In Greece in 1941, a young girl is forced to chew on the sole of her shoe because the Nazis have come and left her village without food, and she's hungry, and the sole is made of leather. In the early 1990's, at a Greek Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, MI, this story is told as part of a series of lectures about the war. It was a small thing for the woman who told the story, I’m sure, sharing this very short, albeit tragic and traumatic memory with a group of friends and family. But for me, a boy of probably no more than seven or eight, in the audience, it was the opposite of that, as it was an image and feeling that stuck with me long after I left church that day. In fact, it stuck with me so much that it caused me to continue to research that time and event, and read about other stories, too, as I grew older, and it's that research that eventually became the basis for my debut novel which, in many ways, I consider to be my life’s work, at this relatively early moment in my life. The point of this story, though, isn’t specifically about the novel or my life’s work; it’s about how this small and inconsequential moment in someone else’s life had such a deep and profound effect on me, and has become one of the single and most important and defining moments of my own.
When we live in a community and a society, what we do affects each other.
It’s an idea, like so many others, that is rooted in Ancient Greece, and was believed so strongly that Socrates gave his life to uphold its principles. A slightly modified idea of this Social Contract that exists between all of us became prominent again many centuries later, during the Enlightenment, and however the nuances of it are understood and argued in a current sense – especially the updates that have been made in regards to race and gender – the underlying idea that when we’re a society of free and equal people, we have an obligation of both basic knowledge and decency to that society and the others that are in it, as well as just ourselves, is essential, and has persisted from its origins in Ancient Greece, all the way through to the present day. It’s a theory that the American Revolution favored and the American Founding Fathers embraced – especially Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – and wove into the very fabric of the new nation that they created and political system that they designed. If one needs proof, look no further than the first three words of the American Constitution: “We the people.”
But have we lost sight of that?
Have we forgotten that freedom, in the broadest and most important sense of the word – and with freedom, of course, being something that walks hand-in-hand with knowledge – must extend to others beyond just ourselves, if any of us are to truly have freedom, in the way that it was intended?
A public health crisis of the magnitude that the world is currently facing isn’t unprecedented in history, but it is unprecedented in modern history, and there’s nothing like a public health crisis to put into perspective how the actions of a single individual can affect the lives and pursuits of happiness of other individuals in their community with whom they’ve entered into an implied contract for the mutual benefit of all and to form the society in which we live and take part.
Soon, this pandemic will end.
But the failings that it’s illuminated amongst and between us will remain, unless we address them.
As mentioned, while this current pandemic might be unprecedented in many of our lifetimes, it’s not unprecedented. During the outbreak of the Black Death – the largest and most deadly pandemic in the recorded history of the world – people in Europe fled from cities to the countryside. Mortality was so prevalent that the memento mori became popular, the skull that many kept on their desk as a reminder that death was never very far. Many scholars of the time thought that the Black Death would be the end of cities and any other form of populated living as it had previously been known, and that the Dark Ages would give way and plunge into something even more dark and cruel. Instead, people used that time to examine the way that we interact and live, and when the plague passed – as plagues do – what followed wasn’t an even darker descent or mass migration from cities, as was feared, but instead the Renaissance, which was, of course, one of the greatest eras of individual human thought and advancement the world had yet seen.
We have that same opportunity now; to use this time to study and examine and reflect, and then when this plague passes, to go out and work to advance our societies and our nations to even greater heights than have yet been achieved. In the very first State of the Union address ever given to the young American nation, George Washington told the gathered joint congress that “Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of happiness.” It’s a core and defining principle upon which both Greece and America and so many other nations have been founded, and it's also the basis for the contract amongst and between us that must once again now be nurtured and grown and renewed, as our unfinished story continues, and we carry on the sacred burden of our forebears in striving to form, in any and all ways that we can, a more perfect union. If that’s truly our goal - as it should be - then knowledge (not disinformation) is the means and path. And, just like the American Constitution, it all begins with we the people.
Christopher Cosmos is a bestselling author and Black List screenwriter from Grand Rapids, MI, whose debut novel, Once We Were Here, a multi-generational love story set in Greece during World War II, is now available from Arcade Publishing.
More information is available online: www.christophercosmos.com or by following him on Twitter @XristosCosmos and Instagram @christophercosmos.