How the humanities can connect us during a pandemic

Humans are no strangers to sudden outbreaks of deadly diseases. Yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, influenza, the list goes on.

In times of crisis, we naturally look for signs that suffering has meaning. No one wants to believe that they are condemned to suffer alone or indefinitely. Writers, artists, musicians, and philosophers have grappled with the problem of how to make meaning out of suffering since time immemorial.

In his classic article, The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, Eric Cassell describes the nature and causes of suffering in patients undergoing medical treatment. Yet these observations seem applicable not just to those hospitalized as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also those stuck at home or compelled to work in vital occupations that expose them to undue risks.

Instead of focusing only on physical ailments, Cassell points to the loss of ties to family and culture along with our relationships with others as sources of suffering. Even the loss of our daily commute to work – as difficult as that would have been to imagine two months ago – can be disruptive to our sense of purpose in life.

Perhaps one of the most stinging blows of the pandemic has been the loss of those rituals that mark important occasions. Communities form and are maintained through rituals that help us make meaning out of momentous events like birth, illness, and death.

Without funerals, we drift between grief and acceptance. Without commencement and other milestone-marking occasions, our efforts go unrecognized. When these losses accumulate, we begin to lose vital aspects of what makes us human. The fragility and precariousness of all of these taken for granted aspects of our lives have now been brought to our awareness.

Many pandemic reading lists now feature Albert Camus’s The Plague – and for good reason. As the fictional town of Oran is locked down and its citizens retreat home, the narrator observes the “feeling of exile – that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.” Most of us probably can relate to this feeling all too well, even before the pandemic.

Illness and social isolation often wipe away memories of one’s former life. The monotony of suffering takes away the sting of emotions, the weight of love, and the commonality of human experience.

In Oran, the plague weighted the psyche of the townspeople down with ennui and apathy. Plague victims and the community were forced to give up what made their lives their own by losing touch with the rhythms of everyday life. All of this may sound very familiar to 21st century ears.

Turning to authors like Camus may help with understanding our situation and imagining the suffering of others, but there is also a need to take in creative expressions unrelated to our current situation to remind us of what makes life worth living.

It’s no secret that these can be found in literature, music, and performing or visual arts. Though science informs the measures we take to protect ourselves and find a cure for this dreadful disease, the humanities give our lives meaning.

There is no single source that can help us all through this challenging time in history, no panacea for the pandemic. The cruelest stroke of the virus is that it alienates us from one another. With museums, libraries, and theaters closed, many of us are stuck with the resources at our immediate disposal.

But as time seems to slow to a crawl and we view the world from our bedroom windows, any humanist worth his salt would recommend turning inward, taking stock of the past, and reflecting on what can be done to find some meaning in all of this.

A colleague of mine brought a poem to my attention – Small Kindnesses by Danusha Laméris, one that we had read as a group not too long ago. One particular passage seems to speak to our present moment: “We have so little of each other, now. So far/from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange./. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy.”

The next time I’m at the grocery store, picking up some essential items from a masked and gloved stranger, I must remind myself to share the warmth of the moment as if we were gathered around a communal fire. And to dwell together in that moment for as long as it lasts.

-By Andrew Childress, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. Childress helps lead the Narrative Medicine Program and is a clinical ethicist at Houston Methodist Hospital and Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center.


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