By David Unmacht
Winter in Minnesota is a perfect time for cleansing and purging, a time to refresh and declutter. I achieved a major personal objective in February with the recycling of two large storage boxes overflowing with historical newspapers. I allowed myself to reminisce, pause, and reflect as I went through nearly every one of the papers, dating from the 1960s to the 1990s.
I saved copies covering everything from Kennedy’s assassination (OK, I was 4 years old; my mom saved this one) to Hubert Humphrey’s funeral, from terrorism to bridge collapses, from frightening economic news to the heroics of my favorite sports teams, including the Green Bay Packers and the Iowa Hawkeyes (and, yes, the Minnesota Twins, too).
About 98% of the yellowing, crinkled papers are gone; I saved only a select few. One struck me as particularly relevant to the present: a Star Tribune 16-page special edition published on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002, entitled, “How we’ve changed. 9.11.2001.” It read: “Everything has changed,” we said then. A year later, many of our routines have been restored. But much remains in our lives, hearts, and minds from the cataclysm that befell us 365 days ago. 9.11.2002.
Today, we know that the cataclysm of the COVID-19 pandemic will remain in our lives, hearts, and minds for years to come, but what about changes? What will be fleeting, fluid, or forever? This is the question of our time.
Until I reviewed the newspaper feature on 9/11 — now 20 years later — I had forgotten many of the changes and impacts that occurred. So, I wonder how we’ll remember these past two years of the pandemic two decades from now.
Although it may counter conventional wisdom, I believe it’s too early to tell. I refer to this period of our lives as the “great transition.” A period defined by evolving changes with no clear end in sight.
The differences between a terrorist attack and a lingering pandemic are clear. The terrorist attack was explosive, shocking, immediate; the pandemic is like a slow burn, stretching out for months and even years. Our generation has no pandemic experience to use as a guidepost.
The great transition is playing out in many distinct ways. It has impacts, some dramatic, on our politics, our economy, our society, our families, and our daily routines. We are experiencing unprecedented transitions to our workplace, our personal priorities (aka, the “Great Resignation”), our lifestyles, our relationships with others, our faith and trust in institutions, and our value systems as a democratic society.
Fast forward two, three, five years from now. What remains, what has become so normative that we don’t even remember what it was like before, and what was fleeting? I argue it’s too difficult and too early to know. We opine, hope, and anticipate, but our conclusions are genuinely a work in progress.
What do we know? I believe that the pandemic — along with the accompanying trifecta of social unrest, civil discourse, and economic challenges — has brought us to a precipice of choices. Circle Pines Mayor Dave Bartholomay discussed this in a recent column entitled, “Being Optimistic During Tough Times,” in which he lays out a path of individual responsibility that can bring about positive change to the issues of the day.
“The path forward out of this mess starts with each one of us,” the mayor suggests. “Maybe it’s time we take control of ourselves and lessen the impact of those trying to manipulate and scare us. … Perhaps most of all, each of us need to give people some grace.”
Mayor Dave’s advice does not begin or end with political parties, social media, or special interests. Our path does not rely solely on others. It begins and ends with us as individuals and citizens in a collective society. The challenge is clear; the invitation does not require an RSVP.
In a recent conversation I had with a colleague, we talked about why change is difficult. Perhaps it’s overly simplistic, but we narrowed it down into two specifics: change you control and change you don’t control. We agreed that we worry far too much about what we can’t control, and don’t do enough to manage and understand change we can control. This is Mayor Dave’s lesson and a good reminder for us all.
The great transition is underway. There is no end to this transition (yet). It’s not imaginative to anticipate the Star Tribune special pandemic edition, which will undoubtedly lead with a headline that reads, “How we’ve changed.” I may need to start a new box of saved newspapers, so I can remember in 2042 what actually happened over these past two years.
David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1205.