The Virus Is Our Teacher

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

By Robert C. Koehler

Last Sunday at 11 a.m. I went for a walk. Even if it’s nothing special, a walk isn’t a normal thing to do these days. But this brief walk — around the block, consuming maybe ten minutes of my time — had a transcendent dimension to it that continues to awe me, and I’m going to do it again.

It was a prayer walk: my response to Marianne Williamson’s call for two minutes of global prayer on that day, set for 4 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time and meant to include the whole world.

When I heard about it, I decided: Why not? “It is a global prayer, held in the silence of our own hearts . . .” And stepping outside seemed appropriate. There was a bitterness to the weather, but I put my hand against my heart and started walking and I found myself actually loving the cold wind as it scraped my face. This moment was brand new, unlike any other. I continued to hold my hand on my heart as I walked and breathed. I let loose, cautiously at first, a sense of hope and caring as I stared in wonder at this utterly familiar, yet unfamiliar, piece of Planet Earth I was traversing. The hope and caring swelled.

And then I was back at my house.

That’s it. Nothing more came of it. The news didn’t change much. Or did it? The next day U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called on the countries of the world to declare a ceasefire: “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said. “That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

And somehow a statement like this makes more sense than it ever has in my lifetime — it seems, at long last, to transcend wishful thinking. The coronavirus: our salvation? It is wrenching us loose from our certainties.

If nothing else, this looming pandemic makes the simplest aspects of life resonate like never before, and the sense of global connectedness that is emerging out of our sudden social lockdown used to be merely a vague suggestion. Now it’s an actual fact.

Can lasting good come out of this situation? You know . . . a commitment at every level to recreate civilization, to transcend the simplistic and stupid myths that drive humanity, especially at its collective — corporate and national — levels? Will we begin, for instance, looking at the parallels between the coronavirus and climate change?

“The virus has shown that if you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it,” journalist Beth Gardiner writes at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies website. She quotes climate economist Gernot Wagner: “COVID-19 is climate on warp speed.”

And Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, wrote recently at Time: “In fact, I believe the last few weeks, as terrible as they have been for so many people, have taught us crucial lessons that we needed to learn in order to enter a new era of radical, collaborative action to cut emissions and slow climate change.”

The lessons of these last few weeks, she writes, include: 1. “Global challenges have no national borders.” 2. “As a society, we’re only as safe as our most vulnerable people.” 3. “Global challenges require systemic changes — changes that can only be activated by government or companies. But they also require individual behavioral changes. We need both.” 4. “Prevention is better than cure.” 5. “All our response measures need to be based on science.”

I pause at lesson no. 1: Global challenges have no borders. So much human wealth and certainty have been invested over the millennia in not knowing this. Is it that the world has simply been too big to grasp in its wholeness? I think the reality is far more problematic: We need enemies! We need an “other.” This is how we have created nations and why we have endless wars. So my pause here is the same pause I took with me on my prayer walk: That which is broken will heal. The coronavirus looms frightfully, but also with unmistakable clarity. The border is a farce, despite the billions of dollars the U.S. invests in its maintenance (and despite the nearly 40,000 detainees still held in custody by ICE).

And it occurs to me suddenly that the lessons Figueres cites aren’t merely lessons, but values at the core of being human, around which we should organize ourselves. Consider lesson no. 2: We’re only as safe as the most vulnerable among us. Another way to put this is that we are all vulnerable! And self-protection means doing what we can to protect — and understand — everyone.

“I hope,” Figueres writes, “that the shock of this pandemic will jolt people out of their desire to ignore global issues like climate change. I hope our growing sense of urgency, of solidarity, of stubborn optimism and empowerment to take action, can be one thing that rises out of this terrible situation. Because while we will, eventually, return to normal after this pandemic, the climate that we know as normal is never coming back.”

Nor, let us hope, is the consciousness we know as “normal” coming back. To be normal means to be taken for granted. Healing means growing into a larger awareness of what’s right in front of us, such as that we are one. Rather than needing an “other,” we need one another:

Here, for instance, are the last lines of a poem (in translation) my friend Jan Slakov recently sent me, by Italian poet Mariangela Gualtieri, called “March the Ninth Twenty Twenty”:

… To that grasp of a palm
in another person’s palm
to that simple act that we are now forbidden —
we will return with expanded awareness.
We’ll be here, more attentive, I think. Our hand
will be more delicate in the doing of life.
Now that we know how sad it is
to stand one meter apart.

Even now, palms can grasp palms, at least in spirit, across the borders that we can see, at last, are not real.