Enduring in an Era of Disruption – Lessons from My Grandmother

Image: Maggie Connelly/Instagram

by Scott Nuzum

Another night of restless sleep, another day spent searching for meaning in the midst of a crisis. I struggle to focus; my mind is taxed with constant worry about the health and safety of everyone I know and love. In the past twelve weeks, people around the world have helplessly watched COVID-19 spread rapidly across the planet, growing into a global pandemic. Already, the virus has claimed the lives of thousands of people and shut down entire nations, exposing troubling tears in the economic, political, and social fabric. The emergence of these tears has been particularly jarring for those of us in the United States, who have grown up thinking that our country stands prepared to tackle any challenge, no matter how daunting. Instead, the U.S.  response to the pandemic has been tainted by a subset of irresponsible politicians sowing the seeds of disinformation, with some going so far as to call the virus a hoax.

Life in the United States—and much of the west for that matter—is now marked by the surreal sense that government is incapable of addressing the crisis. People are desperate for competent leadership capable of remedying this crisis and of articulating a message that this too shall pass. Regrettably, we are unlikely to have this collective need met, at least in the course of the next few months. This is because government’s response to COVID-19 is only the most recent and tragic example of the compounding nature of disruption. The rise of disinformation, the erosion of our institutions of governance, and the rejection of experts have all contributed to the present moment, leaving us woefully underprepared for our present predicament and even more vulnerable to destabilization from the next disruptive event.

As I searched for a way to articulate my current state of mind, I found myself returning to a draft essay I wrote last year to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the passing of my grandmother, who died in September of 2014 at the age of 103. I ultimately abandoned the project as I felt that my words did little to advance her memory. Mourning and memory don’t abide by any set timeline; instead, the act of processing loss occurs on its own schedule. In September 2019, a thousand words of forced reflection to mark the half-decade of my grandmother’s exit from this earth felt like armchair historicism. But a mere six months later, as I sit here tense, tired, and troubled—and as people around the globe live in fear of losing grandparents and other loved ones to this terrible virus—I now realize that the gift of my grandmother’s life and memory is not found in some lessons about the cyclical nature of history, but rather in the example she set with her life.

At seven, not only did my grandmother watch the young men of her New England community journey off to war, but she also lost her mother to a virulent global pandemic. At eighteen, she saw financial markets collapse and the world enter perhaps the most significant economic crisis of all time. At thirty, she listened as FDR declared war on Japan and Germany and watched helplessly as much of the world burned. As interesting (and disconcerting) as those historical parallels are, the lesson I draw from my grandmother’s century of living is not “beware history repeating,” but rather, “this is how one endures in the face of disruption.” For while she certainly lived through turbulent times, my grandmother didn’t let those dark events define her life. Instead, she kept looking to the future, determined to make the world a better place for future generations through her example of grace, generosity, and optimism.

As hard as it is to maintain perspective at a time when global pandemic has shuttered daily life, I endeavor to find comfort in my grandmother’s example. Instead of succumbing to fear, I will henceforth choose to embrace optimism. Instead of allowing myself to be outraged by duplicitous politicians sowing disinformation, I choose to only rely on factual analysis offered by verified experts in the field. Instead of retreating inward—to tribe, to flag, to family—I choose to practice compounding kindness, albeit from a distance.

A century ago—as my grandmother faced the very real threat of death and as an entire generation of young men were lost to the battlefields of Europe—our species was singularly focused on survival. One hundred years on, in the face of a tragic global pandemic, we are fortunate to have at our disposal tools that can enable us to create the world that we deserve. Thankfully, we needn’t worry about whether our species will survive this pandemic. Instead, we can focus our efforts on creating a world in which we collectively thrive. So let’s treat this time of social distancing as opportunity: an opportunity to reflect on past practices and to learn from previous mistakes; an opportunity to flatten the curve with respect to both COVID-19 and the compounding impacts of disruption; an opportunity to emerge as a stronger global community sustained in our optimistic belief that we can make the world a better place.

Scott Nuzum is a Washington, D.C. based father, husband, strategist, and designer at VNF Solutions LLC. He previously worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (2009-2012) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (2012-2014).

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