I’m a student of history, and I have often found comfort, if not guidance, from what has gone before. As often as not, however unique and extraordinary the times seem (or are portrayed in the headlines), there’s inevitably a comparable, and almost always, an even more extreme example, of such times in decades past.[i]
And while there’s been a renewed interest in, and awareness of, the pandemic of 1918 (though I’m told the pandemic of 1957-58 is a more apt comparison to COVID-19), as the anniversary of our nation’s declaration of independence nears, I’ve been drawn to the events of 1776.
As it turns out, the newly declared (but not yet formal) nation was confronted not only with the struggle for independence (and no small number of voices that simply wanted to preserve the status quo), but with the scourge of smallpox. Just as the close quartering and movement of troops in the first World War served to spread what is now termed the “Spanish flu,” the Continental Army was confronted with a deadly disease that was arguably a larger threat to its cause than the British army.
Indeed, General Washington once wrote to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry that smallpox “is more destructive to an Army in the Natural way, than the Enemy’s Sword." And no wonder—we’re talking about a pandemic that killed one in three in the Continental Army who contracted the virus.
We mark the Fourth of July, and indeed the year of 1776, as the birth of our nation, but it’s worth remembering that it was a year full of disappointments and near disasters for George Washington’s Continental Army. One can garner a sense for the change in tide by noting in January of that year Thomas Paine published “Common Sense,” but before the year was out had turned his pen to “The American Crisis,” fretting about “sunshine patriots” and “times that try men’s souls.” And we hadn’t yet gotten to that terrible winter at Valley Forge.
There are challenges both personal and professional confronting us every day—they were “before,” though most were individualized, personal events: a death in the family, a job lost, a flood or tornado’s impact, a wildfire’s devastation. And while the events of the past several months have imposed new burdens on us all, it’s imperative that we remind ourselves that those we support and serve are struggling as well; their retirements, their plans for retirement, indeed their retirement plans themselves, despite years of careful planning and attention, may well have been upended in ways that no one could anticipate just a few short months ago.
In the days ahead, your insights, your expertise… your empathy… are going to be called upon in ways you might never have imagined. Surely, these are, certainly in recent memory, extraordinary times—times that have, and will, in some measure, continue to try our collective “souls.”
Bleak as things may seem at times, however, this is our time to shine.
America’s retirement is depending on us.
- Nevin E. Adams, JD
[i]Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of my favorite quotes is George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”