Sickness can be transformative. A man suffers a heart attack and emerges more attuned to life; a woman survives cancer committed to living every day to its fullest. These truisms exist because they are true and most of us have seen it happen, either to friends, or family, or even to ourselves.
A medical crisis also has the power to remind us of our common humanity, our shared frailty, our inescapable mortality. Differences that seemed so profound the day before often fade into the background when disease strikes. There is a reason that personal conflicts melt away when someone becomes seriously ill. There’s a reason people say, “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”
Reflecting on my experiences in medical school a quarter century ago, I wrote,
“[It’s] remarkable how similar the concerns of people are. The 30-year-old white executive diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, the black teen-ager with diabetes—their questions and needs can be indistinguishable. What is wrong with me? Why is this happening? When am I going to get better? Please, don’t scare my mother.
A medical student is taught to observe and listen. You become familiar with the feel of blood pulsing under the wrist and behind the knee, with the sound of air racing down the windpipe. You learn how to tap out the borders of the liver and the lungs, to notice the tension of skin and the color of lips.
Companies are bought out by their competitors, district attorneys become defense lawyers, yet human life will always have value and disease will always be the enemy.”
I was reminded of the transcendent power of illness to unite in a brief exchange with a colleague about one of the prominent Republicans who was recently diagnosed with COVID, a senator whose rabid embrace of Trumpism had profoundly dismayed my colleague.
“Can’t imagine your schadenfreude level now,” I told him after I heard about the senator’s diagnosis.
“Actually no,” he wrote back. The senator, he explained simply, “was once one of my best friends.”
In a similar way, President Trump’s crisis offers an opportunity for the nation to regain access to our best selves, our fellowship, and our community. It could—it should—shock us out of our petty squabbles and humbly inspire us to see each other in a more generous and gracious light.
And it offers Donald Trump the same opportunity to emerge as a changed person. Imagine if, having been confronted (briefly, we all hope) with a serious illness, the president were to transform into a wiser, more understanding leader. It could bind the nation together and help commit everyone to taking COVID seriously and seeing the pandemic as a shared challenge.
Of course, not everyone emerges from the crucible of sickness transformed. Some people have a heart attack and keep gobbling up fried food and smoking a pack a day. It may be that Trump and his most committed enablers learn nothing and continue to be the kind of people who mock others for taking COVID seriously. Or mock others even for being ill.
But even if President Trump is not capable of discovering his best self, the rest of us still can. And for the rest of the country, the early signs are encouraging.
Shaken by the crisis, many of us are rediscovering, and taking comfort from our shared humanity, finding connection and accessing the empathy that had only recently seemed so elusive. People seem to understand that they need not like the president in order to hope for his swift recovery. They need not be voting for him in order to empathize with how scared he and his family must be in this moment.
It is a hopeful sign that Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, immediately pulled all negative advertising that attacked the president’s record and rushed to publicly offer his prayers for Trump.
This is the call of our shared humanity we should all heed. The only upside of sickness is its power to transform our hearts.
America should not let this opportunity pass.