By Thom Little, Ph.D.

Like most of you, I am now spending the vast majority of my time at home. However, I have been doing this a bit longer than the rest of you since I discovered I may have been exposed to someone with the virus on March 10. So, I have limited my ventures outside of the house for almost three weeks now, and thankfully, it appears that neither I nor members of my family have contracted the virus.

While this self quarantine has been frustrating, it has allowed me to indulge in some guilty pleasures I have long desired including a day long “Lord of the Rings” marathon with my daughter. We are both huge fans of the books and the movies and have talked about having such a marathon for years and this past Saturday, we finally took the almost ten-hour plunge!

As I reveled in the exploits of Frodo, Gandalf and the gang, I was struck by one of the more memorable conversations between Gandalf the Gray and our hero Frodo Baggins, as Frodo laments the rise of Sauron (the evil protagonist), “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which Gandalf replies, “So do I. And so do all who live to see such times. But it is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what we will do with the time that is given us.” As I listened to that exchange, I realized that Gandalf could just as well have been talking to us. None of us asked for this. None of us wanted this. None of us were or could be fully prepared for this. I know you ran for office because you wanted to help people and make lives better, but I am quite sure you did not sign up for this! And yet, here we are…this is “the time that has been given us,” so what do we do with it?

We all are obligated to take care of ourselves and do everything we can to protect others. However, I think that public officials have some particular obligations during “this time that is given to us.”

Put People Over Politics. I suspect we all remember the words of Rahm Emanuel during the fiscal crisis of the early 1990s, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” I know it is tempting to use this crisis to implement policies or fund projects dear to you or your constituents, but now is not the time. Get the job done. Focus on policies that will most directly help protect our health and our economy and leave the other stuff for another time. 

Temper Hope with Reality. While it may be tempting during difficult times like these to placate the people by offering platitudes and easy solutions, that is not leadership. It is like feeding a hungry person sugar– it might satisfy them for a time, but in the long run it will leave them empty. Winston Churchill did not promise a short and easy war, but said “We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.” He reminded them that the goal was singular and of utmost importance, “It is victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terrors — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.” You must offer the same message to those who follow you, be they colleagues or constituents.

Offer Solutions…or at Least Strategies. People are always looking to their leaders for solutions to the problems they face, but this is even more true during times like this. Based on what you learn from medical experts, offer advice as to how your constituents and your members can best protect themselves and their families. If you are not sure what advice to offer, refer them to medical and government professionals who can offer such advice. 

Listen to the Experts. Nobody can know everything about everything and nobody expects you to. However, I believe people do expect you and other elected officials to listen to the people who are experts in the appropriate fields. In the case of the current crisis, your constituents and colleagues want you to listen to the Centers for Disease Control and the medical experts in infectious diseases. What do those experts say about controlling the spread of the virus? What do they say about how fast and where the virus is spreading? Washington had Green and Hamilton. Lincoln had Grant and Stanton. If this crisis is the equivalent to war, which I believe it is, then you need to find those advisors that you trust and base your decisions on their knowledge.

Now to return to “Lord of the Rings,” we turn to the ever faithful and ever hopeful Samwise Gamgee who reminds us that even these dark times will pass, “How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”

Together, with the encouragement and guidance of people like you, we will get through this and the “darkness” will pass to reveal a brighter tomorrow.