Commentary: Into the chop: Who will we be when the coronavirus crisis is over?

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I am not a sailor. But I used to try to be one on a friend’s sailboat, many summers ago.

I sailed with a true sailor — a guy who grew up with it and had been sailing since he was a little kid in Marblehead, Mass. I called him “Skipper,” and he called me “Gilligan.”

We both earned our nicknames. And the Skipper is still sailing, indeed, racing.

I never sailed into a full-blown storm with him. But I remember my first experience of a chop.

A chop is defined this way: “Waves that are short and steep … a short steep sea, which makes a vessel continuously pitch and roll.”

Or, a “confused sea,” caused by a “combination of wind, waves and current.”

Continuously pitching and rolling is scary. You figure out very quickly how small you are and that nature was not created by Hallmark.

And how does one handle a chop?

I quote the experts again: “There is no specific way to handle a chop.”

But some advice?

Batten down. Keep steady. Don’t try to outrun or out muscle it. Gut it out. Stay calm.

Or maybe hope you have an experienced skipper.

All that sounds a lot easier than it is.

There is no substitute for experience.

Or for calm.

If calm doesn’t come naturally, fake it until you make it. Practice, practice, practice.

There is no substitute for an even temper.

Or for faith — in ourselves and in a power beyond ourselves.

That power is both the end and the source of all mercy, all compassion, all kindness, all decency. And, yes, all strength and calm.

Our country is headed into a chop. We can no longer deny it or kid ourselves.

“This is our generation’s war,” said a person who is daily exposed to the public and cannot work from home. She has no such option. She also has asthma and COPD. Her eyes are open. She is wary. But she is courage walking.

The pandemic may well also cause this generation’s Great Depression. It’s impossible to see how a shuttered national economy recovers in a matter of weeks or months. Wall Street may. The economy as a whole? It will take years.

And the national debt will, once we have come through this, take a generation to pay down.

The corona contagion, said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo the other day, will change us forever. We will never be the same country.

And I knew he was right.

I thought of a friend speaking of a third friend many years ago. The third man’s spouse was dying and the second man said: This will change him. It will change him.

As Cuomo said, the question is: What is the manner of the changed man when he gets up off the mat?

Our country, our republic, will come through this. We came through the Great Depression and a two-front world war followed. We came through that, too. We came through them both.

The corona pandemic is not a greater challenge.

The test for the country is the same as for individuals: Who will we be then?

Is it true that suffering refines character and soul?

It can.

Will it refine the American soul?

Is it true that adversity binds? It can. War creates a bond between warriors. The Depression created a sense of family and community we have not known since.

I would like to believe that this crisis will teach us how to draw closer at a distance. It would like to believe it triggers a rebirth of American values — of neighborliness, decency, practical compassion, personal responsibility and liberty under law.

It would like to believe it will toughen us without coarsening us.

I would love to see a rebirth and rediscovery of the American family and of spiritual and religious life.

I’d love to see Americans, especially young ones, discover the indispensability of daily, curated, professional journalism. Blogs and Facebook cannot inform you; cannot help you understand your world.

But these are hopes, the evidence of things as yet unseen.

Who will we be after we come through the chop? Will we be truly changed or will we reset and revert to old and lazy ways? Will we be better, or simply harder and smug?

No one knows.

My eyes, too, are wide open, and yet I have faith.

I think:

First, the moral leadership of the country will arise not from Washington, or politics on any level, but from the ordinary interactions, and initiations, of ordinary, uncelebrated people.

Second, Americans do better in the chop, in adversity, than we do in abundance and leisure. When things are good and soft, we tend to look inward. When things are hard and tough, we step up and tend to be our better selves.

Third, Americans believe in better and best selves, and in a more perfect union. Practice, practice, practice, and you can become the person, or country, you want to be.



Keith C. Burris is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (


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