Loneliness, isolation, social distancing. Our lives have been disrupted in ways we could not have imagined just a few weeks ago. While we know that now is not the time to leave our homes or relax our commitment to social distancing, now is the time to think about our lives after the pandemic ends. What will we have learned?
I am dubious of attempts to explain the particularities of anyone’s sorrow or the reasons for the more general suffering visited upon humanity in times of war, famine, natural disasters or pandemics. But amid the suffering, it is important to try to learn what the experience has taught us about ourselves and the world in which we live.
While nobody welcomes what we are going through, we have an opportunity to find meaning and purpose amid our collective suffering. In fact, suffering lays bare those things that infuse our lives with purpose in contrast to those things, while costly in time, energy, and money, that offer little in the way of enduring happiness and meaning.
I remember when my oldest brother, Tommy, spoke about the moment he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurological disease that took his life three years later. In a flash of light, he said those things that mattered versus those things that did not were separated as clearly as life and death itself. What mattered, of course, were the thousands of people who had touched his life in ways both big and small. What didn’t? Well, you probably can guess.
Thirty years ago, when I left the practice of law to pursue a career in education, I did so because of my interest in how we form communities amid times of alienation, polarization, isolation and loneliness. As a historian, I examined how American communities during the Progressive Era tried to create bonds of human affection in the wake of the social fragmentation caused by the massive immigration, industrialization, urbanization and inequality of the Gilded Age. It has not been lost on me that the centrifugal forces of that time are comparable to the social, economic and political polarization of our day.
My hope is that we come out of this crisis with a better understanding of how meaning and purpose grow in direct proportion to how much we invest in other people’s lives, in how much we contribute to what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “Beloved Community” — a community built on the values of justice, equal opportunity and love for one’s fellow human beings.
As the president of the University of Mary Washington, I am grateful to have the opportunity to lead an institution whose mission is to prepare students to fully engage in such a community. It is not by accident that the first pillar of UMW’s vision, An Investment of Hope for the Future, is to promote the values of service, community and civic engagement. This is our public purpose — to make connections, to build the communities that give our lives meaning by doing what is necessary to take care of one another.
Americans have increasingly become isolated from one another over the past 50 years. Almost without noticing, during a time of relative prosperity, we have separated ourselves from the struggles of so many in our communities. This has resulted in a general detachment from the social problems that have caused many to slip into lives of despair. When we do not take the time to make a connection with those in need, we fail to ask ourselves important moral questions: Given my role, how am I to behave? What is my responsibility to others? How am I to treat the least among us?
The uneven distribution of suffering amid the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the high price we have paid for this breakdown in community.
While it is too early to assess all of the data about those who have fallen ill or lost their lives during this public health crisis, it seems clear that when the dust settles, the burden of this pandemic will have disproportionately fallen onto the poor. The suffering of these individuals is a mere abstraction when we do not have the time or means to connect with them and their experience.
This is why service is a fundamentally important part of my institution’s educational mission. Service is not a one-off, feel good, extracurricular activity that gives us an opportunity to brag about our big-hearted students. Service is what causes our students to confront those big moral, ethical and contestable questions that are so fundamental to a liberal arts education, such as: What are the sacrifices we must make to contribute to the common good, and to live a good and decent life?
It is through service that our students gain a better understanding of the benefits and the burdens we share, as well as the sacrifices we must make for one another if we are to live in community. Quite frequently, our students discover that the more they give, the more they invest in other people’s lives and the more they receive in return.
My hope is that our sacrifice in the name of social distancing, paradoxically, spurs a revival of community and an awareness of our shared responsibilities to one another.