Community-Minded Action in a Global Crisis

Miniature people moving about around the façade of an old stone building. What significance does the building now hold?

What should we be doing right now? In this unprecedented, uncertain time, how can we wisely choose any course of action when none of us has lived through a similar situation before? The ongoing threat presented by the novel coronavirus strains governments and organizations, surely. But this threat also distorts our sense of self. Our individual responses to the current crisis cause us to lose — and redefine — who we are.

Inaction = Action

In a typical crisis situation (as though that concept should exist), we know what to do. When we see trouble, we work to fix it. We move to higher ground. We aim the extinguisher at the base of the flame. We evacuate the building. Our training and our experience have taught us that action solves problems.

But not so with a global pandemic. In this situation, doing nothing — staying home, being anti-social — saves lives, frees resources, and solves problems. In our desire to do something we confront the call, and in many places the government mandate, to do nothing. The instruction to stay home, to stay inside, to stay away from people runs counter to training and counter to instinct. We want to be helpful. We want to be brave. But medical professionals aside, the bravest, most helpful, most socially beneficial thing we can do right now feels every bit like cowering in fear.

A New Brave World

Cowering, of course, is no way to face or fend off a foe. We must be brave in the face of adversity. But the bravery we need right now is the kind that calls us to be self-sufficient, socially distant, and proactively wise. Separation seems our only weapon in this battle, and it hardly feels like something we can wield.

Truth is — and we occasionally must remind ourselves of this — we keep our distance out of respect for the warriors on the front lines. Those warriors are our neighbors, but we’ll never see them. Nurses and doctors, sequestered in the fortresses of containment zones and hospital wards.

The front lines of this battle deceive us, for they look utterly commonplace: our workplaces and the storefronts of our hometowns, the communal spaces in which we congregate, even our sanctuaries. These spaces, traditionally sources of joy and comfort, have turned into mine fields and now look more barren than battle-worn. Yet this is where our battles are fought. And yet the fighting happens at a distance, with little more in our armada than Purell and Lysol and hand soap. Hand soap is our greatest defense? Where’s my bat’leth?

Changing Our Perception

When we consider the challenges we face with the global pandemic, this is a fight of perception. We wage war against a thing too small to see, using social tools too large to manipulate and too distributed to conceptualize on an individual level. We struggle to place ourselves within our understanding of the situation, as we are simultaneously too big and too insignificant to fit anywhere meaningful. Our job, essentially, is to leave. To quit. And nobody feels like a winner when they quit.

This situation calls on us to see ourselves as small pieces of a larger organism — to think that our actions have consequences, but more akin to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings than to a boulder, say, dropped in a lake. Small (in)actions culminate in large-scale social benefit.

But seeing ourselves as members of a community rejects the American ideal of individualism. We, as a nation, don’t want to do things for the good of others. We do things for ourselves. Because liberty or something. This pandemic requires a rethinking of the individual’s role in society. We need to rethink the social role of the individual right as education feels more isolated than ever before.

Teaching Through the Transition

This leaves teachers in a bit of a pickle. We need to figure out how to teach students to be community citizens through a video conference. Society may be collapsing around us, but we must make community-building a central concern of our classes. We need to connect action with social good, and we need to redefine what action looks like.

How, in the shadow of a pandemic, do we build community in our courses? How can we help students picture themselves within a wider context? How do educators cultivate cooperative participation in a world of social distance and isolation?