“Who are you?” and “What do you value?” These are basic questions that come up in conversations about ethics and civics. In Jesuit tradition, which is relevant to a good number of colleges and universities, we might add, “Whose are you?” or “For whom are you?”
Self- and organizational awareness requires us to ask these questions, especially in times of distress. We cannot truly answer them without deep reflection. Recently, I wrote a piece where I highlighted the importance of this awareness, through embodiment and identity. I offered that attentiveness concerning the multiple aspects of our being, such as bodily realities as basic as high blood pressure, might be more tangible than the illusory paradigm of work-life balance and therefore more catalytic to thriving.
The realities of our present global condition heighten my thinking on this topic. If knowing who I am and what I value are key to my ethics, then understanding you and what you value are essential to providing support.
Servant leadership is a ubiquitous notion, but to serve you is to understand and bear some of what weighs on you, the “weight” (svaras) as a probable root of the Latin servare. (Think of the German adjective schwer, meaning “hard” or “difficult.”) To serve those to whom we belong well, attentiveness and affinity are key. Affinity and awareness amount to a form of love. Serving well is love in the time of COVID-19, and I offer these three steps to consider.
Step 1: Know Thyself. “Who am I?” impacts every aspect of how a person functions in the world. During this intensified time of the novel coronavirus pandemic, one could conduct a study of the link between biography and mindset simply by lining up opinions from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other national and international newspapers. Some snub identity politics, but identity is evident in every proposed policy and response to COVID-19. Wealth, poverty, gender, geographic location, profession, and many other markers of identity inform perspectives. As Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah opined, there are certainly pitfalls to speaking “as a ____.” If I speak exclusively and exhaustively “as a _____,” people begin to elide the instances and degrees to which I might stand apart from ______. These expectations are, in fact, stereotypes.
Notwithstanding the pitfalls of identity, however, recognizing the advantages and limitations of one’s selfhood is essential to how one relates to others. While I might not speak exclusively or exhaustively as a Black man — and it might be presumptuous (and dangerous) to pretend to do so — embodied experiences and identities are starting points for how we enter any conversation involving other human beings.
Knowing oneself (one’s ethics) influences how one engages with others (one’s civics). We bring all of ourselves to every interaction, notwithstanding the illusion that the suit and tie that I wear can cover decades of formation. Understanding this helps us to know what we value, how we express those values, and how we might bring them to bear, in the main.
Our formation, unfortunately, also leads to certain blind spots. Thus, for those invested in more than themselves, knowing ourselves ultimately leads to curiosity about others, and interconnection, and so step 2.
Step 2: Know What Others Value. During these times of widespread social distancing, stay-in-place orders, and online classes and meetings, it has been especially important — and humbling — for leadership to understand the limits of our individual perspectives. For example, the difference in having or not having children or parents at home in one’s care impacts the Zoom meetings, incessant texting, and heightened expectations to connect. People are anxious. Children are at home. Parents are in our care or at distance, each situation bringing different stressors.
Hearing from faculty members and other employees about how they are experiencing COVID-19 has been a significant step at the University of Richmond. Encouraging students, moreover, to share their perspectives about online learning, room and board, and lost wages has led to better practices and policies. In all of these cases, decisions have to be made, and there will always be disappointments with imperfect outcomes. That said, perhaps the heightened level of consultation during this period means that people at least feel heard when decisions are made. Some of their burden, their weight, is lifted. We must continue this heightened state of awareness, at least to some degree, once we are through the current crisis.
For such continuity to occur, the third step is to rise to our better nature and show our love.
Step 3: Show Your Love. Our current physical distance is misleading because we are truly in an interconnected world. The other day, I asked a cashier at Walgreens how she was doing, wondering what work has been like for her. “It’s been interesting,” she said. “I’ve see the best and the worst in people.” She sounded like the Greek historian Thucydides, who used the 5th c. BCE plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War as a kind of stress test, often asserting that ‘human nature being what it is, these things will happen again.’
Thucydides might have been a bit more pessimistic than the Walgreens cashier, and I tend to side with her. These times show how loving and generous humans can be. Viral moments such as Debbie Allen’s Instagram dance class or #ClubQuarantine, DJ Nice’s spontaneous Twitter party, show us how we can “keep dancing” in trying times, as my pastor Michael Lomax put it.
Evidence of this better nature is everywhere. At the University of Richmond, a March faculty meeting in the School of Arts & Sciences that might have usually been attended by 30-40 people drew 120 on Zoom. A virtual town hall the following week drew 90 attendees, whom we organized into five different chat rooms on timely topics.
As human beings, ‘social animals’ as the Roman philosopher Seneca puts it, adapting Aristotle’s ‘political animals,’ our minds dance when we are truly together.
Dr. Patrice Rankine is the dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and professor of classics at the University of Richmond.