An Ethical Culture Perspective on COVID-19

I AM WRITING from a place of privilege, both literally and figuratively. My pandemic shelter-in-place is a four-story brownstone townhouse in Brooklyn, New York, where, from my workplace at my bedroom desk, I can look out the window onto my garden, where spring has sprung in the budding of rose and azalea bushes. Over the sound of the children next door bouncing on their trampoline, I can hear the siren of yet another ambulance on its way to or from the hospital on the next block. Another block away is Prospect Park, where I walk whenever the sun comes out and whose playgrounds have now been closed to enforce social distancing.

“Social distancing” is a term, like “shelter in place” and “flattening the curve,” that we’ve had to learn and practice since this new coronavirus started using us humans as its hosts. None of us is immune; in that, it’s a great equalizer. And yet its impact upon us is far from equal. The New York Times is still tossed to the top of my stoop every morning, mail is delivered, and the trash is picked up. I’ve gone shopping and had food delivered. My husband and son are able to work from home so I enjoy their company, and we have income. Although my daughter lives in Washington, DC, thanks to the phone and internet we stay in close contact. Others are not nearly so fortunate.

Consider the risk those in what are deemed essential jobs take every day. “They just take their courage in their hands. They put on their garb and they show up. That’s what they do,” Dr. Sylvie de Souza from the Brooklyn Hospital Center says of her team. “Of course, they have anxiety, of course they have fear, they’re human. None of us knows where this is taking us. We don’t even know if we might get sick. But none of them so far has defaulted on their duty, their calling.”

There’s another kind of courage—seeking truth from power, as PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor has done when asking questions of President Donald Trump, only to be berated by him. “The reason why I became a journalist,” she has said, “is because Emmett Till, this fourteen-year-old boy in Mississippi, was killed. … I am at heart a civil rights journalist. And I’m at my heart someone who is constantly thinking: We don’t have time for foolishness. We don’t have time for sideshows. The reason why I’m a reporter is because I really believe vulnerable people in this country don’t have a voice.”

Vulnerable homeless people in Las Vegas, Nevada, are forced to sleep on the pavement of a parking lot when there are empty rooms in nearby hotels. Children without computers or access to the internet are unable to keep up with their classwork. Victims of domestic abuse cannot escape.

Amid all the evidence of our coming together in this crisis—checking in with friends and neighbors, supporting local businesses, sharing online resources, etc.—our differences have become all the more stark. As Paul Krugman recently wrote, “Epidemiologists trying to get a handle on the coronavirus threat appear to have been caught off guard by the immediate politicization of their work, the claims that they were perpetrating a hoax designed to hurt Trump, or promote socialism, or something. But they should have expected that reaction, since climate scientists have faced the same accusations for years.”

So, what is a humanist to do?

My brand of humanism is Ethical Culture, a nontheistic religion of ethics founded in 1876 by Felix Adler, and I’ve been asking myself what my faith in the human potential for goodness requires of me. I think it begins with toning down the anger to which I’ve given free rein on my Facebook timeline. It isn’t serving me well. One of my friends expressed concern about my posts, and I was angry with her for suggesting that I was stressed out. After recognizing that she was right and apologizing to her, I checked in with the students I advise at Columbia University in my role as ethical humanist religious life adviser. They formed a group called Mindful Columbia and have stayed connected via social media after having to leave campus. I took a deep cleansing breath with them and reclaimed my best self, choosing to attribute worth and dignity to every human being. Then I set about doing what I could from home, because staying home is what I must do here in the epicenter of COVID-19.

“I’ve been asking myself what my faith in the human potential for goodness requires of me.”

I am also the humanist chaplain at New York University, providing pastoral counseling to students, and I work with the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture (where my husband and I were married and raised our children) as well as the American Ethical Union providing care and programming to members. The social distancing required of us is physical; we’re all finding creative ways to virtually interact because we humans are social beings and must stay connected to survive and thrive. It’s a mighty struggle to fulfill our communal mission and reassure members that they’re not alone.

No doubt, many of us are reading more (not just doomsday stories, I hope), binge-watching shows (I recommend Unorthodox on Netflix.), and listening to or playing music. This can be a time of quiet reflection and playful diversion. It’s also a time of lamentation: grief for those who are suffering and dying, as well as what a young colleague called mourning his future. This pandemic will last weeks and months, only to be followed by another because that is the nature of nature. Viruses will continue to adapt and evolve. Let us learn every lesson we can and vow to do and be better.

Humanism has much to offer the world. It has always stood for intellectual and scientific integrity. We must also stand for moral clarity and what Adler called “ethicizing relationships.” Now is not the time for righteous indignation, as satisfying as that can feel; it’s a time for emphasizing the human in humanism and treating one another with compassion. Life has always been uncertain, and the uncertainty of this pandemic has fueled an existential angst. Crises can also be opportunities for clarifying our values and committing ourselves to acting more ethically.

In closing, here are some suggestions: stay home unless your work is essential and must be conducted elsewhere; support local businesses and shop responsibly (don’t hoard!); ask friends and neighbors in need how you can help them (don’t assume); check in with extroverts; donate blood to your local hospital; seek and share reliable facts only; find and share ethical role models (and be one yourself); google the phrase “COVID-19 donations and volunteer opportunities near me” to find out what’s needed in your neighborhood; and, finally, take a deep cleansing breath to connect with your innermost self and treat it with kindness.

Read more articles in our Philosophy in the Time of Pandemic series.

Published in the May / June 2020 Humanist