Every time we speak to a friend, here or far away, we learn of things they are doing to fend off the virus that we are not doing, and don’t wish to do.
I gratefully abide by all of the directives I ‘ve been told to follow. But I am balking at some that go over a line in my soul and threaten to steal too much of my life and identity.
I will avoid people, wear a mask outdoors, stay inside for several weeks or longer, walk the dogs in isolation, wash my hands in industrial soap every time something comes near, or into my home.
The moral decisions and challenges that swirl around the coronavirus are enormous. We are asked almost daily to alter our ordinary lives, in effect to stop living, make choices that affect us and others, and accede to the whittling away of our lives.
We are called upon to make these changes and sacrifices for our sakes and for the greater good. Normally, these requests are made only in wartime, and we are being told every day that we are in a war.
And not to be dramatic about it, these decisions really are about life or death, mine or somebody else’s.
I’ve been poring through my moral bible, Hannah Arendt’s “Responsibility and Judgement,” the best guide I know to individual’s responsibility to do good.
It helps. And I’ve been thinking about who I wish to be and have been when this is over.
“There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done,” Arendt writes. “No one can be held liable for them. But there is no such thing as being or feeling guilty for things that happened without oneself actively participating in them.”
When we are all guilty, nobody is, she argues. Guilt always singles out the individual; it is strictly personal.
But the coronavirus is different in terms of my moral choices, it asks me to take responsibility for things I don’t do and also to feel guilty for things that have happened without my direct participation in them.
The college students who defiantly partied on the beaches of Florida while people all over the country were dying or being begged and warned to stay inside, were widely condemned as selfish and immoral.
The students were not only putting their health at risk, they also risked spreading this virus to everyone they met or saw back home, including their friends, parents, and grandparents.
Many of them told reporters they knew it was potentially dangerous to go on Spring Break, they just didn’t care. More instruction about moral choices might be a good idea. And where, I wonder, were their parents, many of them footing the bill.
To me, there is no grey there, only black and white. But there are plenty of greys all around the coronavirus.
I won’t be around groups of people or stand close to them. This is not only because I might get sick, but because they might get sick from me—very few Pandemics since the plague that challenged us in that way.
I stand well apart from the few people I do talk to in person. I buy only what I need. I don’t disinfect cereal boxes.
How do we make choices like this?
How can I do the right thing without merely acceding to the dramatic and the obsessively fearful? – a friend of ours spends five or six hours wiping down every package and box of food from the grocery when she brings the food home.
No respectable doctor or health official recommends doing that or feels it is necessary. They often say, well it can’t hurt, or it’s okay out of an abundance of caution. Is that really enough to shrink my life so completely that I feel like a wimpy Ant-Man some days?
We are asked to wear coverings on our faces.
Still, we are not told to wear coverings (I am determined to stay inside unless it is essential, I abide by that directive. President Trump went out of his way to say he wouldn’t wear a mask, giving doubtful people an easy out.)
I draw a line between what I am told to do and what some anxious friend or earnest health official suggests I might do, in the name of prudence, not scientific fact.
I consider it a moral obligation to respect Maria’s fears about my safety and about her losing me.
It is tempting sometimes to some men – and to me – to belittle or dismiss these fears as extreme or unwarranted. That is immoral, and I don’t do it anymore. It is disrespectful.
I might balk or complain, but I feel a responsibility not to add to my wife’s anxiety or peace of mind. We, also, are in this together.
We talk out our differences, and she gets the final say.
If she says I can’t do it, or that it worries her, I don’t. I don’t consider this an abrogation of my responsibility – I am responsible for my health and welfare – I believe this to be the very essence of responsibility.
Maria doesn’t wish to be my keeper; she wants to live with me and keep our life together. So do I.
Once or twice, we have disagreed, and I made my own choice.
I relate in many ways to President Trump’s eagerness to get people to return to normal life. Lots of people who have caught the virus are suffering in awful ways.
I also identify with my governor, Andrew Cuomo, and his argument that to save many lives from this Pandemic, we must radically restrict our own. I’m not sure there is a simple resolution to those differences.
I do believe we all have a moral responsibility to one another to provide comfort and safety to those in distress. None of us live alone in this world.
The virus is a perfect storm for anxious and restless people asked to abandon their lives for days, weeks, even months, without anything to do and much to fear. That’s one of the best ways I’ve ever heard of to get crazy quickly.
We receive a constant stream of directives, requests, warnings, and guidelines, many of them increasingly reflecting our polarizing country, not our unity of purpose. And many of them change.
There is a visible and ever more public struggle between our President and the scientists, health officials, and doctors.
They seem to have different views about how dangerous this virus is, or how long we need to cancel normal life, and precisely what we can and should do to protect ourselves and our neighbors, family, and friends.
Many wonder about the havoc wreaked on our economy and family life isolation and business shutdown goes on for too long. Balancing the two would knock Socrates out.
What I relate to about Governor Cuomo’s briefings is that he doesn’t rationalize or prevaricate: he tells me clearly what he wants me to do and why I should do it. If essential, it’s an order, not a request. That takes equivocating and bloviating out of my hands.
So I do what he says.
More and more, these moral decisions are being left up to us, the targets of this oddly moral virus. To some degree, that is welcome. In another sense, it is dangerous, even lethal.
Another friend who lives in San Francisco leaves all of his Amazon, UPS, USPS, and FedEx packages outside for 24 hours in case the virus is living in the cardboard for a short time, as it is rumored to do. He’s not sure where he heard this, or if it’s true, but just in case, he said, he’s doing it.
That is not a directive from scientists, health officials, or doctors (there is no accepted evidence that this is necessary or effective. The CDC instead recommends washing with soap after packages are opened), but it has become a common practice for people trying to cover every possible way for the virus to not come into their homes.
Police report that this makes package thieves very happy.
Sometimes, it seems to me that people at home who are given to anxiety – I was diagnosed as being mentally ill because of my anxiety – are obsessing on every possible way to disinfect anything that people might touch or breathe anything outside of their homes.
There is no end to it.
It seems clear to me that this is a futile effort, a way to surrender more of life than is required or healthy or necessary. This is where I am starting to draw the line. I can be smart; I can not be 100 percent safe.
It would really make me bonkers to try to disinfect every package or product or food that comes to me from anywhere in world, through the hands and trucks and lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people I can’t see and will never know.
I measure how much time I want to spend fending off this virus, it can not and should not take up my whole life or be the driving force behind it. There are, in fact, some things worse than death for me.
Having no experience outside of the virus would be one of them. I want to keep a chunk of my life alive.
It takes a powerful and grounded person to stay steady and clear during this confusing and sometimes terrifying Pandemic, bearing down towards us like molten lava pouring out of a volcano.
The news, pouring in on our day and night, is often horrifying and discouraging.
Social media is a festering sore of panic, misinformation, gossip, and rumor. Amateur shrinks and gurus and doctors thrive there, feeding off everybody’s fears. I see them as our modern digital vampires.
I have no moral qualms about staying inside, avoiding people, washing my hands repeatedly. It is for my benefit and the benefit of others.
I do not spend hours, even minutes wiping down every grocery item with disinfectant. Nor will I leave packages outside overnight (unless Dr. Fauci tells me I must).
Aside from everything else, the bears would love our boxes from Chewy.com.
My daughter lives in Brooklyn, and I have friends in Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Most of them live in rental apartments where it would be impossible to leave packages out.
None of them give it a thought, and no one has raised the alarm about it, and nobody thinks these packages have harmed any of the people receiving them, which is everybody, every day.
I don’t tell other people what to do, and I don’t judge other people for responding differently than I do.
I want to be both ethical and moral, and compassionate. I want to be a helper, not the helped. And I don’t ever want to inject myself into the lives of other people struggling with their own decisions.
I am 72 years old and not at all eager to die, but at the same time, I want to retain as much of my life as I can, I don’t wish to live without any consciousness of my own. That can be a fine line to walk, and there are lots of ways for people to die.
I think often of T.S. Eliot’ “Hollow Men.” Spending the day cleaning my grocery packages sends some chills down my spine, it doesn’t get too much hollower than that for me.
For me, staying away from Jean’s Place is a moral issue, I’m abandoning my moral obligation. I choose the people I try to help carefully because if I don’t care about them, I can’t write well about them.
I often come to love them.
Pictures and stories from my blog have helped Kelsie and her family weather the forced closing of their restaurant. They are my friends, and they need me. I am not their savior, but I can help.
Abandoning them ultimately would seem a betrayal for me. But I no longer go there every day, sometimes Maria drives me there and she goes in to get the food, and I might every now and then go in with a mask and get my sandwich and photo and get out.
On my last regular visit to Jean’s – this was a very hard moment for me – Kelsie and I agreed to do a selfie together. This remembrance was important to both of us. It only took a few minutes for Dorothy to post this message on my blog:
“Dear Jon, Kelsey is not safe with no mask, and she should not be that close. You chose to model safe and healthy behavior by wearing a mask, and that’s admirable. But incorporated into your advertisement for healthy behavior, you have included a person with no mask, appearing right over your shoulder, and she has no gloves on.”
I wrote back to Dorothy and told her that I don’t dispense medical advice to people, and I don’t tell others what to do. There is nothing “admirable” about wearing a mask.
Kelsie was well behind me (I didn’t measure the distance), and she is well aware of my safety, and she is a big girl who must make her own decisions in life, as I make mine.
Beyond that, there is no state, local, or federal directive requiring me or anybody else to wear a mask. I wear it out of an abundance of caution, a term I respect but dislike. Why should Kelsie be forced to wear something even the President has chosen not to wear? And is it anyone’s business to make moral decisions for Kelsie and me from afar.
That would be another horrific legacy of the coronavirus.
I think we often speak of morality in metaphorical terms – we are guilty for the sins of our fathers, for crimes we have not committed, we believe we will pay for our mistakes, doing good is its own reward.
These expressions of guilt, bad conscience, and confessions of wrongdoing and frequently hypocritical handwringing, play an enormous role in our legal system and moral judgments of one another.
That’s why Dorothy feels entirely free to tell Kelsie and me what she thinks we should do, not even what we are being ordered to do.
She doesn’t need to be asked or accountable.
Hannah Arent writes, “it may be wise to refrain from such metaphorical statements, which, when taken literally, can only lead into a phony sentimentality in which all real issues are obscured.”
Amen to that.
I don’t have this virus and will work hard not to get it or pass it on. Many people are giving their lives for it.
In a very different sense, I sometimes feel I’m fighting for mine.