Like a lot of people, I’ve spent many hours reading and worrying about the coronavirus. It’s hard to know what more to say about it, but it’s difficult to think about anything else. In looking for the good in all of this, I focus on the way our busy world of getting and spending has ground to a halt. This disaster is also a time out—a forced pause in the headlong rush of modern life. This pause gives us an opportunity to reimagine America, if only in a dream, in images that may wash away if things return to “normal.” Maybe we glimpse a future in which caring for one another takes center stage, one in which pausing to appreciate what we have together becomes a national habit.
The same observation could be made about the global society. During a pandemic, concern for our own well-being motivates us to listen to people from other countries, to hear their stories, to sympathize with them, and even to reach out to them for guidance and help. We’re all in this together, one big family sheltering in place on Earth.
Re-assessment can take place at the personal level, too. In my middle-class neighborhood, people are adapting to retirement mode. It’s as if we all retired at the same time, just as the weather was warming up. More people are walking and biking, maintaining a distance but waving and smiling. Children play in their yards. During this pause, we’ve had to let go of old habits, and maybe we’ve discovered that we can do without some of them—for instance, so much driving and shopping. How many people have taken this opportunity to quit smoking? By spending more time reading or gardening or listening to your spouse or to your children, you come to know what that means to you, for better or for worse. There are real risks in opening your eyes, in exploring your wishes, in trying something new.
In other neighborhoods (and likely hidden away in my own) the grim reality of unemployment is beginning to take hold. The experiences of the unemployed will also reflect on our national strengths and weaknesses. Can we sustain one another with real services and real hope?
Such crises tend to make philosophers of us all. If we can get past the anxiety and fear, if we can avoid or burn out on the escapism of video entertainment, we’re stuck with a reality that forces us to think about basic things, starting with time itself and the inescapable fact of death. That death is inescapable is precisely why we devote so much energy to ignoring it—which is not always a bad thing; but still, there’s something invigorating about having to face the naked uncertainty of life.
This is where the current crisis really resembles World War II. We’ve begun to ask ourselves, what is essential? Whatever it is that really matters to us now is what ought always to matter most. How important is your physical health? How important is love? How much good pride do you feel when you care for the security of others? What makes you happy? What gives you a sense of purpose strong enough to drive you out of your escapism into a world of new possibilities? What do you want? And, finally, what is all of this wanting and wishing and hoping really about? What, finally, will satisfy your heart?
Music: "Small Joy" by Jon Hopkins