What’s good or what’s bad are a bit confused right now.
“I need to be working!” says a friend, who has never stopped working a day in nearly nine decades.
I reply, “It’s the first time in your life that the right thing to do is to do nothing, isn’t it?”
In the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic, the ethical thing to do is challenging. We feel guilty not engaging in the world to do good in ways we are accustomed to. Yet we listen to experts and stay-at-home orders for ourselves, or our families if we are essential workers, in order that we don’t endanger others’ lives. Our society is leaning, for good reason in this extraordinary moment, toward a utilitarian ethic of suspending individual rights for the greater good. Yet, in “normal” times we lean the opposite direction for good reason – toward a rights-based ethic of individual freedom for all.
You may know the story from Taoist origins of “The Farmer Whose Horse Ran Away.” Huston Smith tells it this way in his book “World Religions.”
On hearing of the misfortune, the farmer’s neighbor arrived to commiserate, but all he got from the farmer was, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” This proved to be true, for the next day the horse returned, bringing with it a drove of wild horses in its train. This time the neighbor arrived with congratulations, only to receive the same response. This too was so, for the next day the farmer’s son tried to mount one of the wild horses and broke a leg. More commiserations from the neighbor, with the same response, which was again validated, for the soldiers soon came around commandeering for the army, and the son was spared because of his injury.
What is good and what is bad? From the fields of neuroscience and psychology, we learn that our brains make those judgments quickly all the time, and tend to dwell on the negative. Many say this is because we are wired purely for survival, and those who study infants tell us that as early as age 1 a child reacts more strongly to negative stimuli than positive. They also note that in a healthy environment, even before age 1, a child first experiences the positives: love, safety and care. So perhaps the reason, when five things happen and we tend to remember the negative one, is because we are used to the good – used to the mundane of basic care and safety, and when danger or “bad” things occur, they startle us.
So, in the midst of this startling moment in history, do notice if your mind drifts toward the negative and you experience fear for your future, or grief from loss of plans, security, companionship, or mobility. Allow yourself to feel the bad along with the good. Grieving and experiencing depression or anger or anxiety are essential in the process of healing from the crisis of loss – and this is one crisis we have never faced before.
And do find ways to balance it out and experience the good – reach out to a friend or neighbor when isolation closes in. If you catch yourself feeling inessential, give to someone else, whether monetarily or doing errands or having a phone conversation. Or if you are overwhelmed by your responsibilities or having difficulty finding balance on your own, seek online professional help. My colleague Jay Kumar, Director of Contemplative Practice and Well-being at the Fish Interfaith Center, encourages people to start a gratitude journal or put notes around their home reminding themselves of things they are grateful for right now, today. When you see these notes throughout the day – pause and remember. Allow yourself to just be at times, or seek a pastime that brings you satisfaction.
Humans do deserve basic rights, and when they’re missing we notice. Individually we are grappling with daily ups and downs, and as a society, we’re noticing something else anew: that to be loved and safe from abuse, to work for a living wage, to know freedom and respect as a human being regardless of sex or race or religion, are not experienced as daily rights for everyone all the time. For particular populations of our society, they never have been – and many people in those segments are being hit the hardest by the pandemic today.
I propose adopting an Ethic of Appreciation. Rather than shifting from one ethical system to its opposite, embracing an ethic where in a new way, we learn to appreciate loss, and to appreciate love across the miles. Where we appreciate savoring solitude, and the experience of feeling trapped. Where we appreciate that living in too close of quarters is filled with love, and with frustration.
To be honest, right now, I look forward to a time where we just assume basic rights and have the luxury to go around complaining about what’s going badly. Until that day comes, we can continue to work for a world where every human being can live with freedom and respect. And when some of us do, once again, get to take good things in our lives for granted, this time, we won’t. Not so much. Because we learned a lot. We learned to appreciate both the bad and the good, both loneliness and love.