Exactly 400 years ago this coming November, the good ship Mayflower sailed into Provincetown Harbor and anchored (a fact infuriatingly underreported in our national media). There were 102 souls on board. A year later, after a long, harsh winter, 45 of those souls were gone: that’s a mortality rate of 44 percent.
The Pilgrims were no angels — just ask a Wampanoag — but they were tough, resilient, self-reliant, and courageous. They also banded together and helped one another (remember the Mayflower Compact, signed in our harbor?), although the terms of their assistance could be harsh — just ask Hester Prynne. They also had an abiding faith in God, and a guiding belief that they were meant to be here and they were meant to succeed, that this continent was theirs for the taking.
In the face of the current pandemic, we have some things we can learn from them, and some we cannot. Their resiliency and self-reliance is inspirational; there was very little wailing and moaning, and no self-pity. We should aim for that quality.
Their belief in a beneficent Almighty might be harder to copy. Even among those of us who believe in a Creative Force, there is a significant fraction who do not see that force as one that can intervene on the level of a nation, let alone an individual. The deity system that makes most sense to many might be the pantheistic Greek model: numerous gods “up there,” amusing themselves by tossing various challenges down to Earth to see what we poor mortals will do.
The evidence for this dominates the history of the human race to this day. It is difficult for many of us to find solace in religion, although many still do. I envy them.
The other component of their belief system that is fast eroding is that the Earth was placed here for the sole purpose of supporting human enterprise and expansion. Many, of course, do believe this — Manifest Destiny is alive and well. But more progressive thinking is that we are not the rightful inheritors of the bounty of the Earth, not the overall self-appointed stewards of this planet; rather, we are creatures desperately dependent on its sustaining elements, even as we are destroying them.
Many of the most threatening challenges to our survival, including the current pandemic, have roots in the incursions that humans have made into the natural environment. We must learn to make amends, make peace with the Earth, learn to live within natural systems — and we must do so in a hurry. That means no more going to the outdoor market to buy a wild pangolin in a cage and have it butchered for dinner on the spot; but it also means no more sitting in your car outside Stop & Shop with your engine mindlessly idling.
Progressive thinking also addresses the Pilgrims’ concept of community with some important updates. We are each of us a Stranger and a Saint, an insider somewhere and an outsider everywhere else; we each of us deserve the regard of the community-at-large regardless of our nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, or belief system. We are, to borrow a phrase, all God’s children.
Many of us think putting children at our southern border in cages is inherently evil, even though there are devout churchgoers who see nothing wrong with this. Most of us think health care and access to education and useful and gainful employment and so many of society’s benefits should be more equally distributed. The situation is so much more pressing in this time of emergency. We are all in this together, we are told.
In the midst of this pandemic, we need a new Compact.