Six Hopes for a Post-Corona World
From business with beauty to love without control
by Tim Leberecht
UN General Secretary António Guterres reckons that “recovery from the coronavirus crisis must lead to a better world.” For all of us to collectively imagine a better future, each of us must envision their own. That’s not an easy task these days, because it seems we’re in a present and future-shock at once, incapable of thinking beyond an all-too-present here and now.
Struggling to move beyond the cacophony of splintered views, I turned to the wisdom captured in books, songs, and movies for inspiration. Instead of a coherent vision for the future, I can only articulate six hopes:
1. A collective narrative with many different stories
From the American Dream to JFK’s moonshot, from communism to capitalism, from monotheism to singularity, the world has always been built by stories. Even if they have not always been explicit, their deep narrative structure has provided the scaffolding for many of our beliefs and actions. Going forward, we can seek a new collective narrative that helps us overcome the growing polarization of our societies and directs our attention and energy toward one shared grand project.
Research conducted by the nonprofit organization More in Common found that in countries such as Germany, France, and the US, one-third of the population feels marginalized and isolated from society, but a majority of the people they surveyed were longing for a collective narrative that gave them a sense of identity and a common cause worth striving for. In France, for example, the researchers found — before the outbreak — that the fight against climate change might be that overarching purpose. And now COVID-19 might serve as the perfect common enemy, helping us rally around one narrative and find a new “We.”
The downside of one such single narrative is that it might further alienate those who do not identify with it, i.e. that it creates a more powerful “We,” but also a more powerless “Them.” The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a riveting TED Talk, for instance, warns of “the dangers of a single story.” In her eyes, power is “the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” She says, “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.… Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.…. Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Perhaps one can resolve this conflict this way: A story has a beginning and an end, it is specific and personal, antagonistic and dramatic. It has a goal and a morale. One single story is dangerous because it is the corollary of totalitarian ideologies. A narrative, on the other hand, is open-ended, an ongoing conversation that offers a promised land but no set destination. A shared narrative creates the space for many diverse stories — and yet gives us identity and a frame through which to view the world.
As for COVID-19, we will never be able to write the one story that makes sense of the pandemic, simply because we will never fully know how aggressive the virus really was in relation to the measures we put in place to contain it, or whether the effect it had on us had was genuine or because of our response to it.
Instead, what I hope will emerge from the crisis is a collective narrative woven together of thousands of different stories, to which all of us can relate in our own way. For example, I used to watch soccer games with foreign language commentary when traveling abroad. I didn’t understand a word, but I still knew exactly what was being said because I understand a universal language, in this case soccer. And like the players of this beautiful game on the pitch, in the fluid geometry of their movements, we should all be asking each other and ourselves more “beautiful questions,” to borrow that phrase from the poet John O’Donohue, questions that don’t seek an answer but prolong the state of awe.
2. Business with beauty
Beauty can indeed save the world. It is everywhere, and most importantly in the eye of the beholder. But the one place where it can have the most profound impact is business. We spend the majority of our waking hours at work, and how we do our work, run our businesses, grow our teams and ourselves, and lead, is, for many of us, who we are and what we leave behind. Our actions at work have an outsized effect on others.
As the world slides into recession and many companies have no choice but to tighten their belts or lay off workers (take a moment to read this heartbreaking account of a restaurant owner who had to shut down his business), it may seem frivolous to speak of beauty (especially in light of the workers putting their lives at risk on the frontline right now). You could argue that as people face questions of life and death or the brute consequences of economic disaster, beauty is the last thing we should be worried about.
Yet reminding us of the need for beauty in our actions is more important than ever. As Pascal suggested, we should always keep something beautiful in our mind. Even if we can’t always live up to it, the mere thought of beauty can serve as a bulwark against the regime of efficiency and optimization that may be inflicted on us with a vengeance after the crisis. I fear an unholy alliance of economism, dataism, and surveillance might become the new modus operandi, eradicating all the more subtle, nuanced, and elusive tones that have strenuously expanded the playing field for business to produce purpose and not just profit over the past few years.
While we all appear humanized right now — through the informality and rawness of remote work and the unifying effect of having a common enemy — the next era of dehumanization is lurking around the corner. Right now, as we are staying and practicing physical distancing, we collectively embody human agency like never before. We are the great wave mounted between the pandemic and disaster at scale. But once this wave breaks, because there is no more need for it, our human agency will instantly become the target of manipulative technology again, with even greater fervor than before.
To prevent this from happening, now more than ever, we must uphold the firm belief that business must and can be beautiful. As the South African futurist Anton Musgrave put it, “If the world hardens rather than softens after this crisis, we are all lost.”
3. A future of work without divides
Vulnerability, which has been something of a buzzword in management literature in recent years, has suddenly become tangible for all of us, with anticipated job losses for 25 million people, as UN officials have reported, due to the crisis. An accelerator and magnifying glass at the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on those populations that had been vulnerable before the crisis and are even more vulnerable now — including, among many other sectors, service and gig economy workers, low-income families, and artists, not to mention the already un-or under-employed. Many of them now face the brutal choice of either staying at home and losing income, or putting their health at risk.
Rather than being “the great equalizer” (as Madonna ignorantly labeled it), the pandemic is the great aggravator — it is widening the cracks in the social safety net in the US and other countries with less protective measures for workers and families, and it is increasing social inequality across the board. Those with everything to lose will be the losers again, while (some of) the winners, many of whom are sitting out the crisis in their second or third homes or boats — will continue to win.
It’s clear that after this crisis, a future future-of-work will have to become much more inclusive of all workers, whether that is through a higher minimum wage, basic income, or employers simply paying their service staff proper salaries. My hope is that the pandemic will force us to widen our circle of kinship and make solidarity with workers across all sectors a shared cause.
Only then will we realize that when it comes to a more humane future of work the enemy is not AI or robots — it is us. Just as it is with the virus.
4. Joy with planetary boundaries
The pandemic is showing us two things. First, that we can halt the climate crisis if we want to. The scope and scale of behavior change we are experiencing now in response to COVID-19 is exactly the kind of massive shift we need in response to the climate crisis. But secondly, the pandemic is also impressing on us how disconnected from nature we’ve become.
We are therefore witnessing a renaissance of the natural — of a new authenticity in the way we live our lives and show up in the world, and a new essentialism that makes us appreciate what truly matters, not just to ourselves but also to others. Social distancing, with all the hardship and struggle it means for many of us, has made us acutely aware of the boundaries we may have crossed previously with willful ignorance: not only the personal space of others, boundaries in conversation and other social interactions, but also the boundaries of our natural environment.
May this distance lead to more intimacy in the end, but also let us not forget that some things in life are better appreciated from a healthy distance.
And yet, I hope that this new essentialism will not become a frugality of expression, a paucity of emotions. Following this nightmare of a pandemic, another nightmare would be a monochrome world full of cities, organizations, and people deprived of color and vibrancy, uniform in their earnest responsibility, afraid to death of being excessive, erratic, or sentimental. At the worst, a new back-to-the-basics earnestness could become indistinguishable from blandness. Anybody in the public eye, brands, leaders, celebrities, or athletes, might face the tacit pressure of an “add-(measurable) value-or-shut-up” public mindset. And I hope they’ll resist.
It is a matter of life and death right now that all of us zig, including the most independent spirits amongst us. But to create a world worth living in after the crisis — a world of wonder and beauty — we need people and organizations that zag, and persist in being exciting, charismatic, and exuberant, whenever and wherever we can be.
We must find a way to be conscious citizens and still have fun. We will only mobilize toward a better, more joyful world through joy.
5. Density with stillness
This past Wednesday, I had the pleasure of spending an hour in one of the House of Beautiful Business’s virtual Living Room Sessions with the writer Pico Iyer, whose writing and musings on “The Art of Stillness” have gained even more relevance in a time where the world has come to a halt and many of us are confined to our four walls in self-isolation and quarantine. Without dismissing the woes of those who are struggling with this adjustment, Iyer views it as a chance to reassess our priorities and see the world anew, beyond the “junk food” of micro-interactions on social media, the onslaught of data and media, and the productivity tyrant inside our head.
“The only way to make sense of movement is to sit still,” Iyer said. And: “Solitude is the loneliness in which you can hear something wiser than yourself.”
So while I hope that life, in its fullest, returns to our cities, villages, and airports, I wish that this stillness somehow continues. I want our cities to be hustling and bustling again, with eager crowds and frantic movement. At the same time, I hope that our world, at the core, will remain calm and serene, as will our lives, emptied of clutter and noise. May the ghosts of our current ghost towns linger around. May there be density that invites intimacy, not just proximity, allowing us to be still for a little bit longer.
Myself, I am determined to maintain the routine I started during the crisis: taking the exact same walk every day and spotting a new thing, seeing the new world differently each time.
6. Love without control
When it comes to love, as Iyer reminded us, there is a lot to learn from Leonard Cohen. I’m not just referring to romantic love of a person (that, too), but also in our relationship to the world.
In his song Paper Thin Hotel the Canadian singer-songwriter explores jealousy as the one human emotion that is the opposite of stillness. Jealousy is the nagging feeling that we are not worth it, that we do not belong here, that a person, or the world, does not love us back. It comes in many shades, from status and social envy to FOMO to — these days in particular — Zoom-call envy to loneliness. At its core is a fear of mortality. When we are alone, we are afraid of the demons in our mind.
Cohen stares these demons in the eye, unflinchingly, or rather, he forces himself to listen to them. In Paper Thin Hotel he describes how he hears from the adjacent hotel room, through a paper-thin wall, his partner making love with another man, and how she showers afterwards and sings, and every sound is like a thousand needles in his heart. But still, he continues to listen and at some point clarity prevails over fogginess: “I listened to your kisses at the door, I never heard the world so clear before. You ran your bath and you began to sing. I felt so good I couldn’t feel a thing.” And then, a revelation and moment of relief: “It’s written on the walls of this hotel. You go to heaven once you’ve been to hell. A heavy burden lifted from my soul. I heard that love was out of my control.”
There are no better words to describe the current predicament. The walls that separate us have gotten thinner, we need to force ourselves to listen even if it’s painful, and only once we realize we have no control, can we truly be in love again with the world.
This article first appeared on Psychology Today.