It was a scant few days before Christmas in 1776, and many Americans were still undecided about a war with Great Britain. How could they — as mere scattered colonists — take on a world power?
Thomas Paine, a philosopher and author of the day, understood this and knew his fellow citizens needed inspiration to do something they couldn't imagine doing, something that didn't seem feasible, something that would test their very beings.
In a series of pamphlets largely published in 1776 and 1777 and widely distributed for the day, written in a language the common person could understand, he bolstered the morale of his fellow colonists, clarified what was at stake and even employed references to the deity, saying a war against Great Britain would be a war with the support of God.
The first volume of "Common Sense" began with words that sweep down through history and have seemed relevant for every time of testing in this country: "These are the times that try men's souls."
The words are certainly apropos for today as we deal with the new realities brought upon us by the outbreak of the coronavirus.
We won't take the time to recite all of the appropriate lines from that first volume — just a few — but they can be found easily online. They offer a perspective in considering the current crisis.
"'Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. ... Yet ... their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before." — Paine, "Common Sense"
Though our patterns of work, play, education and social life have dramatically changed — for a time — the new realities offer an opportunity to sharpen us.
What might get done at home that we have been putting off, that we have said we never have time for? What friends, acquaintances or neighbors we've never met could we check on to make sure they're all right? What relationships could we deepen with a spouse or child that we vowed to do if we just had more time together?
We recall, for instance, the blizzard of 1993, and the check we made on several neighbors in our largely older neighborhood. Our street was lucky in not losing electricity, so the biggest complaint the seasoned citizens had was losing their cable television service.
We recall the following year when the Major League Baseball strike — hardly a comparable crisis — nevertheless made sure the Atlanta Braves never took priority over the antics of a 6-month-old.
"I call not upon a few, but upon all; not on this state or that state, but upon every state; up and help us; lay your shoulders to the wheel; better have too much force than too little, when so great an object is at stake. Let it be told to a future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it and repulse it." — Paine, "Common Sense"
Chattanooga's mayor, Andy Berke, signed an executive order Thursday that suspends dine-in service at restaurants and bars and closes gyms. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger recommended the same — without an executive order — earlier this week. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, meanwhile, suggested state residents adhere to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on proper behavior.
In the coronavirus crisis, it will take all of us to do our part in practicing social distancing to prevent the spread of the illness. It is proven, after all, that the fewer people we're around the less exposure we'll have to the virus.
How much trouble, after all, is a conference call or a Zoom meeting instead of in-person gatherings? How much more difficult is it to get your Acropolis Greek salad to go rather than eating it at the restaurant? And how much are we put out by live streaming church services if we're so inclined?
Plus, look at the bright side. Among many other positives, the Internal Revenue Service, while still expecting tax returns to be filed April 15, always allows extensions, and this year has extended payment deadlines until July 15. An executive order by Gov. Lee gives vehicle registration renewals and driver's licenses that expire between March and May an extra month to be fulfilled. And Tennessee-American Water Company has discontinued water shutoffs for those who haven't paid their bills and will restore water to those who have recently had their service disconnected.
"I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscious approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death." — Paine, "Common Sense"
We as Americans, as Paine reminded us so many years ago, are strong enough to withstand a crisis. We have within us to do what is necessary, to tolerate what is inconvenient, to forge better and more valuable habits and to endure for the betterment of our fellow man. May history remember us a people who took that opportunity.