Larry David once famously said about the essence of Seinfeld, “No Hugging, No Learning.” This mantra was a way to frame the harsh and humorous spotlight he put on human nature with the show. Diving into the minutiae of life wasn’t supposed to teach us anything or even warm our hearts. It was meant to challenge our perception of what mattered most and hoist everything we held sacred onto its own petard.
We are now on the backside of the curve of the pandemic. All signs from the 1918 flu adventure tell us this might come back around for another, more vicious turn. I am breathing a sigh of relief, but should I?
Yesterday, just a short drive from where I grew up, a small New Jersey gym owner stood, flanked by TV cameras and “patriots” waving the flag as he opened the doors, flouting the laws of his state. In recent days, just a short drive from where I now live, closed communities of ultra-orthodox Jews flouted public health demands and congregated en masse to celebrate Lag B’Omer.
In the infamous and legendary Seinfeld episode on self-gratification called “The Contest”, each of the characters vowed to become the “Master of their Domain.” The shorthand needs no further explanation. Yet, when faced with even the most modest barrier to delayed joy, each fell with barely a whisper.
Israeli beaches are now open. It won’t be long before the schools, tech offices, shopping malls, and restaurants are too. In the spirit of Larry David’s desire to hold up a giant mirror, I wonder if it’s reasonable to think that our fellow citizens, here and in the USA, are willing and able to learn. Or, if instead, its more likely that life will whiplash back to where it was before with few lasting impacts beyond economic devastation and set us up for another pandemic in the months and years ahead.
In the end, the cruel joke of the Seinfeld episode is that each of the characters sees their so-called best efforts foiled quickly and without much self-control. While the objects of their desire end up with each other, the characters end up alone and masters of nothing.
COVID’s legacy doesn’t have to be like a Seinfeld episode. We don’t need to forget the lessons of this pandemic. We can choose to remember what it felt like to sacrifice and care for each other. We can choose to learn lessons about how a community unifies. Someday, we might even hug again.
If not, like George, Kramer, and Elaine, we will quickly tap out of the pandemic challenge and pursue gratification blithely with little concern for others.