The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis of health, and also of meaning. Some of the most fundamental structures of society, including our schools, governments and healthcare systems, are threatened. Much will depend not only on how we respond to this virus scientifically, but also on how we as a society respond.
As physicians and public health professionals, as witnesses to suffering and as human beings, we at the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics find ourselves asking deep, indefinite questions. What is the meaning of all this suffering, we wonder. How will we survive, and whom will we become?
Historically, these questions have been central to intellectual movements, including Renaissance Humanism, postmodernism, and wisdom traditions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Historical thinkers have asked our questions succinctly. Suffering on the cross in the Middle East, Jesus Christ called out, “My God my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 1300 years later, in Italy, early humanist Francisco Petrarch saw his friends and family die of plague and his community ravaged. He was moved to ask why the judgment of God “lies so heavily on our times,” and his quest for an answer sparked a rebirth in Europe lasting hundreds of years. During World War 2, intellectuals such as TS Eliot, Martin Buber, CS Lewis and WH Auden worked not only to find meaning, but also to preserve the values of dignity, compassion and fellow-feeling for whatever world emerged after the War.
At the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics, our hope is to continue our work with an eye not only on surviving this pandemic, but also on preserving the community values of human dignity, healing, compassion and justice that give light to a meaningful life. Our times are plague times, and we fear the rise of despotism and darkness. But also, we see the possibility of a Renaissance. Like poet WH Auden, we hope to “show an affirming flame.”
Happily, the tools we have at our disposal are powerful ones. The Humanities—intellectual disciplines such as literature, history, philosophy and rhetoric—have been developed over thousands of years specifically to address questions of meaning. We at the Center are skilled in using the humanities, as well as tools from the complementary disciplines of public health, medicine, mindfulness, nursing and bioethics, to address the questions that arise in healthcare and society. Our gaze has always been dual: we look into ourselves and into our community of physicians and medical students, as well as outward to the larger society we serve.
It is our great privilege to invite the public to join our community of intellectuals and healers as we launch a new endeavor: Pan-pals. These twice-weekly online discussions will bring our faculty, as well as allied thinkers, into conversation with the moral questions that trouble the public today. How are we to allocate limited health resources? How can we be of service to others in a time of physical distancing? How do we preserve family, friendship, and the social fabric that we all rely on to survive? Who will we become? Please join the conversation, and the commit to the work of preserving our shared values through this time of crisis.