To Expand the Moral Imagination in the Confines of Quarantine

Philip Metres Writes a Letter to His Students

March 24, 2020

Dear students, colleagues, friends, family,

As we head into our second full week of this quasi-quarantine, I wanted to connect with you in the hopes that it would provide some clarity and calm for all of us. I write not because I have the answers, but to gather myself together, the frayed edges of my thoughts.

Each of us is experiencing this new reality in our own way. But one thing seems clear. On a national and even global level, this pandemic is unlike anything that has happened since the Second World War. Not since that war has a single event called upon Americans to act for a common purpose, to consider the public good. The paradox, of course, is that social distancing feels like the opposite of acting for the common good.

Last week, my dad, a veteran of the Vietnam War, hadn’t pared back his activities, continuing to go into work to meet his clients. He didn’t want to be bothered with my arguments. It worried me. He and my mother are in their late seventies, and my mother is particularly prone to lung ailments. So I finally came upon a strategy.

After a few tries, I finally texted him: “Dad, it’s not about anxiety. It’s about serving your country and protecting your family.” The next day, he called me to say that he was doing his appointments online now. Somehow, I found a language that reframed it in a way that included him.

No one wants to believe that this virus will kill us or the people we care about, or that it will change our lives for good.

So when I saw the video of college students partying in Florida on their spring breaks, I wanted to figure out if there’s anything that could be said to your generation in a language you might understand. Of course, I understand why they are doing it. No one wants to believe that this virus will kill us or the people we care about, or that it will change our lives for good. It’s too hard to look at. This virus has the potential for derailing a year of our collective life, not to mention at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. The partiers suffer from the arrogance of youth: they think they’re bulletproof, they’re YOLOing it. But they are also putting themselves and others at great risk.

It’s easy to decry a bunch of knuckleheads for partying, but more painful to see how their attitude reflects part of our national leadership. Just consider how, after a closed-door session in Congress, senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler apparently withdrew investments and bought other stocks, to great personal benefit. Others have hoarded hygiene products and medical supplies, with the purpose of reselling them at a profit. Our economic system allows for tremendous greed and selfishness. I’m sure an economist can tell me it’s the best system in the world, but is it time to reconsider?

Our country has always struggled between two poles: between its radical individualism and its communitarianism, between the notion of individual freedom and the call of collective responsibility. The truth is that, in the past 40 years, the wealthy proponents of radical individualism and neoliberalism have led the drive to protect their individual wealth and have sapped every aspect of public infrastructure: health care, transportation, education, and social services.

This evacuation of the public trust, in part, is why we’re also living in a time of unprecedented lack of social and institutional trust. In addition, there has been a massive failure of political and moral leadership. The exploitative nature of our political economy has led to a decline in the middle class, an entrenchment of generational poverty, and an increasingly unaccountable wealthy class. Finally, the ascendancy of the Internet has replaced the neighborhood and the town square as sites of belonging. There, in the weird networks of the virtual world, the possibility of transparency, fact, and accountability (good things) collide with disinformation, rumor, and distraction (bad things). Code makers in Silicon Valley harvest attention and ration dopamine to keep us in a perpetual state of distraction. Too often, we don’t know whom to believe, or what.

That’s where your education comes in.

Because of your skills in critical thinking, you can discern good sources from sketchy ones, sound arguments from windbags, clean data from fake news, science from myth. But honestly, it’s not easy for any of us. It’s hard work, and uncomfortable as hell. It’s so much easier to slide back into the comfortable digital bubble where you can relax with everyone who agrees with you, and then turn to bark at the enemies outside.

Critical thinking is part of the picture, but I want to stake a claim for the idea of the moral imagination. In The Moral Imagination, John Paul Lederach shares how he found that peacemakers all seemed to share four capacities, which I call the Four C’s:

Compassion
Curiosity/complexity
Creativity
Courage

What if this is the time and place for us to practice and develop, in this time of social distancing and quarantine, our moral imagination?

I.
We need to find in ourselves compassion for our own predicament and the predicaments of others.

We are not alone, and we are part of the same human community, now more than ever. For example, we need to understand how crucial social distancing can be a public health strategy, even as we also need to find ways of reaching out to each other. My therapist rightly pointed out that the term is wrong: we need physical distance and social connection.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky wrote to his congregation that “the very last thing we need right now is a mindset of mutual distancing. We actually need to be thinking in the exact opposite way. Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another must become a thought as to how we might help that other, should the need arise.”

In the past 40 years, the wealthy proponents of radical individualism and neoliberalism have led the drive to protect their individual wealth and have sapped every aspect of public infrastructure.

Some of us may be in households where we don’t have our needs met, where we aren’t seen, or where are values and ideas differ from our families. This is tough. Try to be gentle with yourself and your needs, and solicitous toward others who might be struggling.

In our house, it’s the Tale of Two Cities: the best of times, the worst of times. Our 13-year-old introvert is living her best life. She’s happy to be out of school, sleeping three more hours a day, with time to read and hang out on the couch. Our 17-year-old extrovert, by contrast, is going bananas, craving contact with friends her own age. She even leaps to answer the lonely odd landline, even if it means she’s talking to a recording or a telemarketer. It crushes us that she may miss prom, her commencement, and who knows what else. My wife and I move between feelings of delight and doom—delight in sharing time with our kids, and a sense of doom about what is to come.

Crises cause us to revert to primal coping strategies. Everyone’s life is different—those single may long for connection (even a simple physical embrace would do), those in relationships may need outlets, those in families may need breaks. We need what we have always needed—more kindness, more gentleness, more forbearance, more laughter.

As a member of a generation programmed from dawn until dusk, you might be experiencing a level of freakout related to the sudden lack of scheduling. It’s a good idea to create your own schedule now, to make sure that you’re spending your days with purpose and not whiling away your time, waiting to be free. You can be free inside—literally and figuratively.

II.
We need to exercise curiosity about what’s happening, to refuse the “us/them” binaries that tribalism requires, to see the world in all of its complexity.

In order to reject the binaries of tribalism, we can reframe the conversation about the origins of the virus to consider the ways in which governments far and near have failed to take into account the public interest. Instead of talking about China in racist terms (i.e. “they eat anything” or “there are too many of them”), we could consider how the Chinese government, for example, because of its totalitarian control, attacked whistleblowers and silenced doctors, which slowed their collective response to the virus. Viruses, after all, originate all over the world. It’s not about China. It’s about a governmental responses, including how our own national political leadership failed to act swiftly and aggressively when the first reports in December emerged about the seriousness of the virus.

In the words of Vijay Prashad:

Fear is not an option. The virus is deadly, but it is not the virus alone that engenders fear. Much of the world is afraid because people realise that we live in institutional deserts, that our elected leaders are mostly incompetent, and that the profit motive has focused so much of human potential on money rather than on humanity. The deep loneliness that has fallen like a shroud on the world comes from that realisation as much as from the enforced social isolation. A majority of the world’s heads of governments rely upon fear to bewilder their populations; they thrive on panics of one kind or another. They simply do not have the moral fibre to lead us as this pandemic rushes through our lives.

The ones who will pay for this are, as always, the poor, the working classes, and the marginalized. While some have bunkered themselves in a castle of toilet paper and Purell, others have lost their jobs, living on a paycheck that will not come. How will our government ensure that the most vulnerable be protected from debt, destitution, foreclosure, homelessness, bankruptcy, and death?

One thing that we can do is advocate for those who are in danger to our political leaders. Find out whether there is legislation to help reach those who are most vulnerable—not corporations and banks, but people. Call your congressional representatives. And also: November is coming. Vote.

III.
We need to draw upon our creative energies to gird our emotional lives and imagine a different world.

The word quarantine came from the Italian, quaranta, to describe the practice, first enforced in 1377, of requiring sailors to stay on board off port for 40 days to ensure that none had latent cases of disease.

When I shared the etymology of quarantine with my daughter Leila, she reminded me that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert in his own self-imposed quarantine. The Church’s Lenten season mirrors that retreat, when Catholics engage in acts of fasting and repentance. What if this time of isolation is a chance to go into the desert of the self, to wrestle with our own demons, and to re-emerge with a clearer sense of purpose?

Years ago, I interviewed a Russian poet who, when capitalism began to take effect, found little time to write. She struggled with the speed of capitalist time and the rising cost of everything. She lamented: “Now there’s no time for poems. Back then I found time to write, at the beginning of perestroika, but now things are more commercial. In those years, a friend actually walked to the dacha, sat down and wrote 30 short stories. A person could work, could complete their task.”

What if quarantine is a retreat, a period where we can be productive in a non-capitalist sense, to dream our lives in writing? And write and dream into a new way of living?

In the movie In the Name of the Father, a father and son imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit find themselves coping in different ways. The son escapes with drugs and then with vengeance. But the father relies on his faith and his imagination. At first, the son believes his father to be weak, but over the course of the film, he has a change of heart. In one particular scene, Giuseppe, the father, tells the son how he survives.

What if this time of isolation is a chance to go into the desert of the self, to wrestle with our own demons, and to re-emerge with a clearer sense of purpose?

Gerry says, “I don’t deserve to spend the rest of my life in here, do I?” Giuseppe replies, “All they done was block out the light.” He points to his head. “They can’t block out the light in here. Listen, every night… I take your mother’s hand in mine. We go out the front door, into Cyprus Street, down the Falls Road, up the Antrim Road… to Cave Hill. We look back down on poor, troubled Belfast. I’ve been doin’ that every night… for five years now. As if I never left your mother.”

This scene never fails to bring tears to my eyes. The strength it takes to contend with such circumstances is almost entirely internal, a discipline of the heart and the imagination. When I shared this story with my dad a couple nights ago, he shared the story that he learned while working with American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. One of the men, Bob Shumaker, was shot down and held captive for eight years. He survived by imagining the house he would build for his wife and baby when he got out. “For eight years and one day,” John Leland writes, “he built the house in his head brick by brick.”

What houses will we build in our heads? What projects will we make in this retreat of semi-quarantine?

The good news is that you can still go outside. What my Irish friend says, when things get too difficult, is that he goes to “have a little air,” to take a long walk until his mind calms. How much we need the weather, nature, to attune ourselves to the actual world outside of our overprogramed and increasingly digital brains. Unless you’re in toxic or dangerous neighborhoods, you’re bound to feel better after moving your body under the sky, whether it’s Cleveland gray or California blue.

Today, we walked along the shores of Lake Erie, and the buffeting wind and crashing surf drowned all our cares and fears away. My friend Hasanthika Sirisena sent me a quote from Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog,” a lyrical aside in a story that’s really about a narcissist who has a change of heart:

…the monotonous hollow roar of the sea came up to them, speaking of peace, of the eternal sleep lying in wait for us all. The sea had roared like this long before there was any Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring, just as indifferently and hollowly, when we had passed away. And it may be that in this continuity, this utter indifference to life and death, lies the secret of our ultimate salvation, of the stream of life on our planet, and of its never-ceasing movement towards perfection.

Chekhov’s vision is beautiful and a little terrifying—imagining a world in which we humans are not the center. Perhaps this virus reminds us that we are just a small part of this sublime mysterious planet.

IV.
Finally, we need to have moral courage, to risk moving outside of the familiar into the possible.  

Take courage. All this discomfort may be part of a tremendous growth—for each of us, and for us as an increasingly small globe.

What if this is the birth-pangs of a new world?

We may be called to new acts of courage, but we may not know what they are yet. We do know that we need to reach out, to communicate with our neighbors, friends, and family, those who are isolated or need help with their basic necessities. You can maintain good social distance and still act in solidarity and with love toward those who need help.

On the door outside the meditation room of many Zen monasteries, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, is an inscription: “do not squander your life.” It’s also okay to go inside, to come to home to yourself. Blaise Pascal once wrote that “all of humanity’s problems stem from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” Try ending that war.

As Paul Goodman invited activists in the last century: “Suppose you had the Revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted . . . how would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now.”

Be kind to yourself and others. Widen the circle of community.

Be curious, keep learning, and refuse the fear and hatred of the other.

Keep the embers of your spirit lit through the fire of the imagination and the oxygen of outside.

Hold each other up as we bear this new birth.

See you on the other side,

–Philip Metres

Philip Metres
Philip Metres
Philip Metres is the author of ten books, including Shrapnel Maps (2020), which concerns the predicament of Palestine/Israel, and has written about Gaza here. He is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow.





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