does your integrity show in what you do? Do you just go along when your integrity is compromised? Are you willing to make a stand based on principle?
Decency vs. Inhumanity
One of the popular novels to read last year was Albert Camus’ The Plague. Set in a fictionalized Oran in Algeria, Camus used the disease in his novel as an allegory for the rise of authoritarianism.
His main character concludes that in an epidemic, individuals need to consider their collective humanity, relying on compassion rather than selfishness:
“It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is decency.”
That’s an echo of John Stuart Mill in 1867, who wrote, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Or of this newsletter in 2020 (“Individualism Has No Place in a Pandemic”).
We have a responsibility to each other, particularly in times of crisis. We ought to be continuing to look for ways to bring each other along.
Equality vs. Advantage
In 1844, Frederick Engels outlined The Condition of the Working Class in England. In the early Industrial Age, he recognized that the poorer classes were disproportionately disadvantaged:
“All conceivable evils are heaped upon the heads of the poor. If the population of great cities is too dense in general, it is they in particular who are packed into the least space [and] are worked every day to the point of complete exhaustion…And if they surmount all this, they fall victims to want of work in a crisis…How is it possible, under such conditions, for the lower class to be healthy and long-lived? What else can be expected than an excessive mortality, an unbroken series of epidemics?”
We keep seeing anecdotes about citizens being unwilling to reenter the workforce for low-paying jobs. And who can blame them? The pandemic isn't over yet, so there are fears of a full return; childcare costs loom; some need more than one (or even more than two!) jobs to make ends meet.
And yet, for all of that, some Americans actually got ahead during Covid-19. In particular, white collar workers who were able to work remotely fared better.
As we return to the office, we have an opportunity to ensure working arrangements are such that different needs are met. After the last year proving that remote work and shifted schedules are feasible, there’s no excuse to avoid embracing them in a hybrid environment now.
As Tom Peters wrote,
“how you, as leaders, behave—right now, in the midst of a crisis—will likely be a, or the, principal determinant of your life legacy. For better or worse.”
Your intentionality is showing.
What does it say about you?
“Disease generally begins that equality which death completes.” — Samuel Johnson, 1750
In “Means of Destruction,” we have an excerpt from Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England. The violations are stark — certainly by today’s standards — yet were accepted as necessary in his day. (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Tracking down the culprit behind an outbreak of typhoid fever in 1900s New York was a breakthrough in how symptom-free carriers can spread sickness. Mary Mallon was one of these asymptomatic “super spreaders.” You may recognize by her popular name: Typhoid Mary. (National Geographic)
Written 20 years ago, this essay is just as relevant today: how Albert Camus’ The Plague holds many lessons. A Hero For Our Time. (The Guardian)
“How sickness enlarges the dimension of a man’s self to himself! He is his own exclusive object.” — Charles Lamb, 1833
The pandemic is giving people vivid, unusual dreams. Here’s why. (National Geographic)
Our all too human tendency to focus on what is directly or instrumentally visible, or of comparable scale to ourselves, has blinded us to both the largest and smallest scales of the universe. The Hidden Lives of Viruses. (Nautilus)
With people splitting work hours between office and home, it can be a challenge to figure out what tools to use in which situation. Our future presence should be virtual, intentional, and deliberate. (The New York Times)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“I have learned much from disease which life could never have taught me anywhere else.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1830
🎧 The pandemic has undoubtedly changed the future of the workplace, but we really don’t know yet how that will look. In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee is joined by research leader Marcus Buckingham to discuss the impact of COVID-19, how employers can head off the expected turnover tsunami, whether employees’ presence in the office actually matters and why the future of work will hinge on employer flexibility.
📚 The complexity of our brain and the complicated way in which the external world comes together causes stop us from living the life we want. The misalignment between the internal states we experience and the external circumstances we encounter often leads to confusion, a lack of clarity in our thinking and actions that are not consistent with our professed values.
Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work, and Play Meaningfully by David Amerland is a gameplan. It helps us connect the pieces of our mind to the pieces of our life. It shows us how to map what we feel to what has caused those feelings. It helps us understand what affects us and what effects it has on us. It makes it possible for us to determine what we want, why we want it and what we need to do to get it.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.