Personal essays from faculty about their experiences during COVID-19.
Associate Professor, Educational Leadership & Higher Education, Lynch School of Education and Human Development
“Students have appreciated opportunities to reflect on their own current experiences and connect with classmates in paired or small group discussions.”
Relevance and Connection
By Karen Arnold
I have done several things in my online synchronous class on college-student development theory to attend to my students as whole people. These include my usual practice of using poetry as a transition from class announcements to the topic of the day. I also use topical cartoons in some of the (few) slides I shared during the online meeting. At the beginning of every class, I remind students that I come online ten minutes early and stay online after the class to talk. I greet everyone individually as they enter the Zoom meeting. I let students know that I am available to join them in a private breakout room for a individual post-class conversation.
I have found various ways to check in with my class members during the synchronous class sessions. For the first remote class, I have everyone share a story about an experience in their education so far that they feel has been a positive influence on their own development. It seems very important to have everyone speak in a virtual format and to acknowledge our collective and individual situations as we constitute our community online. The sharing is very moving. I've since had students do quick check-ins with varied prompts and response tools like the chat function and the Zoom white board (complete with hearts and stars that students found in the annotate function).
In the third week of remote meetings, I used instant polling to have students create a word cloud from their pandemic era superpower(s). I urged students to consider the qualities in themselves that were helpful or sustaining right now. I modeled the task with my own examples: adaptability, Zooming, and downloading library e-books. I wrote and shared a haiku about the exercise:
Let’s make a word cloud
That which sustains you
In another session, I connected the topic of the session, narrative identity theory, to the COVID -19 crisis. According to the idea of narrative identity, we all compose a coherent story from the stuff of our lives and then live by that story. Crucially, we can edit and shape our stories to live with more purpose and meaning. During the class, I put students into Zoom breakout rooms in pairs and asked them to talk together about how they were fitting the COVID -19 experience into their self-story, how to help students do so, and what different narrative forms might mean for current and future well-being. This Spring, I did a similar exercise asynchronously using VoiceThread and having students respond to each other’s recordings. Students loved the chance to make meaning out of their pandemic experience and they engaged deeply with narrative theory concepts. I wrote a second haiku about this exercise:
Edit your story
adding in COVID -19
Plenty to work with
Students have appreciated opportunities to reflect on their own current experiences and connect with classmates in paired or small group discussions. Designing reflection opportunities using tools like breakout rooms, polls everywhere, VoiceThread, and collaborative Google Drive slide editing has been time-consuming but creatively rewarding.
Associate Professor, School of Theology and Ministry
“Our commitment to formative education demands that we reflect on how our experience of the pandemic has affected our understanding of course topics. ”
By Andrew Davis
This semester’s shift to the virtual classroom has reminded me of an important lesson: education is most formative when professors and students are partners in learning. Formative education means integrating text and context, making connections between course content and the larger world in which we live and work. Both have been radically transformed this spring, as courses moved to online platforms and the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
Though bumpy at times, the move online was, in hindsight, the easy part. The harder part was rethinking what course material means in light of the pandemic. How does our new context force us to read course texts in new ways? It might be tempting to ignore this context and push through lectures and readings like any other semester. But this spring was not like any other semester, and our commitment to formative education demands that we reflect on how our experience of the pandemic has affected our understanding of course topics.
I was fortunate that both of my courses this semester—one on the Book of Job, and the other on the biblical prophets—have something to say about unexpected disruption, hardship, and suffering. I have been intrigued and moved at the connections students have made to the turmoil taking place outside our virtual classroom. Several students in the Prophets course redesigned their class presentations to take this new normal into account, and some students in the Job course asked for permission to adapt their final course paper to allow more reflection on the meaning of Job in the midst of a pandemic. One student wrote a paper comparing the Book of Job to Albert Camus’s The Plague.
I wish I could say these adaptations were a function of my teaching, but most of the credit goes to the students themselves. They have been committed to bringing their pandemic lives to bear on their coursework and vice versa. This experience has reminded me that if we want students’ education to be formative in their lives after they graduate, it must be formative in their lives while they’re in our classrooms. As often as we professors invite students to be partners in their own learning, we prepare them to continue that work after they graduate, and in the process we ourselves may be transformed—as I have been by my students this semester.
Professor, Lynch School of Education
“To a person, students have responded with honest and deeply moving accounts of hardship, both large and small, as well as small triumphs and hopes. ”
When a class becomes a home
By Lisa Goodman
If anyone in my classrooms has received formative education in the last month, it has been the instructor. How so? Well, I have taken to spending the first 20 to 25 minutes of each class asking every single one of the students how they are doing and giving them a minute or so to catch us up on what’s been going on. Anyone has the right to pass, but so far, no one has. To a person, students have responded with honest and deeply moving accounts of hardship, both large and small, as well as small triumphs and hopes. And across undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels, they have given each other tremendous mutual support even as they struggle. One student, worried about others who were left alone in their apartments after their classmates had gone home, organized a “Netflix party” so that anyone who wanted could come together virtually to watch a movie at the same time from their separate dwellings. Others cheered on a first-generation student’s efforts to get university support for those remaining on campus. And still others, even those hardest hit themselves, have followed-up individually with students who seemed to need extra support. Because I teach about difficult and personally challenging subjects, I have always worked to create a classroom climate that is as safe and supportive as possible. So what’s the lesson in formative education that I have received lately? These past weeks have taught me that the classroom can be transformative along many more dimensions than I had previously understood. It can become a home.
Professor, Counseling, Developmental & Educational Psychology, Lynch School of Education and Human Development
“Rather than just passively being accosted by negative news feeds, they are seeking and analyzing news selectively and actively, considering global responses to current events from a whole-person perspective...Now, one year later, those students have graduated, and they are teachers, service providers, graduate students, mental health clinicians. They have translated personal losses into compassion for others, serving their communities and living out their purpose.”
By Belle Liang
When the pandemic displaced us from our usual pace and places in Spring 2020, forcing us off campus and into our homes, my students and I lamented global suffering--lost jobs, lost lives, lost freedoms. It struck us that despite the lack of control we have over current events, we still have agency. We can stop and slow our minds down to reflect and respond intentionally. To seize this opportunity for Formative Education, I redesigned my Applied Psychology Practicum course. Together, my students and I are examining how—even from the confines of our bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, we can apply our true core values, character strengths, and skills in order to continue to live out our purposes.
We worked to take an agentic and hopeful perspective on what happens next. We wanted to practice applying what BC students learn about social justice in the classroom, out in the world, during a time that our communities are more burdened than ever with mental health needs, job needs, child care needs, educational needs. As students and practitioners of Applied Psychology we set our minds on trying to make a positive difference in lives around us, near and far. For example, students who lost their practicum sites have all found new ones online, in the form of volunteer service opportunities where they are meeting the needs of vulnerable youth and elderly. Moreover, students have engaged in a new final project that involves applying psychological theory and research. Through this assignment, they are processing current events by working within smaller learning communities (6 or 7 students in breakout rooms) to examine a single day of the COVID-19 pandemic, from a wide range of perspectives. Rather than just passively being accosted by negative news feeds, they are seeking and analyzing news selectively and actively, considering global responses to current events from a whole-person perspective (e.g., cognitive, biological, psychological, social, ethical, and spiritual).
Now, one year later, those students have graduated, and they are teachers, service providers, graduate students, mental health clinicians. They have translated personal losses into compassion for others, serving their communities and living out their purpose.
Professor, English Department, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
“It is my birthday. My son does not understand why I have no interest in presents. Everything is a present, I tell him...Even the winter coming for us, real winter, arriving in its inevitable time with bare-branched beauty, against a russet duvet of leaves billowed against hedges. Each fallen one a reminder of life. Thousands upon thousands. Too many to count.”
This essay was originally published in Harvard Review
November 20, 2020
By Suzanne Matson
It is a birthday (mine). It is a new president, though the old one won’t go, his sullen resistance rooted like a fungus, metastasizing in bulbous nodes. We who find this dangerous, the 50.9%, seek light and air.
We wear our masks, which have acquired a kind of chic, I almost think, especially the black ones with the edgy beak. We are all of us practicing to be ninjas. My student, who wears a hijab, and now, of course, a mask, looks comfortable. But we are all relaxing into our protective coverings.
I finally figured out how to open the windows in my classroom, and the sunny breeze filled us up. Seventy-three degrees in Boston, in November, think of that. Each student desk on its little circle on the floor: Sit here. We do, all of us in Wonderland: Enter here. Exit there. Take one wipe only. Daily Self-Assessment Check. Check! Sometimes a student says: send me the recording, please, my roommate is sick and I am quarantined. Or: send me the recording, please, I am sick. And once: I am really sick. I am going to sleep for a few days. May I have an extension?
Your professor has sent you a link.
And: please, take as many days as you need.
And: how are we all doing today? It’s 73 degrees. So that’s good (bad).
And: my democracy websites tell me this is not a coup. We do not (yet) have to jump into the streets.
It is my birthday. My son does not understand why I have no interest in presents. Everything is a present, I tell him. The breeze, the air, the sun shining hotter than it should. The old dog behind me, breathing evenly. The young dog next to him, breathing evenly. The ocean we drove to last weekend to walk barefoot in, with the dogs, when it was 77 degrees. Lastness of summer before winter. Even the winter coming for us, real winter, arriving in its inevitable time with bare-branched beauty, against a russet duvet of leaves billowed against hedges. Each fallen one a reminder of life. Thousands upon thousands. Too many to count.
Associate Professor, English Department, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
“At home, it became more and more relevant that I had a family, that they had families, that we were all embedded in households, and that it was from these households (of parents, siblings, pets, roommates, children, grandparents) that we spoke and wrote.”
A Different Spring
By Maia McAleavy
I usually teach Victorian novels, but this semester I am teaching more poetry than fiction. My daughter’s first grade teacher’s email announced: “Because April is National Poetry Month, the students will be reading one poem each day and writing their own daily poems inspired by these prompts.” Before National Poetry Month began, and before quarantine, I had required the students in my British Literature survey to read one of our assigned poems aloud to another person. They read to their roommates, or called their moms on the phone. In solidarity, I read several poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge to my daughters, Ramona (7) and Sylvie (4). Sylvie, the youngest, became fascinated by the poem she called “the scary one,” and memorized its opening lines. I captured an adorable video of her reciting:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
I emailed it to all the grandparents. But I didn’t think of sending the video to my survey. Keeping the focus on my role as professor, theirs as students, I only rarely refer to my children in class. (My doctoral advisor was very clear about this. “Never bake cookies for your students,” she warned.)
Then we were all sent home. The first thing I did was email the whole class the video of Sylvie reciting Coleridge. I joked, with a sprightliness that soon seemed insane: “Since her preschool is closed, she’ll be learning your curriculum.”
At home, it became more and more relevant that I had a family, that they had families, that we were all embedded in households, and that it was from these households (of parents, siblings, pets, roommates, children, grandparents) that we spoke and wrote.
My living room is an elementary school; my computer a university; my bedroom an office; my kitchen a preschool. In the living room, we start our “Morning Meeting” with the day’s schedule and a “share” question. You have to get dressed and brush your teeth before Morning Meeting. (Although yesterday, eyeing my ensemble, Ramona asked, “Are you dressed?”) I eavesdrop on Ramona’s first grade Zoom, which her teacher runs like group therapy. What is something that is worrying you? What is something good about being home and what is something hard about being home? I find listening to the first graders’ worries strangely comforting. I wanted to give my students some access to this, and so instead of diving right into our material – “Hello everyone! Let’s get started with Christina Rossetti” – I began starting my classes with goofy icebreakers, drawn from the world of small children. Once I asked my students a question Sylvie had posed to us that morning: “What is your favorite sparkly object – and why?” (Their answers - the sunlit ocean, a snowy day, neon lights in the city - proved they’d found the right major.)
The two curricula sometimes clash. On the same day I was trying to work through T. S. Eliot’s strangely patterned free verse with my students, I found myself barking, “Your poem today has to RHYME!” But I’m glad I insisted on formalism – I’m very fond of Ramona’s spring poem:
I am building a fairy house.
I wonder if a fairy is smaller than a mouse?
The grass grows and flowers bloom.
And this is a different spring, because we are doing ZOOM!
I sent this one to my students, too. I think they’ve caught on that I have kids.
Alejandro Olayo-Mendez, S.J.
Assistant Professor, School of Social Work
“The uncharted waters that we are still navigating helped me learn that the traits of formative education are deeply interconnected. Academically, I kept challenging my students. But, it was the sense of community and support that helped me to realize that in the process of formative education, we were in this together.”
We are in this together
By Alejandro Olayo-Méndez, S.J.
Are my students, OK? How can I maintain the academic standards? Are the students getting what they need from this course? What is essential during this time? Every week, I wrestled with these questions and several others as I moved to teach in a virtual classroom. As time passed and my anxieties eased, my students remained committed to the class, as they were often engaged and interested. But, as I continued working with them, I noticed that life also kept its course. Several of my students were increasingly stressed not only by the dynamics of a pandemic but also by the realities of financial constraints, losses of loved ones without the possibility of adequate mourning, and challenges with roommates and families. Thus, more and more, I kept thinking about how to do cura personalis (caring for the whole person) and about the meaning of community within online environments.
Caring for others and teaching students how to be mindful of those around them is never an easy task. In an online environment, I needed to find ways to make sure my students were OK. Creating a climate of trust and support became important. We tried sharing our feelings, things we have improved, something we wanted to get better at, and even the advice we would give to someone in our shoes. I tried to create a climate of trust and support, a space where we could be vulnerable and open, as well as attentive and supportive. As I shared like everybody else in the class, I learned that I was part of the course and that embodying cura personalis meant taking care of my students and accompanying each other.
Community formation goes beyond being in a group. It emerges from the way we encounter and engage with one another. For the twenty-two students and I, openness and trust helped us to realize that we were a small dispersed community linked by the course and through the possibilities of technology. As we came close to ending the course, the challenge was to find ways to carry with us the solidarity we experienced. The more profound questions revolve around the deeper meaning of community. What is a community? What makes a community? How do we construct and contribute to a community?
The uncharted waters that we are still navigating helped me learn that the traits of formative education are deeply interconnected. Academically, I kept challenging my students. But, it was the sense of community and support that helped me to realize that in the process of formative education, we were in this together.
Director of Web Services, Office of University Communications, Adjunct Professor, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
“So, how have the collective efforts of the BC community impacted students’ personal formation by the time they arrive in my class senior year? Two words: It’s working.”
Capstone Spring 2020 Reflection
By Scott Olivieri
When it came to moving my Capstone seminar The Balancing Act online I had just one concern:
How do I replicate a vibrant, intimate, collaborative class environment online?
Ultimately, I focused on three areas: Technology tweaks, empathy, and taking action. Here is what I did in each area.
An unavoidable downside of the closing of campus was that the vibrant buzz of college life was replaced with isolation, the drone of parent zoom meetings, a mudslide of depressing news, and evaporating job prospects.
It was a dreary time. So I assigned students a different “Capstone Buddy” each week. Outside of class time, students were required to FaceTime their buddy. In these chats, they could complain, laugh, or cry with someone who got it. The conversations sometimes lasted for hours. One student noted, “I now consider every person in this Capstone a friend.” To further offset the dreary national mood, I started each class with an animated “Wheel of Names” to randomly get personal updates from a few students (Jack still has a job! Emily’s mom is driving her crazy!).
When it came to the course itself, I expanded my office hours and continued the weekly Kahoot! quizzes to ensure that students did the readings. But I also eliminated a writing assignment in order to create more space for reflections. I reduced the need for citations in papers and asked for more personal reflections. The work changed, but my students were still held accountable.
The morning after the March announcement, I emailed all students with 4 meager offerings: A place to stay, help moving, a plane ticket, someone to talk to. In our first zoom session, my students were shell shocked, but hesitant to acknowledge their loss.
“People are dying...I can’t really complain about losing the last 2 months of college.”
Perspective is critical, but if unchecked can smother lesser, worthy losses.
BC’s on campus residential experience is unique. My students knew I knew that. I met my wife at BC, lived in Mod 14A, re-loved BC as my daughter Allie ‘17 gushed about her experiences. And my son Chad was in the class of ‘20.
Students needed permission to express their loss.
I told them, “The final few months of your on-campus BC experience cannot be rescheduled. It’s gone. Losing this is significant.”
I asked them to detail specifically what they lost, what they missed, what they craved. Freed from judgement, students confronted their sadness. Most rebounded quickly, energized and grateful for the privilege of a fulfilling, seven-eighths BC experience.
Their loss enabled formative development. I pressed them on how they lived before COVID: “If you could return to February 2020, what would you change?”
“I would have focused more on my close friend group.”
“I would have dropped social media.”
“I would have asked that person out…”
“I would have taken that interesting seminar….”
“I would have tried new things”....“Been kinder to myself”.... “Gone to the new plex every single day”
Students gained clarity on how their recent behavior was misaligned with their values and goals.
Pre-COVID, we had lively discussions and students wrote insightful reflection papers. But loss is a powerful teacher. In the harsh light of their childhood bedrooms, it was clear: no college time remained.
Students recommitted to living with urgency and gratitude in the present moment. One student: “College suddenly ended. Nothing is guaranteed.”
Based on the Jesuit notion of Contemplatives in Action, I developed “Take Action! Challenges.” Students read research, we discuss it. Then students complete a related challenge and submit a description of what they’ve done.
During the semester students complete a technology detox, cook a meal, try a new exercise routine, practice mindfulness or Examen, and add a new habit to their routine. I focused more time on this aspect of the course because students needed less reading and more doing.
During college, students received care packages from home. Now, they were at home: bored, annoyed, unmotivated, sad, guilty for feeling sad, and staring at screens for hours on end.
Students received a Capstone Care Package containing Sour Patch Kids Watermelon candy (during in-person classes Kahoot! winners select from 3 prizes and this treat has a dastardly hold on BC students), a smooth stone with “Balance” engraved on it, and the classic book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” (pitched as an alternative to the destructive nighttime ritual of checking social media before bed).
Why send a package?
As a BC Sophomore, legendary English Professor John Mahoney, Sr. called me at home the day before Christmas to console me for failing his final exam.
I had overlooked page two of the assignment. He gifted me with a C- for the semester when the math pointed to a D, an override into his Spring course, and encouraged me to enjoy some pickup basketball over the break.
Student formation is hard work. I didn’t call bad students during holiday breaks.
Sending a package seemed like the easy way out.
I meet my students in the second semester of their senior year. They have already been transformed by caring faculty, powerful retreats, and authentic service engagements. My job is to calm their fears about post-grad life, synthesize seemingly disparate college experiences (What does it all mean?), and convince them they’re already “adults.”
Of course they need some fine-tuning: a research-based beat-down on the evils of social media, awareness that metabolism is a “thing” that will soon expose diet and exercise shortcomings, and an awareness that “busyness”, multitasking, and sleep deprivation are not badges of honor.
Before our final zoom class, students FedExed me a binder with a printed letter of gratitude from each student. In these letters, it was clear students were grateful for their entire BC experience. I’m at the end of their journey, just helping them organize their Shutterfly book.
So, how have the collective efforts of the BC community impacted students’ personal formation by the time they arrive in my class senior year? Two words: It’s working.
Associate Professor, Applied Developmental & Educational Psychology, Lynch School of Education and Human Development
“In this chaotic experience of transforming a course mid-stream, I think there is likely a lesson for me going forward that, when push came to shove, I moved my lectures and quizzes online and reserved my short supply of synchronous, live-classroom time for the most formative dimensions of the course.”
When Push Came to Shove: Putting Formative Education First
By Scott Seider
Many of the undergraduates in my Psychology of Adolescence course are contemplating careers as youth-serving professionals, and, from the start, I wanted the course to broaden their thinking about all of the different shapes such careers might take. Accordingly, each week our class has conducted a short Zoom interview with a professional whose work intersects with the content we were studying. Yep, I started using Zoom before we all started using Zoom. When planning the course last summer, I just figured that even the busiest of professionals could spare twenty minutes to talk to my students if they didn’t even have to leave their desks to do so.
For a week focused on gender identity development in adolescence, our class interviewed the executive director of the mentoring organization Strong Women, Strong Girls. For a week focused on civic development in adolescence, we interviewed the leader of the civic education program Generation Citizen. For a week focused on sexual identity development in adolescence, we interviewed the associate director for LGBTQ Equity for the New York City public schools. Student questions included both academic queries related to the week’s readings and more personal ones about how these professionals had traveled down their particular career paths.
When COVID-19 sent my students back to their homes across the country and world, and pushed our course online, I was fortunate that we were already using Zoom and, thus, could easily convert to the new remote-learning format. But, in this new remote learning format, my students and I only met “live” (synchronously and all together over Zoom) for an hour and fifteen minutes each week. Even more so than usual, our time together as a class community became a precious and limited commodity. Accordingly, I think my biggest challenge as an instructor was trusting my conviction that it remained worthwhile to spend 20-30 minutes of that precious “live” classroom time on those weekly interviews with youth-serving professionals—a goal related as much or more to students’ formation of their own burgeoning professional identity as to their academic knowledge of the course content. To make space for those interviews during our live classroom sessions meant creating video-lectures that my students could watch on their own time rather than delivering them “live” over Zoom. Also moved online and made available on-demand were the short quizzes with which I like to start every class.
Putting those features of the course online meant we could use our hour and fifteen minutes of synchronous “live” classroom time each week on the two most formative elements of the course: the interviews and small group discussions (in breakout rooms) about how the week’s readings, lecture, and interview had influenced students’ thinking about their own adolescence. These small group discussions took up questions such as: Did a natural or informal mentor have a meaningful impact upon your own development in adolescence? What type of citizen were you raised to be? To what extent does “acting morally” feel like a central dimension of your own identity?
In this chaotic experience of transforming a course mid-stream, I think there is likely a lesson for me going forward that, when push came to shove, I moved my lectures and quizzes online and reserved my short supply of synchronous, live-classroom time for the most formative dimensions of the course. I’m looking forward to being back in my Campion Hall classroom with my students as soon as possible, but I suspect that there will be ways in which the decisions I’ve made this semester about what to prioritize will work their way into future versions of Psychology of Adolescence as well.
Associate Professor of the Practice, Biology Department
“Remote teaching has not altered my charge as a Biology professor at Boston College, it has only elevated the intensity with which I reach out to my students and help them acknowledge, embrace and learn from the disruption. ”
By Danielle Taghian
The day before we were jolted into a new state of being, where the “being” bit was open to interpretation, I began my lecture with this trendy—some would say naïve—advice to my students: “Keep calm and carry on”. Nearly two months later, I have developed a new set of teaching skills, including recording lectures in an empty classroom, conducting office hours, advising hours, and even S.O.S. hours over Zoom, and administering and grading exams and problem sets online. But, I still maintain the advice of that day, albeit with the added footnote, “We will get through this.”
Remote teaching has not altered my charge as a Biology professor at Boston College, it has only elevated the intensity with which I reach out to my students and help them acknowledge, embrace and learn from the disruption. To do this, I first had to dedicate myself to setting an example that we could all move forward in our new lives, whilst also acknowledging that there would be glitches, emotional turmoil and physical barriers to overcome in our new learning environments.
With these ideas in mind, I held classes with my students that conveyed the familiar biological mechanisms and innovative progress being made in understanding and treating cancer, and I found new ways to interact with them personally, allowing them to know that even in less than ideal circumstances, learning will always nourish our curiosity, excite our interest, and expand our minds. From my countless zoom meetings, I have come to respect the validity of virtual interactions. Using our online tools, I have been able to both explain data and slides and listen to students’ needs, concerns and life stories...all while working out a few bugs along the way. And all the while— when a dog runs across the screen, siblings laugh in the background, or someone freezes on screen for a moment—we find that we have jumped into each other’s lives in new and interesting ways. Distance learning has certainly changed the way we interact, and has made us better, and more attentive, communicators.
It has also opened new ways for us to connect with and learn from others. For instance, during the last two lectures of Cancer Biology, I hosted two guests who delivered live Zoom lectures: Dr. Shannon MacDonald, a BC alumnus and talented pediatric oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the BC senior and future physician Bridgette Merriman, a survivor of pediatric cancer. It was quite a way to finish this extraordinary semester—two extraordinary people sharing their knowledge and experience. My group of 61 students were riveted as they listened and engaged with the speakers and with each other.
Indeed, through the closeness provided by our small screens, students not only adjusted to but thrived in the new “being.” I noticed many more questions being asked than during on-campus guests lectures, and the simple side chats offering sincere thanks and encouragement to the speakers demonstrated the true spirit of Boston College students. Yes, our semester was disrupted, and our lives have quite possibly changed forever more, but what I have witnessed most is the formation of students with a renewed resiliency, students who can and do “Keep calm and carry on!”
Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, Professor of Management, Carroll School of Management
“These realities will affect how well our students can do their work and respond to what we teach. Our students—and we—will be changed by our experiences during this crisis. And responding to students through this lens will change us even more. ”
There’s a Crack in Everything. That’s Where the Light Gets In
April 7, 2020
By Sandra Waddock
The words in this essay’s title come from the late songwriter Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece ‘Anthem’. The idea is that everything is flawed. Yet, there is also hope despite the flaws. It is through the cracks where the light comes in. Certainly, the cracks in our economic, social, political, leadership, and ecological systems have become manifest in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Many people who might not have recognized those cracks prior to the emergence of Coronavirus may now have to admit that the system itself needs dramatic transformation, not restoration or tinkering around the edges.
System transformation is needed to contend with the breakdown. What better time to try to bring it about than when systems that are demonstrably not working are in crisis? System transformation means that fundamental aspects of the system change. It takes place in a context of complexity and wicked problems. Further, any thought that once the crisis has passed, things will simply return to ‘normal’ seems unrealistic. From a systems perspective, too much will have changed in the interim. The genie of change will not fit neatly back in the bottle. The nature of complex adaptive systems and wicked problems—both of which are inherent to the human socio-economic system—make that impossible. Just consider how many educators are learning to teach online right now, how health providers are using telemedicine, and how businesses are shifting meetings online. Not all of that will go away. Importantly, path dependencies related to such shifts in situations of complex wickedness, intrinsic to virtually all socio-economic systems and enterprises, mean that things quite literally cannot return to their original state once set in motion.
Think then about the light that might get in. As former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel stated, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ This pandemic, devastating as it is, presents a significant opportunity for the type of system change that ‘new economics’ thinkers, sustainability/flourishing experts, and Indigenous peoples’ ideas about humans as interdependent with nature, among many others, are advocating.
The opportunity—the light that just might be able to get in—is for potentially generating a more equitable, just, and flourishing world for all.
As scholars and citizens, we have a choice. We can let the rebuilding process after the crisis passes unfold to (try to) restore broken systems to some semblance of what they were. Or we can join in global efforts to bring about purposeful system transformation towards a flourishing world for all. Such efforts include developing a wellbeing economy, shifting to metrics that emphasize collective value with no dignity violations, or ‘genuine progress’ as opposed to mere economic activity for good or ill, which is all GDP measures. We can help businesses and other institutions work toward achieving the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. There are many possibilities that go beyond accepting our broken system as is.
Even if we want things to return to normal, the likelihood of that happening is small by the very nature of complexity and wickedness. Here are a few reflections on some of the ways that our work as academics might shift in the wake of this pandemic. We can take nothing for granted…in our teaching or our research.
With respect to teaching, it strikes me that we now have to learn to deal not just with the ‘objective’ stuff of our teaching but also the emotional realities faced by our students during this crisis. These realities will affect how well our students can do their work and respond to what we teach. Our students—and we—will be changed by our experiences during this crisis. And responding to students through this lens will change us even more. Additionally, many faculty members and their students will have learned how to navigate instruction online. That learning is unlikely to go away once the crisis resolves. Whether such instruction is more or less effective is a question, of course, but the practice of teaching itself is likely to change fundamentally for many people after the crisis eases. There is, for one thing, likely to be far more openness to online instruction on the part of instructors, learners, and their institutions.
As some scholars have already recognized, there are also enormous scholarly opportunities associated with efforts to bring about transformative change. Collectively, they fall under the rubric of responsible research in management and business (RRBM). Such research is future/forward-looking, not past looking. It is whole systems oriented, not fragmenting or atomizing. It can mean getting involved in new ways with different types of people who are actors in the system. It can mean recognizing our own roles as system participants. It means taking scholarly risks.
Many of the assumptions we have made or accepted about the nature of the economy and of business now need rethinking. Inequality, climate change, and sustainability crises were already at the forefront of pushing a ‘new economy’ and a new business agenda. But the drastic measures being taken by many governments will likely shift thinking about business, government, and the economy, particularly as they relate to core assumptions.
Our (Western/Northern) understanding of our relationship with nature may also change. If the virus teaches us nothing else, it is that we are one world. We are integrally connected and interdependent with each other, and with nature. Importantly, the crisis highlights our interconnection as living beings in a context of nature. Further, the assumptions built into the core economic model that drives much business thinking today—neoliberalism and its progeny, neoclassical economics—will have been put to a significant test—and shown flawed. Among flawed assumptions are that ‘there is no such thing as society’ (to use Margaret Thatcher’s words), that social and ecological impacts of business are ‘externalities,’ that continual economic growth is both possible and desirable on a finite planet, and that less government is the best government. The pandemic in very real ways has put the lie to all of these and other assumptions. These insights may well force academics, and others, to rethink how we relate to the world around us.
As assumptions are questioned, we as scholars have an opportunity to rethink what is really important in both research and in managing. Should we, for example, be theorizing from ‘gaps’ in theories to find research subjects that matter little and few care about? Or should we, perhaps, work from the very real problems that have been revealed during the crisis and now have had light shined on them?
Whether we like it or not, the problems of the real world will likely have ‘cracked’ the seemingly impervious walls of the ivory tower. Those cracks potentially will drive more of us to approach real world issues holistically, co-creatively and collaboratively with actors in settings we need or want to study. Real world problems demand trans-/multi-disciplinary, integrated, and collaborative approaches that work with people who might once have been considered ‘subjects’. Such problems are holistic, messy, and inherently normative. We cannot sidestep that normativity any more by claiming (false) ‘objectivity’. Such problems are not packaged in ‘conversations’ in the literature that confine themselves neatly to disciplines or existing streams of thought.
Big problems, sometimes called grand challenges, require new thinking that comes from exploring the problems themselves in new ways. They demand a tentativeness, a well-informed tentativeness, that many of us are not used to because of the disruption that has already occurred in the world—and is only likely to get worse in the near term. That is the nature of disruption and it is disruption that we face. Such issues are open-ended, dynamic, and interactive, and need to be viewed/treated as such. Many SIM and ONE scholars already see their work in these ways, but I suspect the pandemic will push us to think through their work in new and different ways, to engage with people we might not have otherwise engaged with, and to begin to incorporate new perspectives into our work. It will not be easy for any of us.
Right now, it might seem like only a little bit of light is getting in through the ‘cracks’ that Leonard Cohen sang about. If we can each be a little bit of ‘light’, we can aim our work at bringing about the better world that the Academy of Management itself envisions in its vision statement.
None of us, of course, has the answers. It is more than obvious that neither do many of our leaders. System transformation operates in the very context of uncertainty, complexity, and ‘wickedness’ that the virus demonstrates. We can, however, draw from the wisdom of our collective crowd. Pool new resources. Shape new ideas. Step out there and say things publicly. Work together in new ways. The process of change will be emergent and experimental. It requires innovative thinking on all our parts, including letting go of today’s dominant economic and academic metrics in favor of new ones that reflect real-world impact. It means working to change the systems of which we are a part and that deal with the real-world problems that the Coronavirus has exposed.
Let’s collectively, let the light in.
 Possibly referencing Winston Churchill, to whom this statement is frequently attributed, albeit without evidence.
Filippa Marullo Anzalone
Professor and Associate Dean for Library and Technology Services
“I realize that being in a space that evades definition is actually quite interesting and maybe even calming if one allows oneself the luxury of slowing down.”
Reflections on Contagion in the Bardo
By Filippa Marullo Anzalone
Right now, this very minute in fact, feels a lot like what my early teachers, the good Sisters of the Confraternity of Saint Joseph (CSJ), described to us as purgatory. Purgatory was an in-between place, a kind of waiting room for those who had died without the proper qualifications to be admitted into either the eternal reward of heaven or the damnation of hell. According to the nuns in my local parish school, the lost souls in purgatory had escaped the fires of hell, but they were not yet ready for prime time in heaven. At St. Clement’s School on the Somerville-Medford line, we prayed mightily for the souls locked in purgatory — we prayed that they would be able to leave that arid, in-between place as soon as possible and move on to the rewards of everlasting life.
Like my grammar school classmates, I was never quite sure what the tipping point had been for those ending up in purgatory. Were the recently departed missing some essential credentials for virtuousness? Perhaps they had grievously sinned and not adequately repented? In these days of contagion and quarantine, I find myself revisiting first-grade religion lessons with Sister Mary Laurita, CSJ. Sister Laurita was a sweet, kind, lovely woman; but her stories about the poor waiting souls in purgatory petrified an impressionable, six-year-old me. Although I have mostly moved on from my Baltimore catechism-based and parochial understanding of the afterlife, I realize that the concept of a liminal state after death is not exclusive to Catholics. In fact, I have since discovered that some schools of Buddhism have a similar state of purgatorial limbo called the “bardo.” The bardo, like purgatory, is a state of being in-between, neither here nor there. The bardo is a kind of pause between one manifestation of life and the next.
In fact, during this time of the COVID-19 lockdown, quarantine, stay-at-home, whatever name one chooses, my feelings are best described by thinking of this time as a kind of bardo. Although we have carried on with many of the facets of our lives, whatever we do: teach; hold and attend meetings; write reports; say goodbye to colleagues; celebrate births, birthdays and holidays; mourn loved ones; console those who have lost loved ones, the actions are tinged and they feel quite different to me. It seems that all “normal” human activity has been altered in this time of stasis, in this real but unreal cadence of life in the bardo, purgatory, limbo of life and not-life. If I pay attention to what is arising, I must admit that on good days, I can live with the uncertainty of the liminal space, but on bad days, a feeling of panic and dread is common in the face of this neither fish nor fowl type of existence. The sense that I am in a constant twilight (or is it a dawn?) is common. Underneath even the happiest of days is a sense of despondency—a yearning, a sadness for what has been lost. I find myself breathing, eating, working, sleeping in a space that is neither dark nor light—a liminal space, a between time, a Zoom waiting-room space that is a type of life but not the life that I was used to, that I was comfortable in; the one in which I knew the rules.
And then, after periods of meditation or prayer or both, I realize that being in a space that evades definition is actually quite interesting and maybe even calming if one allows oneself the luxury of slowing down. After all, the times of day that are sometimes the most breath-taking are dawn and dusk, the early morning and the hard to define time of day known as twilight. The in-between times of the day—the quiet, reflective times in the bardo. We are most certainly in a curious way-station. There is no doubt about it. But fretfully ruminating about when we are getting out is not going to release us from this holding pattern.
I, for one, am just starting to relax into the tempo of this new, middle life. I am just now surrendering into the gifts and the richness of the experience of the bardo . I am just learning how to enjoy being in the bardo that the threat of contagion has brought us to for just a little while.
“...the quiet contemplative sabbath of the soul now needs to be encouraged with greater intensity everywhere.”
Physical distancing lessons from a monk and a rabbi
Pandemic a time for a quiet contemplative sabbath of the soul
May 27, 2020
St. Simeon the Stylite depicted in an illumination in the "Passionary of Weissenau," of the 12th century Bodmer Codex (Wikimedia Commons/Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer)
I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.
Some fear that organized religion might falter unless the faithful closely commune between four walls and under a roof — against public health advice. Recent surveys in the United Kingdom suggest the exact opposite. Since the prohibitions began, a quarter of adults have participated in a religious service through television, radio or various online and virtual connections. Of those, 5% claim never to have worshipped in church before. Contrary to expectations, so-called social distancing might increase religious devotion.
Of course, the actual mandate is not "social" distancing — absurd jargon — but physical distancing. And that problematic physicality is precisely what religion is uniquely equipped to overcome, to transcend risky physicality through metaphysicality. Those who claim that an emergency ban on death-threatening physical proximity violates religious freedom disdain the transcendence that religion offers. A fifth-century monk and a 19th-century rabbi teach us how strong it can be.
Around 410, in the countryside outside Aleppo, an 18-year-old shepherd withdrew from the secular world to join a monastery. When his piety proved excessive for his fellow monks, his abbot asked him to leave. He never returned. He sought refuge at the bottom of an abandoned well, then in a cave. Ultimately, he built a small cell on top of a pillar, initially about 6 feet high. Stylos, Greek for pillar, gave him his name: St. Simeon the Stylite. Over decades, he maintained his solitary devotions, fasts and other forms of ascetic practice, but these very acts attracted more and more veneration from both poor and powerful. To avoid such distractions, he raised his pillar ever higher, eventually piercing 80 feet into the sky, the same number as his years as a monk. He spent 47 of those atop his pillar.
Around 1860, in the midst of denominational struggles over sanctuaries and ritual, the highly influential German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the inspirations for modern Orthodox Judaism, provocatively preached, "At a time as confusing as ours, the most radical and thoroughgoing treatment with promise of a cure might be to close all the synagogues — provisionally — for a century! .... To have all synagogues closed by a Jewish hand would ... proclaim most emphatically that... the focal point of Judaism lay not in the synagogue."
The contexts for these two extreme but pious advocates of physical distancing were not the same as the challenges to people of faith today, but Simeon's quasi-quarantine, initially 6 feet distant, responded to metaphorical plagues. He became an exemplar. Pillar people, hermits, anchorites and other socially and physically distancing monks started to populate the countryside. They inspired a voluminous record of saints' lives, spiritual literature for the ages.
Rabbi Hirsch's shocking proposal authentically highlights the centrality of hearth and family — rather than public edifices — in Judaism. Although his words were uttered at a moment of denominational contention over communal space, they do offer abiding insight. Some of his modern Orthodox heirs have started to invoke them to adapt religious practice against the virus.
To be sure, today no one proposes to shut synagogues for a century or to spend nearly half a century solo atop a skyscraper, but the quiet contemplative sabbath of the soul now needs to be encouraged with greater intensity everywhere. A pastor can shepherd, like Simeon, in many different ways.
Most faithful know this. Overwhelmingly, once informed, they have responded to the plague in thoughtful, responsible and imaginative ways. But a small faction — almost threatening a new Jonestown and their fellow-travelers — has willfully refused. Thereby they devalue religious experiences that may be private, solitary and metaphysical. Perhaps unfamiliar with the words and deeds of the saint and the rabbi, they feel that only housed herds, large jamborees and sacraments conceived as static rites can deliver meaning and salvation. Such behavior not only denies life, but also disparages the freedom of religiously-inspired creativity. To resist the plague, such creativity is true resistance.
Today no state action threatens that resistance. On the contrary, it encourages it to flourish. The life-threatening consequences of violating sensible temporary restrictions appear repeatedly in the news. The violators may be a minority, but it only takes a few perpetrators to threaten the many innocent victims — disproportionately the poorest and most oppressed — in the midst of this pandemic. The sensible religious majority must embrace imaginative spiritual first aid, repudiating and combating in the strongest terms those who threaten life along with those who would aid and abet them.
[Benjamin Braude teaches in the history department at Boston College and is the author of Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire (Lynne Rienner Publishers).]
“Love is our shield and protection in the age of pandemics; may we recognize that it is also so at every other moment.”
Finding light in darkness,
love of neighbor in the age of the coronavirus
(a letter to my students at Boston College)
Saint Patrick's Day, March 17, 2020
By Yonder Gillihan
From my own place of quarantined exile in Newton, MA, to my very dear students and colleagues and to all fellow thinkers and co-laborers who build up the community of Boston College, and who now share the life of quarantined exiles in the Boston area, throughout the United States, and around the world:
I am writing to you from this place of exile and quarantine, which we share with each other and with countless other others throughout the world. I am writing to you because, in spite of the global pandemic, and despite other existential threats that confront our species -- climate change, war, and mass extinctions, to name three -- there are reasons to be hopeful.
One of the reasons that I feel hope is because you remind me to do so. One of you, just last week, told me in an email that "Darkness does not exist without light." You said your mother told you that. Clearly your mothers and fathers and other guardians and mentors raised you right -- all of you! I say this to students at Boston College, and to every Earthling on this planet: Remember who we are! And now look at this wisdom from one of your mothers: she is not just right, but truly wise. Now that we can see darkness so clearly, we should be alert to the presence of clear light.
Let's try to answer the question: Where is the light? I have a few proposals of my own, and I would be delighted to hear yours.
1. We are light. For one thing, we are it -- we are light, in the most literal physical way. I told you this already, what we learned from our scientists last century: our bodies, all of their atomic pieces, just like everything else on our planet and in our solar system, are the burned out embers of exploded stars. That's just what we are: our every atom came from stars;
we have cooled and configured into these strange creatures for a time; in about 5 billion years we are all going back to the stars, when our sun puffs up and absorbs the earth. During this brief time that we imagine ourselves to be separated from the stars, we are still as connected to the stars as when we were fusing hydrogen into helium: look how we build and sustain our bodies with captured starlight, the photosynthesized energy that our plant and animal sisters and brothers provide for us. When we eat, when we breathe, when we feed other beings with our bodies, we are stars communing with stars. Where do we find light these days? Look at yourself. Touch yourself. Listen to the sound of your own voice, and to the voices of others: this is light. It is every taste and every smell. Where you are, there is light. Ask a physicist or a biologist. I'm not joking around.
2. Real immortality. If you are willing to be consoled even a little by the notion that we are made from light and eaters and drinkers of light, because this notion is plausible, then let me point to an even cheerier implication of the same scenario: the stars from which we came, like every other thing in this universe, are made of immortal matter, some stuff that existed before our Big Bang, stuff that was who knows what before that, and which condensed and blew up into all of this Universe. This means that nothing here, including you and me, was ever "born": everything in this Universe is not just as old as this Universe, but vastly older, belonging to those infinite, unknowable prehistories behind our comparably recent Big Bang. Likewise nothing here, including you and me, will ever "die": everything continues on in infinite new configurations, until this Universe dissolves into infinite embrace, embracing everything that it will become in its infinite embrace. We Earthlings love our present configuration here, as Earthlings, and it is right that we should love it: What is is us, and it is beautiful. We should love what is and what we are as deeply as we can love anything; indeed, there is nothing else to love. What is now, what we are a part of, contains all that is. But we should also be curious: what else will become? What does the experience of existence hold? One thing that it certainly contains for us, in relatively brief cosmic time, is union with the sun. What will that be like? What will be after that?
3. We are one. There are other sources of light that illumine from deep within this present darkness. I want to share with you one thing that the novel coronavirus has revealed, and which we so badly needed to see: The essential unity of the human organism. This virus is reminding us that we really are all exactly the same, equally dependent on each other to sustain the lives that we lead. All of the distinctions on which we base our usual patterns of relationships with each other, matter very little: To the coronavirus, a human is a human: power, wealth, celebrity, education, intelligence, nationality, gender, religion, sexuality, ability, and whatever else, matter little. No matter who you are, the coronavirus approaches your vulnerable tissues grinning and insisting,
"Let's work together! You are exactly the partner that we need, and we're both here, so let's get started!"
I don't like the way that the novel coronavirus treats people, but I do like its egalitarian, trusting assumptions. Perhaps novel-coronaviral assumptions could be adapted into useful human assumptions: We might learn to suspect less and trust more, to regard each human as a potential ally in our individual own quest to thrive, to present ourselves to others in a way that invites them to perceive us as potential allies in their individual quests to thrive. What might antiviral science, health care, and policy look like, if we insisted on acting out of solidarity and trust, not fear and blame? It turns out, I'm pretty sure, that if we each regarded every member of the human population with the same egalitarian assumptions as the coronavirus, we would have a good chance of beating the coronavirus, and other challenges that we face.
4. Our Greater Human Body. I'd like to suggest another source of encouragement and light, in the fact that the coronavirus provokes us to recognize the human species as a collective organism. Each individual human being might rightly be regarded as a cell within something that we might call, following the Apostle Paul, among many many others, the "Greater Human Body." What is this Greater Human Body? To catch a glimpse, follow it: where the Greater Human Body dwells, its tracks are obvious. Civilizations are its nests. Look: the Body is the community and its society; no single body in the whole community embodies the whole thing, but all are embodied by it. The loss of any one being within the society, however painful, costly, and tragic, can be overcome, but the loss of the society threatens the organism as a whole. When the Greater Human Body dies, its death deprives its member beings of the most fundamental necessities for survival. When the Greater Human Body truly thrives, it can nourish all beings within it. When the Greater Human Body thinks, libraries arise. When the Greater Human Body builds, cities blossom and flourish. When the Greater Human Body travels, it circles this planet, voyages through the solar system and out into the Universe. When the Greater Human Body goes to war, the whole Earth trembles. My brain plus your brains plus billions of other brains equal the brain of the Greater Body; our muscles supply the great and patient power of the Body; and our lungs give the Body its vital breath. There is no greater proof of this fundamental creaturely unity of all human beings, than the present coronavirus pandemic. Your breath is my breath: see how easily what is in my lungs flows to yours, and from yours back to mine. The breath we breathe is from each other and for each other. Our lungs are commonly owned; to the extent that we guard our own breath, we guard the breath of others, and of the Greater Human Body to which we belong. To the extent that we guard the lungs of others, we guard our own, and those of this great Body.
5. Your Neighbor is Yourself: Here is another bit of light, from Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity: We can discern particularly useful and relatively uncommon meaning for the great commandment that we find first in Leviticus 19:18, and then repeated numerous times in the New Testament; other versions of this commandment are found throughout global cultures, both before and after those that produced the Bible. The commandment is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Usually when we read this, we imagine that our neighbor is "like us" in an analogous way, but I want to point to a more literal possibility in the language of the English translation: We should love our neighbor "as ourself," not because our neighbor is like us, but because our neighbor is us, and we are our neighbor. There is no real boundary between me and anyone. This is becoming easier to recognize, in vivid and startling ways: my breath is your breath. What I breathe, you breathe. My lungs are your lungs. The cleanliness of my hands is the cleanliness of your hands. Any risk that I choose to take for myself, I also choose for you to take with me. Any protection that I offer to myself, becomes your protection. This is reality. My health is your health. My vulnerability is your vulnerability. My strength is your strength. My hope is your hope. My loss is your loss. My body is your body. Awareness of such intimate identification with neighbors prepares us for the exhortation of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:15-21:
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NRSV)
6. Moral light. If we take the Apostle's guidance in his Epistle to the Roman church, it may help us to discern our specific responsibilities as member beings within the Greater Human Body: Rejoice and mourn together. Embrace all as neighbors, regardless of status. Have no enemies. If there are enemies, allow God to define them and to confront them, in God's own time. We, in our time, are to love even those that we might think of as enemies. The New Testament is full of this idea: in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives his followers the command to "Love your enemies." The Gospel of Matthew makes it clear that this commandment contravenes conventional moral sensibilities:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matt 5:43-44; cp. Luke 6:27, 35)
In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha gives a comparable teaching. He exhorts all who seek insight and clarity to practice generosity toward all beings, without discriminating between them on the basis of their external appearances, or any of our perceptions or feelings or thoughts about them:
Those who depend on such notions to practice generosity are like people walking in the dark. They will not see anything. But those who do not depend on such notions to practice generosity are like people with good eyesight walking under the bright light of the sun. They can see all shapes and colors. (Section 14, adapted from the translation of Thich Nhat Hanh)
I think we can observe with some confidence that the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha defy most "common sense" in most societies throughout history. Such teachings often provoke anxiety: we have been educated and habituated to establish moral clarity by distinguishing between worthy and unworthy recipients of our compassion. We assume that we achieve moral clarity by restricting generosity to people who demonstrate worthiness to receive generosity. We weep with those who deserve company in their grief; but those who do not deserve, we leave to grieve alone: we decide that their grief does not deserve to be lightened by our participation. We rejoice with those who deserve our company in their joy, but those who do not deserve, we ignore or reject or scorn: we decide that their joy does not deserve to be magnified by our participation. We assume that our discrimination clarifies important moral categories, i.e., friends, enemies, strangers, the worthy and the unworthy. Conventional understanding claims to preserve and protect generosity and moral clarity, by making sure that generosity is not wasted on the undeserving, and that generosity is applied where it is deserved. However, the ancient teachings on unconditional love and compassion seem to claim that what we regard as moral clarity -- i.e., our conventional categorization of people into the worthy and the unworthy -- is not actually clarity at all, but darkness and confusion. In contrast, what appears to introduce moral confusion -- i.e., indiscriminate, conditionless generosity, lavished freely upon all without regard for whether the generosity would be wasted, or whether it was earned, etc. -- actually introduces clarity.
What kind of clarity is this? Perhaps these ancient teachings aim to help us to recognize the wisdom and insight that we actually have, and to conform our actions to it. Here is what I mean: We wish to discriminate between friends, enemies, and strangers, and between the worthy and the unworthy, but we do not, in truth, have access to the internal motives or intentions of the people that we judge and categorize. We cannot fully know the motives and intentions of anyone except our individual selves. To act as though we do have access to these phenomena in others is to behave falsely and to walk in darkness.
In contrast, the fullest understanding of human motives and intentions that we can possibly have, is our understanding of our own motives and intentions. This, at least, we can know with some confidence: When we know ourselves to be generous beings, then we know what a generous being is like, and how a generous being is moved to treat other beings. By the consistent practice of generosity toward all, we strengthen the generous nature that we see within ourselves, and empower it to arise with greater frequency and effectiveness; we clear our minds of delusion and prepare them to meet every experience with equanimity and insight. We will never lose moral clarity when we recognize that we can only have clarity with regard to ourselves, and when we insist on renouncing judgments of other people that we cannot make, because we cannot know what the judgment requires.
7. Light in darkness. Here, then, already, are multiple sources light: We are light. We share immortality with this marvellous Universe. We are one, all vital members of this magnificent creature, our Greater Human Body. Our lives intertwine so completely that when I act to strengthen you -- any of you, anywhere in the world, whatever nation and language and religion and political system, whatever history of interactions with other nations -- whenever I strengthen you, I am stronger, and the great Body to which we belong increases its integrity, vitality, and capacity to offer refuge to all.
From my perspective, and probably also from yours, the practical enactment of all that is required to sustain human community isn't going to be easy, but, thank goodness, in this case, it isn't complicated. We will stay in place; this is how we love each other. We play games and wash our hands and hang out in virtual spaces. We check in on each other. We protect each other and ourselves. This is practical love. It is compassion that prevents and relieves suffering. It is generosity of the most generous kind: everyone can get full credit for loving humanity -- for regarding all equally, rejecting the categories "friends," "enemies," "strangers" -- simply by staying home and doing the very least that anyone has done in a while. This is now a life-giving blessing. We are giving doctors and scientists time to develop effective treatments and vaccines. We are lightening the future burden on medical care providers. This is a real contribution that you and I are contributing. As we wait, we can see our waiting as a practical expression of compassion. It's one way in which we seek to free ourselves and others of suffering. It is loving each other, our neighbors near and far, as ourselves, because our neighbors are, in fact, ourselves-- your wellness is my wellness; your strength is my strength; your vulnerability is my vulnerability. In our time, unconditional compassion and love of neighbor turn out to be essential national security measures. I think about you with great affection. Greet each other and all your neighbors with love, regard each other with love, encourage each other with love. Love is our shield and protection in the age of pandemics; may we recognize that it is also so at every other moment.
A compulsive note: Since I am a professor of Scripture writing to my students, my scholarly conscience compels me acknowledge, first, that I am offering a personal interpretation of these scriptures, not a scholarly one; indeed, I could not offer a scholarly opinion about the Buddhist texts at all. This same conscience compels me to acknowledge that the biblical and Buddhist teachings that I compare are not identical; further, any effort to claim a particular meaning for either one of them will invariably fail to disclose its full meaning. Nevertheless we should, like countless faithful others before us, attempt to understand our Scriptures, and attempt to tell each other what we understand; in this way we expand and improve each other's understanding, and the capacious understanding of the Greater Human Body.
Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM
“We are to love one another, as Jesus has loved us. And it was in the act of footwashing, Jesus gave us the example of how to do this: we are to serve one another, humbly, even to the point of relinquishing that which is most dear to us: our reputation, our status, and ultimately, as Jesus did, our very lives.”
Encouragement/Giving a Reason for Our Hope
By Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM, Ph.D
My father died twenty-five years ago when I was on my first-ever sabbatical in South Africa. I still remember getting the phone call from my brother Billy in the middle of the night. My large family waited for me to get home to have the funeral, and so began a long journey back, with lay-overs in several cities: Durban, Amsterdam, Atlanta, Detroit, and finally, to Chicago, where I grew up. That same brother picked me up at the airport and took me to my mother’s house. When we got there and were unloading the car, he stopped, looked at me intently, and said, “I have just one question for you: will I ever see my father again?” I am sure this is a question that almost anyone who has ever lost a cherished family member or friend has asked oneself. I don’t recall exactly what I said to my brother. But I think it must have been something like, “Well, I certainly hope so; adding, “no, I do believe that we will see him again.”
I was reminded of this incident when I read today’s second lesson from the First Letter of Peter: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,” counsels the author. I know that grief can cloud the memory, but I was sure that my brother wasn’t looking for a theological explanation, and certainly not a platitude. He wanted me to comfort him, to reassure him. And yet, I distinctly remember that what I said was somehow a challenge to my own faith: could I really give a reason for my hope? Of course, I certainly do hope that I will see my father again, and not only him, but the others in my family who have died: my younger sister and brother, my aunts and grandparents, and my mother, who is still alive, but is in quarantine in a nursing home, as well as so many good friends and mentors who have gone to God before me. But as for giving an account for, or a reason, for my hope. Well, that is where I sometimes stumble.
In the face of a loved one’s passing, or when we are approaching our own death, and especially in this madly frustrating experience of living in a pandemic that has threatened the whole world, giving a reason for one’s hope can be a very challenging request. It was especially hard for the community that Peter was addressing. Biblical scholars tell us that this letter, written in the name of the apostle Peter toward the end of the first century, addresses three major themes: baptism, suffering and traditional exhortations. Yet, despite its many references to suffering, the background for this letter is not one of Roman persecution. Rather, it reflects the alienation from family, neighbors, and society in general that newly baptized Christians of the early church experienced as a result of their conversion to Jesus. Old allegiances to the gods of one’s family and the city’s gods were relinquished, causing a shift in loyalties that brought about tension within families and in civic society. So, when Peter writes, telling the newly baptized “be ready to give reason for your hope to anyone who asks,” he follows up with “but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” He exhorts them further that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.”
In our own time, perhaps we can think of situations where choices or decisions we have made have created tension within our families and among friends, perhaps even cutting off these relationships. I’m thinking here especially of our choices that we make for authenticity, risks we take in coming to terms with who we are, who we are called to be, prophetic commitments we have made and the values that they are based on that we cherish. Whether these are political commitments, disagreements (or even agreements) with the church’s teachings on significant social issues, promises we have made, or broken –all of these choices, including those we didn't choose: most especially, this precarious situations caused by the Coronavirus pandemic: joblessness, food insecurity, our elders and veterans dying alone in nursing homes and hospitals, exhausted parents trying to balance working at home and overseeing their children’s education, seeing the future plans we have made or the provisions for our retirement collapse and disappear. All of these stressors have a bearing on whether we are able to “give an accounting for our hope.” At best, we may feel resigned; at worst, we simply feel paralyzed. And yet, perhaps the reading from John’s Gospel for this Sixth Sunday of Easter offers us some “good news,” regarding the painful situations that many, if not all, of us are experiencing.
The Gospel for today comes from the first of Jesus’s “farewell discourses” in John’s gospel. Chapter 14 starts out with “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” a familiar selection for funeral Masses. Midway through the discourse, Jesus promises that when he goes to the Father, “I will do whatever you ask in my name…if in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Wow! How’s that for a reason for hope? But then, right after that, in the passage assigned for today, Jesus reminds us that, if we love him, we will keep his commandments. That saying immediately brings to mind the “New Commandment” that Jesus gave to his disciples at his last meal with them: we are to love one another, as Jesus has loved us. And it was in the act of footwashing, Jesus gave us the example of how to do this: we are to serve one another, humbly, even to the point of relinquishing that which is most dear to us: our reputation, our status, and ultimately, as Jesus did, our very lives.
Today, among those of us who find ourselves among the privileged, one hears that we are losing “the way of life” we have come to take for granted: going out to dinner, seeing movies in theaters, even receiving holy communion. We are sobered by the possibility that even should these activities eventually be resumed, our very lives may be at stake—unless we can discover a vaccine. Yet, this life-threatening situations have long been familiar to the poor, to refugees, to those living in war-torn areas, to victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, or anyone who has ever been excluded on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The virus has become “the great leveler”; it does not discriminate. And yet, this daunting reminder of what it means to be a follower of Jesus need not leave us in despair. For Jesus promises that he will ask the Father, his Abba God, to give us an “advocate,” the Spirit of truth, who will be with us always.
My colleague in the Theology Department at Boston College, Fr. Michael Himes, has a video I use in class where he explains that this word “advocate” – is variously translated as “counselor” or “comforter” or “Paraclete.” In the original Greek, parakletos, can mean “counselor” or “advocate” –in a legal sense, someone who sits at the side of a plaintiff in a court, to advise, defend and give guidance. In John’s Gospel, however, this Counselor represents both the presence and activity of God and the continuing presence of Jesus in the community. In the video Fr. Himes adds an interesting tidbit from a sermon by the 19th c. Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to his ex. Hopkins, who is known for his playfulness with words, gave a sermon to his congregation in Liverpool, in which he asked,
What is a Paraclete? A Paraclete is one who comforts, who cheers, who encourages, who persuades, who exhorts, who stirs up, who urges forward, who calls on, what the spur, and word of command is to a horse, (and here, Fr. Himes interrupts his reading from Hopkins and says: ‘in other words, gitty -up, gitty-up!) He returns to Hopkins and continues, what clapping is to a speaker, what a trumpet is to a soldier. That is what a Paraclete is to the soul: one who calls us to the good. [One sight is before my mind, it is homely, but it comes home: you have seen it at cricket, how when one of the batsmen at the wicket has made a hit and wants to score a run, when the other doubts, hangs back, or is ready to run again, how eagerly the first will cry, “Come on, come on!”] A Paraclete is just that, something that cheers the spirit of one with signals and with cries, all zealous that one should do something and full of assurance that if one will, one can, calling us on, springing to meet us halfway, crying to our ears, or to our heart: This way to do God’s will, this way to save your soul, come on, come on!
Being an American without much understanding of Cricket, I tend to think of my Boston College students lining Commonwealth Avenue during the Boston Marathon, urging on the runners up “heartbreak hill,” or the former TV Sportscaster, Jack Brickhouse, in my hometown, yelling “hey, hey, Ernie!” when the Cubs’ Ernie Banks was rounding third base and headed for home.
This is the message I think the 6th Sunday of Easter has for us during the Coronavirus. As we look toward Pentecost in just a few weeks, as we ponder how to give an accounting for our hope: let us remember the gift of the Paraclete: “Gitty-up! Gitty-up! I will not let you fail!”
1 Michael Himes et. al., The Vision of The Gospels, Disc 2 “The Gospel of John.” (Jefferson Valley, NY: St. Anthony Messenger Press. Fisher Productions, 1997).
2 C. Devlin, ed., Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, (Oxford University Press, 1959), 70. Cited in Joseph J. Feeney, The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Routledge, 2016), 167.
Associate Professor, School of Theology and Ministry
“It is our capacity to stand in attentive consciousness, with love and compassion for the whole of our broken, beautiful world. This is what makes us capable of healing ourselves and one another. Because life is more than suffering, and we are more than our fear.”
Healing Our Hearts in a Dark Season
By Kathleen Hirsch
In this strange “at home” but keenly homeless time, I drove from Boston to the family house in New Hampshire to check on things. Mud season will soon be upon us. It seemed the quiet of the country might do me good.
As soon as I arrived, I unpacked my laptop for a global Zoom teleconference. The topic: how best to care for ourselves, our spiritual communities, and the planet during the pandemic.
The participants, from numerous spiritual traditions, offered thoughts on acceptance, staying grounded, and the invitation of the present crisis to teach a new sensitivity to the non-physical-- to the interrelationships that bind us to a larger reality. I left the meeting feeling steadied and affirmed.
Just as I was shutting my laptop, my husband passed through the room and casually remarked. “There were two birds with blue stripes up at the old swallow house in the meadow,”
It was good news in a grey time, that the birds, at least, were conforming to pattern, returning and taking up residence, reminding us that life, at a level distant from our fears, was going on.
He isn’t a birder, so I assumed they were jays. I spent a satisfying afternoon cleaning a closet, reading, and finally knitting in the worn wing back chair by the window. As the sun began to set, I looked up and my eye fell on the bird house. A small bird was perched there like a sentry, absorbing the warmth before a cold night fell. Its breast was radiantly white - almost haloed - by the light of the lowering sun. I picked up the field glasses. Just then, he turned and exposed his magnificent blue feathers.
An Eastern Bluebird! We haven’t seen one here for several years. I couldn’t stop looking. That glorious blue and tawny breast in a relentlessly grim, colorless time was like an icon, a kind of transfiguration.
I was in good company. The bluebird has been the harbinger of happiness across cultures for thousands of years. One of the oldest myths, from the 2nd century B.C. Shang Dynasty presents the bluebird as the messenger of a fearsome goddess, Xi Wangmu. By the 1st century, the goddess had morphed into a fairy queen, friend of nuns and singing girls. I’d like to think that the bluebird played a role in gentling her ferocity. In Russian fairy tales, the bluebird is the symbol of hope. In 1987 Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
The world rolls round,—mistrust it not,—
Befalls again what once befell;
All things return, both sphere and mote,
And I shall hear my bluebird's note,
And dream the dream of Auburn dell.
It is my experience that only great suffering and great beauty compel us to the state of true presence. Something in us -- sharp, almost painful in its acuity - breaks through the miasma of anxiety and self-absorption to stand before life as we are meant always to stand, but seldom do.
As I continued to look through the glasses, the female returned. I watched in awe as their dance unfolded. The male swung away and perched on a nearby bough while she sailed in and took the spot atop the house. While the light held, they crisscrossed one another in a wide-flung dance of distance and intimacy that was their seasonal rite of exploration and homecoming after a long winter.
Theirs was the eternal dance of opposites within a shared reality that would ultimately produce a new thing.
In a flash, I realized: the bluebird was the opposing force of the suffering that had suffused my awareness for days, stoked by too heavy a diet of online news. Wildly, unexpectedly, paradoxically, miraculously -- the bluebird. The two didn’t so much cancel each other out, as they revealed two sides of the same reality: life, in all of its brokenness and beauty.
Hours earlier I’d listened as a rabbi of the Jewish mystical traditions, Ted Falcon, spoke about the futility of resisting fear or of trying to talk ourselves out of it.
“The ego is that part of us that holds the illusion of the ‘separate self.’” He said. “It’s a waste of time to try and talk the ego out of its fear.”
“The pain comes from forgetting that the ego is not all we are.”
I had stopped knitting at this point and listened more closely.
When we are able to become aware of our fear, he continued, we also are able to be aware of the source of our awareness. “That inner voice, that witness, allows us to be bigger than our fear.”
He was speaking, of course, of Presence.
Presence is the reconciling element. It is our capacity to stand in attentive consciousness, with love and compassion for the whole of our broken, beautiful world. This is what makes us capable of healing ourselves and one another. Because life is more than suffering, and we are more than our fear.
“I feel a profound sense of pride in our nursing profession, our colleagues, and members of the team... I know that too many people have not survived and feel profound joy that I am still here to tell this story.”
My Encounter with COVID-19
By Rachel E. Spector, RN, PhD
“It happens to thee, and thee, and thee; but never to me”
I learned this little axiom many years ago as a young nurse; it generated the grit to care for people with countless communicable diseases – polio, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and so forth – without fear. Now, as a much older nurse, I confronted the coronavirus with the same attitude. I carefully followed the CDC mandates – mask, gloves, distancing 6 feet, and hand washing, etc, but felt no fear of ever getting it.
Tuesday, April 28th, 2020 – I lost interest in daily events.
Friday, May 1st - added a low grade fever and a dry, non-productive cough to the mix.
That afternoon, a COVID-19 test was administered on the roof of the physicians’ office building parking lot - the “swab”- with results to be available in 3 days.
Saturday, May 2nd - spent in a chair – restless, sleeping, and not eating.
Sunday, May 3rd - woke up feeling poorly but walked around, did not eat breakfast or lunch and slept most of the day. Around 6 pm I became confused but remember being placed on a stretcher and being whisked away. I really could not pay too much attention to the event because I had developed a high fever –104 – was coughing, and sleepy. The EMT told me we were going to a Boston Hospital. I faded in and out of consciousness.
When we arrived at the emergency room, I remember being given oxygen via a nasal cannula, and the nurses making me wear both a mask and the cannula together. This made breathing nearly impossible. When privacy existed, I slipped the mask down and took some real breaths.
Suddenly the EMTs arrived and informed me that we were going to another hospital as there were no beds in this one.
Just as I was falling asleep after admission to the second hospital, another set of EMT’s arrived and whisked me off to yet another hospital – (3 different hospitals in 5 hours). When they told me where I was, I wanted to bolt – my good friend had died here and I did not want to stay. No choice, I had to stay. I saw a huge deep hole in front of me. I said, “I ‘m scared.” My friend appeared with her arms raised and pushed me back away from the hole, said “don’t be scared,” and disappeared. The doctor asked, even though they had a copy of my signed DNR and DNI forms, did I want to be on a vent. I remember saying abruptly – “NO.”
The following is the admission summary statement: “On presentation she was confused and inattentive, was satting at 94% on 6 liters of oxygen, with a fever of 102.8 and a blood pressure of 200/90. After defervescing and BP control her mentation improved.”
Monday, May 4th, 2 am - I remember being moved into a bed in a COVID-19 recovery unit and hooked up to an intravenous infusion, oxygen, and monitors. Around 3 am I was given my first dose of remdesivir and received this medication every early (3am) morning until May 11th. Remdesivir is an antiviral drug that is given by intravenous infusion in the hospital and is being tested in carefully controlled environments. It has been seen as effective in patients who were newly diagnosed with COVID-19 who were not placed on ventilators. Every day there is more information. A long awaited study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 22nd. Essentially it reported that the drug was effective!
I believe the combination of remdesivir, oxygen, Lasix (used to treat the pneumonia), Lovenox (used to prevent blood clots), highly skilled nursing care, and sheer determination brought me to a point where on the 6th day in the hospital I was up and out of bed on my own.
May 4th – May 7th – days 1 - 4: I silently put on my “nurse’s persona” and observed an interesting progression: The first night and day I was often confused and slept. By day 3, I was more alert. From the beginning, I knew that the nurses were with me; first every 2 hours, then 3, then 4 – as they checked my blood pressure, orientation, intake and output, and so forth. They also followed the monitors, watched, and communicated with me via an iPad from the other side of the closed door. I was totally isolated and not allowed visitors. Everyone who entered the room was wrapped up in protective equipment – gown, mask, plastic face shield, and gloves. I missed smiles and sometimes hearing words was difficult.
My appetite gradually returned. I was given a menu that initially made no sense due to my confusion, but by the 4th hospital day I mastered the art of finding outstanding food. My daughter, who flew in from California and my son, who flew in from Nevada, dropped off treasured treats each day.
May 8th – 10th, days 5 – 7: Brought an increasing awareness of improvement and freedom. The physical therapist taught me several exercises for getting out of bed and walking. The nurses trusted me to be on my own to go to the bathroom and walk around my room. The cardiac monitor and then the nasal oxygen cannula disappeared.
Monday – May 11th, day 8, home! The discharge for the most part was easy, with instructions for strict isolation and other aspects of homecare discussed. My husband was not tested along with me and we did not know if he had had the virus. Therefore, we could not be in the same room, or use the same bathroom and shower for the first few days I was home. My husband had been stranded home alone while I was in the hospital, and he was overjoyed to have noise in our home! He is not a medical person and the information he was given, especially in the early hours, was overwhelming.
Follow up – nursing and physical therapy were arranged with the Visiting Nurses.
The nurses – I cannot think of one negative thing to say. They were phenomenal. Every time they entered the room, they efficiently and quietly did what needed to be accomplished. Not a single nurse left without a reassuring word, asking if I wanted anything, and if I was comfortable.
The other members on the team – physical therapists, dietary, laboratory phlebotomists, physicians, and so forth, were also highly skilled, and kind. The team members for the most part are young, committed, and kind. I feel a profound sense of pride in our nursing profession, our colleagues, and members of the team.
In closing – there is one important thing to be said: Decide NOW if you want CPR, to be placed on a ventilator, etc. If your choice is NO, complete the necessary papers and be sure you know where they are.
This was my confrontation with COVID-19 as well as I can remember. I know that too many people have not survived and feel profound joy that I am still here to tell this story.
P.S. The above was written in May, 2020 shortly after I was discharged from the hospital. It is now December and I believe I am fully recovered. June and July were days of recovery – I was able to walk – each day greater distances, and to swim, increasing the numbers of laps over this time.
I taught my Capstone Course – Holistic Living - this fall and learned from scratch how to teach on Zoom. I had thought that a Capstone class could never be taught this way – yet this particular class was far more gratifying than any I had taught over the past 20 years!
There are thousands of people who have recovered from COVID yet the news tends to focus on the lives that have been lost. It is quite the opportunity to share the story of a successful recovery – thank you.
Assistant Professor, English, MCAS
“What else is there for us to do, but do away with this world and work fiercely toward another? where we hold all things in common, and there are no more arrests, and no more citizens, and no more lines to decide who we don't have to care about, and no more names for those we can neglect or harm with impunity.”
By Jonathan Howard
May 7, 2020
arbery, i wish you another world to run in. everyone can arrest you in this one. it’s their right, duty, and pastime.
this world was working just as it was designed to when you were lynched. an armory of laws were cited to explain how your murder was "perfectly legal." open carry. citizen's arrest. the use of deadly force in self defense. these laws do not protect life. otherwise you'd still be here. they protect the kind of world they wish to live in. a world in which you can be run down and killed. because what? because something was stolen? because when something is stolen, every citizen is empowered to bring death to your doorstep? because we've been this country's thieves from the moment we stole ourselves? because you are stolen? and they'll never forgive you? and they'll never tire of trying to get you back? of gathering up your body, breath, and blood? because when you run, they feel the phantom pain of the hold, and they are reminded how the world is getting away from them?
arbery, how in this world will we survive you? how do we keep watch with you and all our dead? what else is there for us to do, but do away with this world and work fiercely toward another? where we hold all things in common, and there are no more arrests, and no more citizens, and no more lines to decide who we don't have to care about, and no more names for those we can neglect or harm with impunity. and when we discover ourselves too frightened to imagine such a world, because we do not know how to live without our borders, and our rights, and our prisons, and with no place to shut off our hearts, and this scares us, remind us that the life of this world took your life. remind us
we must be born again.
Lecturer; Director, Institute for Administrators in Catholic Higher Education, LSEHD
“In this moment I must live more intentionally my vocation as an educator, inviting all members of the university community to live the Focolare spirituality’s practice in the 'Art of Loving.”
Embracing Our Shared Humanity
By Michael James
Oddly enough I was growing increasingly more at peace with all these months of being sheltered-in-home. Absent my daily commute to campus, I enjoyed reduced stress, more leisure time with my family, long meals and hikes in the park, and the luxury of time to read, write and work on lesson plans.
However, the walls of silence I had built through self-isolation began crumbling. My conscience grew increasingly unsettled with each incident of violence and racism against brothers and sisters of color. I have been further jarred from my “comfort” as Covid-19 ravages Black and Latino communities disproportionately compared to white communities.
In this state of mind, I have been eagerly seeking out sources of conversation and conversion.
The reality of wounds
James Baldwin, in his 1964 essay Nothing Personal, spoke of the “miracle of love” that begins to “take flesh” when we encounter someone who embraces our wounds and is unafraid of making themselves vulnerable. As I reflect on the current national landscape of morally questionable leadership and the divisive nature of our public discourse, I recognize how prophetic his words are at this moment.
We are still deluding ourselves that wounds are something to be hidden rather than fundamental realities to interrogate. Baldwin asks how we can navigate and embrace our shared humanity. He laments that “our failure to trust one another deeply enough to be able to talk to one another has become so great that people with these questions in their hearts do not speak them.”
Reflecting more deeply on my own paralysis to act, to make the connections that this particular moment necessitates, I decided to contact Black and Latino students with whom I have shared spaces of teaching and learning over the last several academic semesters. My students spoke with me from locations including Miami, Washington, Los Angeles, Boston and New York City.
Each person described their frustrations with the anemic debate about who is on the right and wrong side of public violence and the murders of black people, as well as the passivity of public conversations about the best way to correct systemic injustices. As these young people shared with me their increased sense of vulnerability to Covid-19 in communities of color, the slaying of Black lives, and their persistent personal encounters with racism and police violence, I experienced their outrage, devastation, exhaustion, fear, powerlessness and anxiety.
As I enter into my students’ suffering, I hear Baldwin’s questions echo — how do I navigate and embrace our shared humanity? The answer, Baldwin proposes, does not emerge in politics or law.
As much as the correcting of social evils does require radically examining and repairing our political system, any change that does not begin on the individual level will be inert, at best. I recognize that the answer will not be something one can purchase or manufacture by oneself. Instead, the only adequate answer is something from beyond ourselves.
Education’s role in this
Focolare founder Chiara Lubich’s vision of “a world united” challenges me to look beyond myself as an educator, scholar and teacher. She explains:
“The goal that has always been assigned to education (to form the human person so as to render him or her independent) is implemented almost paradoxically, by forming the ‘person-in-relationship,’ which for us means the human person in the image of the Trinity, one who is capable of continually transcending self ...
“It is through this spiritual and educational practice of mutual love, to the point of becoming completely one, that we work toward the achievement of the goal of all goals, expressed in Jesus’ prayer and testament: ‘May they all be one.’”
Lubich’s insight is that social justice begins from a personal choice to share the suffering of our brothers and sisters. In so doing, we look at our own woundedness and openly share our vulnerability. The more we deny our humanity, the more we become blinded to others’ humanity. We forfeit the grace that comes with the miracle of love.
In this moment I must live more intentionally my vocation as an educator, inviting all members of the university community to live the Focolare spirituality’s practice in the “Art of Loving.”
Changing the narrative
The Art of Loving is demanding. It requires me to love everyone — acknowledging that our dignity and value are not external, but inherent; not dependent on what we do, but who we are; made in the image of God, the Imago Dei. It is selfless.
It calls me to share the joy and pain of another person by letting go of my own strong beliefs, ideas, biases, opinions, privilege, and power (perceived and real) in order to make the other’s perspective my own. It is generous.
I am asked to be the first to love in each encounter. It is reciprocal.
To enter into relationship, I must identify and embrace my own self-identity, while at the same time relinquishing it for the sake of the other. Jesus shows me through his ultimate sacrifice that I am myself, not when I close myself off from the other, but when I give myself, when out of love I lose myself in the other. In this way, I actually find myself.
I recognize our context of increasingly exposed systemic injustices and acknowledge college and university campus cultures historically fractured by the disparities attributed to students’ socio-economic status, race, gender and ethnicity. Yet it is my hope that by practicing the Art of Loving we will generate countercurrents of interdependence, relational action, authentic dialogue and an ethic of reciprocity that may, by a miracle of love, begin to change 400 years of a different narrative— one that has not been based on interdependence or love.
Having just begun a new academic year, I am painfully aware of my inadequacy to heal the wounds of my students and of our social disorder. Yet by continually trying to embrace the wounds of my students, I better understand Baldwin’s call for personal conversion and Chiara Lubich’s vision of a united world through love. Consequently, and with greater intentionality, I aim to love my students with these concrete actions:
1) Listen to my students when they say, “Please make a seat for me at the table. You can’t talk about my life and not include me.”
2) When things get difficult, offer my presence and perspective. When my students feel hurt or broken, it’s my job to step in and say, “Let’s process what has happened. Let’s figure out where the failure is. Let’s figure out how to grow from it, how to get strong, and then we need to get back to building structures of justice.”
3) Value the empathy Gen Z and Millennials bring. Young people are too often criticized for being too empathetic, as if that’s a bad thing, because they have somehow made our lives a bit more complicated and uncomfortable. Because of their strong example now we have to watch what we say and do to each other. What my students are really saying is: “We are trying to make an equitable world. We want to make a world where everyone feels safe and free.”
In these ways I am trying to practice the Art of Loving with each of my students as a concrete way to disassemble systemic injustices and build a culture of unity through our shared humanity.
Régine Michelle Jean-Charles
Associate Professor of French, Graduate Program Director, MCAS
“We are tired AND we continue to fight, we believe because faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see. We hurt from the pain in the present, and imagine better futures. We do not see justice, and we will not stop working for it to finally come.”
From One Neighbor to Another: Feeling My Both/And Feelings
By Régine Michelle Jean-Charles
On Monday June 1, 2020 our town (Milton) held a socially distant vigil to honor the most recent lives of those lost to racist violence and to speak out against police brutality. Below is a transcript of the speech I shared as a featured speaker. It occurred to me that these words are not that different from what I want my Boston College colleagues to know right now.
On March 13, 2020 Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville Police.
On May 5, 2020—74 days after he was killed—the public learned that Ahmaud Arbery had been murdered by vigilantes while jogging in his Georgia neighborhood.
May 16, 2020 of this year marked the ten-year anniversary of the violent death of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a seven-year-old black girl fatally shot in the head by a white police officer during a raid in Detroit.
On May 25, 2020 George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police.
Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. George Floyd. We speak their names. We mourn their deaths. We rage at the injustice of their murders. We pray for their families. We honor their spirits. We lament the loss of their lives. We remember their words.
Words like “I can’t breathe.” All too painfully familiar because they recall the death of Eric Garner, killed by the NYPD in 2014.
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”
The refrain strikes us even harder now as we live through the realities of a pandemic—a respiratory virus that literally takes breath away from Black and Brown people in alarmingly disproportionate numbers.
Sadly, the tragic loss of and disregard for Black life is not new to any of us. It is not new because we have been here before. We have been in a space of mourning over the senseless loss of life of our Black brothers and sisters. Not just since 2012 when Rekia Boyd was shot and killed by and off-duty police officer in Chicago, or in 2013 when #BlackLivesMatter was founded after the man who killed Trayvon Martin was acquitted, or in 2014 during the Ferguson uprisings in response to the killing of Michael Brown, but since 1619 when the first group Africans were brought to this country and enslaved. Racial terror has been a feature of life in the US for more than four painfully long centuries.
We have been here before. But not like this…because we are in a pandemic. We are in a global public health crisis because of which the entire world is forced to pause. Yet the racial terror that Black people are subject to in the United States us not on pause, these deaths remind us. It continues without impunity.
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”
Milton, we your Black neighbors cannot breathe. Gasping for air we cry, we post on social media, we call our representatives, we pray and protest, we attempt to explain why to our children when we have no answers ourselves. We provide booklists for our white friends and neighbors, we hope that they actually read them and that they raise their children differently so that our children will be safer. We accept speaking engagements, we write op-eds to contextualize rebellion, we go on television to add context to the pain, to explain, and to perform. We shed tears in the car, or in any quiet time we have to ourselves. We are not okay. We cry in anguish…all without pausing for breath. We beg God to have mercy on us and make it all stop.
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”
To my Black sisters and brothers who are here:
Please breathe. Pause and take a breath. Breath is precious and sacred. We need you to breathe. Your breath is life.
Take time to breathe. Being Black is not what drains us. White supremacy and anti-Blackness drain us. Let us continue to love each other, and love ourselves, and celebrate all that is beautiful, joyful, and sacred about our people because there is so much. And take time to feel. I always tell my students “feel your feelings,” because when you do you realize that they are usually both/and.
Over the past few weeks I have experienced: rage, anguish, despair, frustration, sadness, fear, hopelessness, renewed faith, confusion, desperation.
Like every Black parent I fear for my children—sons and daughters--knowing that they will experience racism in their lives. I wonder how it will manifest. I hope and pray that it will not be fatal. But in the Black community where we operate according to the ethos of the village I know that the loss of any Black strikes us in our hearts. Even when my children are still alive, we feel the loss of other Black sons and daughters. Our feelings are both/and. So, I can be disturbed by how my children are minoritized in our town, even while I am encouraged by the friends and neighbors for whom I know Black lives actually do matter. Friends like those who sent messages of love and solidarity this week; friends who not only acknowledge their privilege, but also publicly take a stance against racism. Friends who do more than talk the talk.
To my white brothers and sisters:
Be more than an ally. Educate yourselves and your children, demand justice, fight for the friends and neighbors you say you value. In his “I See the Promised Land” speech Dr. Martin Luther King retells the story of the Good Samaritan and ends by suggesting that whereas those who refused to stop along the way for the wounded man on the road ask “If I stop to help this man what will happen to me?” the Good Samaritan reverses the question. “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question I want you all to ask yourselves today. “If I do not stop to help--demand justice, advocate, empathize, and love my Black and Brown neighbors here in Milton what will happen to them?” Being an ally requires more of you than hashtag activism. You must follow through with action. White supremacy cannot be dismantled without your labor, not ours.
As a Black mother, a professor, a feminist, a wife, and a follower of Jesus I wrestle with all of these feelings. My God instructs me to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. But I find it hard to breathe, and I am still…so… tired.
It was in 1964 that the inimitable Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” 56 years later, we are still sick and tired of being sick and tired.
The both/and helps me to feel my feelings. We are tired AND we continue to fight, we believe because faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see. We hurt from the pain in the present, and imagine better futures. We do not see justice, and we will not stop working for it to finally come. We do so because our ancestors did the same for us. They fought, and in my case as a woman of Haitian descent, set an entire island aflame, so that they could have freedom. To honor their legacy we must remember, we must fight, we must protest and pray, we must organize and mobilize, we must work and believe, even as we cry in anguish and despair.
Retired Associate Professor, Community Health Nursing, CSON
“Developing attitudes of inclusivity and equality begins early in life and must be maintained in supportive environments. Immersion and positive life experiences help to sustain these attitudes. Fortunately, at BC, this philosophy is woven into the fabric of teaching and student formation.”
Promoting racial and cultural acceptance
By Ronna Krozy
Prejudice is a learned behavior and raising children to be open to people of different backgrounds requires a concerted effort and role modeling. As a parent, teacher of nursing, and advocate for human dignity, I would like to share some examples of how I have tried to instill acceptance of diversity in my family and students:
From the time my son, David, now 57, was a child, he was made aware that people came from all walks of life…that is, they differed in religion, holidays, skin color, language, body shapes, work roles, food choices and many more things. We were fortunate to live in a neighborhood where these different cultures blended and he was accustomed to seeing diverse people accepted as friends. Early on he was taught that if someone was a guest in our house, that they would be respected unconditionally.
Growing up Jewish, it was necessary to explain why his friends had Christmas trees and we did not and why there were some foods that we were not supposed to eat but that his friends would have in their houses. Unfortunately, it was also necessary to talk about prejudice, especially when he learned about the Holocaust and the existence of antisemitism. Moreover, it required explaining about racism, stereotyping and homophobia.
When my son celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, his head table of friends mirrored the adults who had been invited: Greek, Irish, Chinese, Black and more. In college, his best friend was Muslim and at his wedding, a gay man gave a recitation.
Perhaps the best opportunity for teaching acceptance presented itself when my grandson, Max, then 4 and now almost 29, was playing a game with Cyprian, one of my dearest friends, a man from Barbados. As their hands drew near on the floor, my grandson said, “Cypie, why are your hands so dark?” Apparently, this was the first time that he realized Cyprian was Black. Cyprian chuckled and said that all of him was that color. But I realized that this was a teachable moment. So I asked Max if he knew how the box of crayons I gave him came in many colors, and the flowers his mother grew came in many colors. After he said yes to both, I explained that people also come in many colors. His answer: “Oh…okay.” And that was it!! A simple explanation to a complex issue. (Interestingly, Max’s life-long best friend is biracial.) I have used this vignette when talking with students about xenophobia and the need to model nondiscriminatory behavior.
In my many years as the Coordinator of two overseas immersion experiences, I brought students to Ecuador and Nicaragua to provide nursing service to the abjectly poor. My students also worked with women prisoners, homeless people and young adults with severe developmental disabilities. Always emphasized was the need for respect, compassion, nonjudgmental listening, learning and sharing without imposing their values. All of these experiences (per student feedback) impacted their personal and professional lives and motivated many to continue working with the most underserved and disenfranchised.
In summary, developing attitudes of inclusivity and equality begins early in life and must be maintained in supportive environments. Immersion and positive life experiences help to sustain these attitudes. Fortunately, at BC, this philosophy is woven into the fabric of teaching and student formation.
Professor, Political Science, MCAS
“What kind of State will the Coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement leave behind?...After decades of debate over regime change elsewhere, the emerging national movement signals a return to the work of improving democracy at home.”
The creative power of crises
By Jonathan Laurence
The current wave of protests grants the United States a chance to repair its original sin: that black lives have long mattered less than white lives. Even after emancipated slaves were no longer counted as three-fifths a man, after the Civil Rights Act and a generation of Affirmative Action, it took a teenager with a smartphone — not the Congress or the Supreme Court — to restore the missing personhood.
Whatever one’s opinion of American “greatness,” its birthright meant less for millions of Americans who have felt unsafe from discrimination and abuses of power for generations. For over fifty years, increasing access to political participation and social rights was overshadowed by inadequately enforced civil rights. Unequal chances at education and income were joined with a terrifying reality of extrajudicial executions by law enforcement and armed whites who “stood their ground.” Even the first term of the first African-American president was marred by events like the arrest of a black professor entering his own home and the murder of Trayvon Martin returning from a trip to the store.
This spring’s political mobilization has also been a balm for opponents of the Trump administration’s upending of American political norms. In the last three and a half years, no single affront had ever provoked a unified outcry. The institutional stalemate and polarization shook the balance of powers to the core. Neither Congress nor the Supreme Court have meaningfully checked the authority asserted by the Trump presidency. A sense of political mummification set in during the lockdown, as Coronavirus briefings became indistinguishable from campaign rallies, with no end in sight. The death of George Floyd mobilized an inert and dispirited political opposition to participate in protest and demand change, propelled by the pent-up energy of the last months.
Covid-19 has been described as a comorbidity of the ailing US body politic, accelerating the decline by attacking fissures and fault-lines. Together, the Trump Presidency and the virus have brought into relief a range of imminent threats to American democracy. Alongside racial inequities and widening social divisions, a class-based health care system remains a fact of life, and there is little compensation for the ongoing sacrifices made by “essential workers.” Facing such intractable issues, it bears recalling that the modern Western state originated in times of deep crisis and conflict. Epidemics in 16th century Venice helped drive government regulation of public health and social policies. The Depression and Second World War were followed by grateful acknowledgments like the G.I. Bill and a welfare apparatus that accounts for a quarter of government spending.
What kind of State will the Coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement leave behind? Will a universal income or public health care become as self-evident as a Social Security pension? How will new awareness of a class of essential workers change who is meant by “We the People”? The answers to these questions will resonate across the United States and overseas, like the civil rights movements before it. “I Can’t Breathe” is chanted in protests calling for accountable government around the world.
Last century’s urban policies were allegorical and simplistic — Broken windows policing, three strikes and you’re out, the war on drugs, an eye for an eye — and they incurred an inordinate socio-economic cost. Legislatures are now pushed to examine the old practices with new eyes. Cities everywhere are reconsidering how to thoughtfully preserve their monuments and their past. The alternative to this reckoning is to ponder instead the litany of 21st-century indicators flashing red while the ship went down: incarceration and death penalty disparities; police militarization; mass shootings; the diverging Electoral College and popular vote; the blending of reality television and politics. After decades of debate over regime change elsewhere, the emerging national movement signals a return to the work of improving democracy at home.
Professor of Near Eastern Studies; Department Chair, MCAS
“In 1970s Lebanon where I was socialized, even in wartime, that was how we did things: When a Muslim, Druze, or Jewish friend wished us a “Happy Christmas” we wished them a “Happy Christmas” back,” and we partook of similar rituals and well-wishes during other communal feasts and celebrations that were not necessarily our own.”
By: Franck Salameh
Years ago, when I was still a young(ish) teacher at Brandeis, as a student was leaving my classroom on the last of day of the Fall semester, she turned to me with a bashful wave and blurted out what might have been a perfunctory—but kind—“Merry Christmas.” This was back in the day when the phrase “Merry Christmas” had not yet begun offending in America. Then stopping dead in her tracks, realizing perhaps that she might have committed a cultural faux pas (maybe assuming on account of my swarthy epidermis and my dark pilus) that I didn’t celebrate, she bashfully apologized. Trying to ease her anxiety, I smiled and thanked her, assuring her that “I LOVED being wished a Merry Christmas,” and I wished her a Merry Christmas back.
In 1970s Lebanon where I was socialized, even in wartime, that was how we did things: When a Muslim, Druze, or Jewish friend wished us a “Happy Christmas” we wished them a “Happy Christmas” back,” and we partook of similar rituals and well-wishes during other communal feasts and celebrations that were not necessarily our own.
I went to a Catholic boarding school where Fr. Atalla would wake up a Jewish schoolmate at 5 in the morning, urging him in a soft whisper that “it’s time my son; get up and strap on the Tefillin; it’s time for the Shacharit.” Think about that for a second! A Jewish boy, at a Catholic boarding school, being exhorted to say his Jewish morning prayer by a priest; a priest whose job might have otherwise been to convert this pupil not confirm him in his “error.”
But that was the world of my younger years. And that’s the mantle of the Mediterranean conflations that I drag behind me in my American exile. It was the Phoenician King of Tyre, Ahirom, who built Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. And when a Tyrian worshipper of Melkart headed north to visit with family at the port-city of Byblos, the first thing she might have done was burn an offering at the local temple of Baalat Guval, a goddess perhaps alien to her Tyrian creed. That’s the Phoenician pantheism that I once lived in; an old Mediterranean ecumenism; a feature of ancient lands visited by Solomon, Pythagoras, Jesus… And I could have told that bashful student from my past that the Jesus creed to which we owe “Merry Christmas,” before becoming Latin, Roman, European, American, had been fundamentally Judaean, Galilean, kissed by the salt sprays of the Eastern Mediterranean, lulled by the songs of sailors and fishermen and cicadas, bathed in the fragrances of snowy cedars in the East, the Levant, what we call today the “Middle East."
I love being wished a Merry Christmas, but also a Blessed Adha, a Pesach Sameach, a Happy Nowruz and Lunar New Year... And so, here’s to a Blessed Adha to all on this first day of the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, coinciding with the Feast of the founder of the Society of Jesus, in the hope that the feasts of next year will find us all in better times—epidemiologically, socially, politically, economically, epidermally, and ontologically…..
Associate Professor, Associate Dean for the Core, Sociology Department, MCAS
“For me, this passage has given me renewed energy to treat my own 'letter-writing' (AKA emails) with patience, care, and discernment before hitting 'send,...'”
By Brian Gareau
I’ve been reading excerpts recently from St. Ignatius of Loyola: Letters and Instructions (2006, The Institute of Jesuit Sources). I had bought the book following an email sent by Tomeu Esterich and Bart Geger, SJ at The Center for Ignatian Spirituality & The Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies, respectively. Tomeu and Fr. Geger invited the BC community to “celebrate Ignatius’ life and legacy” by challenging us “to read nine of his letters, which [they] selected to reflect a particular aspect of Ignatius’ spirituality and values.” Reading through some of these letters, an exchange with Nicolás Bobadilla had a particularly powerful effect on me. Apparently, this early Jesuit didn’t like Ignatius’ regulations about letter writing. He didn’t even seem to appreciate receiving them! In fact, I don’t even think he took the time to read them, and if he did he likely did so amid eye-rolling and heavy sighs. Take a look at Ignatius’ response to one of Bobadilla’s letters:
You write: “You imagine that everybody is edified by these copies of yours. I rarely show them around or read them myself—I don’t have the time. Two letters could be made out of the superfluous matter in main letter.” Of course I never imagined that you would show them to everybody or that everybody would be edified. I thought you would show them to a few people who would take them in good part, as I have learned has been the case so far with all the others to whom I have sent this same main letter (unless I am deceived by what they write me) … As for your not deigning to read my letters for lack of time: by the grace of God I have more than enough time and inclination to read and reread all of yours. To get you to read mine, I will cut out whatever you think superfluous and make whatever adaptation I can in our Lord; once I have got your opinion, I will work hard on this. I will do the same for all others to whom I have written who are of your view and complain of superfluous matter, provided you let me know about it. For it would be quite a mistake on my part to spend so much time and labor only to annoy people uselessly. I therefore beg of you by the love and reverence of God our Lord to write me how you think I can best write you, whether by myself or through somebody else so that I will not go wrong but fully satisfy you. Meanwhile, not knowing the right way to do it, I will await a letter from you—or I will commission someone else to write, however I perceive is to your liking. (You can find this letter on p. 94 in Letters and Instructions)
This is remarkable to me for several reasons. First, this is a letter exchange taking place in 1543, but it reads as if Bodabilla is annoyed with Ignatius for sending too-long emails (and many of them), not something that took a very long time to write, and likely even longer to send! How many times have you received a too-long email and wanted to tell the sender exactly what Bobadilla told Ignatius? How many times do we not read, or maybe even immediately delete, those emails? Ignatius indeed sent many of these “too-long” letters; the book I have contains 700 pages of them, and these are but a selection of his writings. Ignatius wrote close to 7,000 individual letters. That’s right- seven thousand! Second, if you reflect on that for a moment (7,000!), and then re-read the passage above, and consider the patience with which Ignatius responds to Bobadilla, whilst maintaining his own authority as head of their order, it might be a powerful moment for you. It was for me. Third, his humility is astounding; Ignatius promises to change his writing style just so Bobadilla (and others annoyed with his writing style) might find it in himself to take the time to read, and possibly even share, his letters with others. For me, this passage has given me renewed energy to treat my own “letter-writing” (AKA emails) with patience, care, and discernment before hitting “send,” and to do the same when the recipient, like Bobadilla, isn’t “edified” by them. In fact, I’m sure many readers aren’t edified by my own letter written here, and for that I apologize. Please send me a reply so that I can improve my writing style. In the words of St. Ignatius, “Once I have got your opinion, I will work hard on this.”
Professor, English Department, MCAS
“So, too, do we metamorphose, our own faces aging on Zoom (a children’s TV show in my day) as we stare at ourselves staring at our students and co-workers, and all the while, our neighbors—next door and everywhere—sing from windows, gasp for breath.”
Corona of a Star Etc.
By Elizabeth Graver
Published in April 2020 in The Harvard Review
crown (of a king, pope, etc.) (also of a tooth)
crown (various units of currency)
(astronomy) corona (of a star, etc.)
I’ve been socially distant before, back when I had my thyroid cut out and swallowed grape Kool-Aid spiked with radioactive iodine and spent a night in a plastic-wrapped hospital room with a plastic-coated phone, followed by two weeks at a friend’s house, far from my two children, who were tiny then and couldn’t reasonably be taught to stay away. I made friends with Sean, the nuclear safety guy at the hospital, who fed me adages—“the solution to pollution is dilution”—and zapped me every few days with his smart little gun and said, If you hugged your daughters today, it’d be like spending a week with them on a sunny beach, or, Now it’d be like taking two plane rides with them, Sean the metaphor man, and finally one day Sean said, Check with your doc but I think you can go home now, and bewildered and grateful and still feeling my body as a chalice for bright poison, I went home.
Today, the first day of spring, 2020, people walk in pairs or alone on the conservation land behind my house west of Boston, stepping aside to let each other pass. In the distance, on the tractor road, a woman stretches in hot pink sweatpants, then does a swanlike, solitary dance. It’s against the rules to walk your dog here, but the sanctuary is officially closed due to the current situation, and suddenly more people are out walking and dogs are everywhere, greeting strangers and neighbors, ears perked up, nostrils flaring—just let us out, just let us run—because there are only so many fucking rules you can follow at once, and we are animals all, and the compost pile, the size of a small hill, is turning into soil and smells loamy, full, and ripe.
Near the field, in my garden, crocuses poke up through matted leaves. I bend to stroke a purple petal, gently but persistently, because I can.
If you flatten the curve, you can slow things down. I picture an earth made of wet clay, mashable, press it with your thumb. Novel, as in new, as in what I cannot write right now—and couldn’t you call it something else? Covid. Take away the “c” and you get Ovid, as in metamorphosis, as in he touched a clod and by his potent touch, the clod became a mass of shining gold.
It might be a gray Styrofoam ball pricked with little red pins, or a clove orange made by a Victorian girl to scent her closet, or a planet (back up: the waters of Venice are running clear, swans spotted in the canals and dolphins in the port; back up even more: in China, pollution has fallen by forty percent) populated by squat orange extraterrestrials and spiked red trees. The spikes—don’t touch!— are everywhere and nowhere: on doorknobs, envelopes and credit cards, gear shifts and counters, the pulsing rectangles of cellphones, which have never been so clean or soaked with news. So, too, do we metamorphose, our own faces aging on Zoom (a children’s TV show in my day) as we stare at ourselves staring at our students and co-workers, and all the while, our neighbors—next door and everywhere—sing from windows, gasp for breath.
Each morning, still, there’s a lag, ever briefer, when I wake and don’t remember (there, the turquoise wall, my sweet man beside me, the field out the window). Then I do. 19, the age of my older daughter, home from college, housebound now, too old for this, too young. VI for virus, D for Disease. ID for id. Go back inside. This many over sixty, over eighty, that many under fifty. The babies largely spared, as if the good, gashed earth might try to grow them up without us—we who have defiled it—to be suckled by dogs, raised by wolves, and so the playgrounds twine with caution tape and colleges turn into hospitals, and how long ask the children—we don’t know, no one knows—but did you know that you can make a mask from underpants? Just place the crotch over your nose and mouth and leave the leg holes for your eyes.
Then shut your eyes.
Associate Research Professor, Executive Director, Center for Work and Family, MCAS
“But if we pay careful attention to the crucial elements this crisis has revealed: well-being, work-family, and belonging, what better organization we would have. And what a better world it would be.”
What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About What is Essential
By Brad Harrington
Published on April 29, 2020 on LinkedIn
For the first 20 years of my career, I worked in corporate roles in human resources, quality improvement and management education. While my roles were interesting and, I believe, impactful for the organizations I worked in, I always felt that my contributions were a bit out of the mainstream. After all, I wasn’t engaged in the core mission of those businesses I worked in, making, selling or supporting the organization’s products and services.
For the last 20 years, I’ve dedicated myself to directing the Boston College Center for Work & Family and teaching students at our university. The genesis of the Center resulted from the large influx of women entering into professional and managerial roles in corporate America in the mid-late 1980’s. At that time the work of the center focused on issues such as child care and flexible work options.
Over my time as director, we have evolved further into the broader areas of work-life, well-being, diversity and inclusion, and career management. We work on contributing to a wider range of issues that could be best summarized as enhancing “the employee experience.” Yet as often as organizational leaders assert that “people are our most important asset,” I still saw my work as outside of the mainstream of most business leaders’ day-to-day concerns.
But in the last month, as our Center’s focus shifted to the new reality of working and living through the coronavirus, our work has taken on new urgency and importance. As the many great employers we work with at the Center have struggled to respond to this strange, shared experience of a pandemic and sheltering in place, three things have preoccupied most Americans’ minds.
First and foremost, employees are worried about well-being, their own and that of their loved ones. For the first time in most people’s lives, we are collectively facing an existential threat that means well-being is not a given, but a shared aspiration. And the fear this threat nurtures makes us all deeply appreciative of our good health and the exceptional healthcare workers who bravely fight to restore the country’s well-being each day.
Second, there has beens an enormous coming to terms with the new reality of work and family. Legions of people are now working from home and, in most cases, they are quarantined in place with their families and children whose schools are closed for the foreseeable future. As a result, many of us are balancing full-time remote work with full-time child care and tutoring. And those of us that are grappling with this dual agenda are the lucky ones. Millions of “essential workers” are required to be at their jobs while facing an even more daunting challenge, how to ensure their kids who are at home will be cared for. Still others, over 26 million in the last four weeks, have lost their jobs and struggle with how to cover expenses to maintain their homes and provide food for their family.
Third, there is the concern about coping with social distancing and isolation. Many people, worry about how this period of quarantine, isolation and loneliness will impact all of us. These days in organizations, corporate diversity and inclusion (D&I) functions focus not simply on creating a diverse workforce, but increasingly on the challenges of inclusion and belonging. It is not enough to have a workforce that simply includes people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, etc. The key to a successful diversity program and organization, is helping all individuals know that they truly belong at the organization they are members of. And once again, at no previous time have we had such a common, shared experience in learning the critical importance of being connected, of belonging.
Well-being, work-family, belonging. I guess it’s taken 40 years and a pandemic to finally find myself in the mainstream of organizational life – the major preoccupations of our current collective struggles. But the truth of course, is that these were always the core issues even if they weren't recognized as such. Management trends and fads come and go and they often shift our focus to all manner of things. But if we pay careful attention to the crucial elements this crisis has revealed: well-being, work-family, and belonging, what better organization we would have. And what a better world it would be.
Maxim D. Shrayer
Professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies; Director, East European Studies Minor, MCAS
“How can one write poetry today without harboring hope that these lines shall lead one out of the labyrinth of political aggression, illness, and despair?”
Of Poetry, Politics, and Pandemics
By Maxim D. Shrayer
Between December 2019 and May 2020 I composed a series of English-language poems about the election year politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. A Jewish-Russian immigrant, for more than three decades I had lived with — and within — a language gap: while English had taken over as the language of prose, Russian had retained the special status of the language of poetry. And then it all quickly changed. Why was I suddenly moved to write topical verse and to do so in English? The explanation is simpler in existential terms and more tangled along cultural lines.
At the end of 2019 I experienced a surge of political hopelessness—mainly in response to the failed presidential impeachment and the lackluster performance of the then-Democratic presidential candidates. I abhorred the sitting president and lamented what had become of the Republican party of Reagan and elder Bush. Since coming to America as a political refugee from the former USSR in 1987, I had shared much of the Democratic Party’s traditional liberal values. And yet, as a survivor of a totalitarian regime, I feared not only the growing right-wing retrenchment but also the increasing left-wing tilt in the Democratic Party, a tilt betokened by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A gripping sense of despondency and angst found a spontaneous expression in English-language satirical verse:
The Democrats, my old fortress —
divided, tired, superweak —
I’ll vote, of course, but who to vote for?
My Super Tuesday’s looking bleak.
However, as my father and teacher, the writer David Shrayer-Petrov likes to say, “Life made its own arrangements.” With COVID-19 holding us captive, by the end of March 2020 I was writing about the pandemic:
Meanwhile the Ides of March augured disaster…
The crown prince of death had crossed the Styx
and from the underworld returned to spread death faster
than doctors could invent a medical fix.
The Trump was useless. Congress dragged its feet.
And I forgot about politics.
As life retreated and turned inward under the yoke of the deadly virus, my poems became less satirical and more lyrical. By summer I had found myself with almost 40 poems, set in Boston and on Cape Cod and chronicling the way politics and pandemics erode the fabric of our society. I named the new book Of Politics and Pandemics: Songs of a Russian Immigrant, and a Boston-based publisher agreed to release it in time for the presidential election.
In composing these poems I needed the English-language voice of a Russian expatriate alter ego who could live astride two languages and cultures and fluidly transition from the satirical to the confessional mode. I don’t want to be coy and pretend that “A Russian Immigrant” and I don’t share a great deal. Central to the book is a reflection on that remarkably intensive experience of family love that so many of us lived — are still living — in isolation. While I would never go so far as to speak of the artistic beneficence of this pandemic, I also know that I wouldn’t have written the new book without having sheltered in place with my American–born wife and daughters.
Brought to life by extreme political and epidemiological circumstances, these English-language poems became my method of survival. It was also a way of proving to myself that poetry can offer a modicum of faith and even a small dose of relief. How can one write poetry today without harboring hope that these lines shall lead one out of the labyrinth of political aggression, illness, and despair?
(An early version of the introduction appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books.)
A Selection from Maxim D. Shrayer’s Of Politics and Pandemics (Boston, 2020). Reproduced by permission of the author.
Look Homeward and Recoil
for Anna Brodsky-Krotkina
I heard Ms. Tereshkova at the Duma,
her face was shiny and her perm was iron-clad,
the speech she gave couldn’t be any dumber,
I listened and I thought: boy, am I glad
that we gave up this paradise of Soviet ladies
who wear party suits and hate the West,
who breathlessly live into their eighties
like mad matreshkas fallen out of the nest.
She was the first, the glorious kosmonavtka,
but not the first to dress the Leader’s arse
with kisses though she wasn’t a nut case,
her speech was not a constitutional farce.
Her message was: the foreign agents send us
their viruses across the airspace,
we need a mighty ruler to defend us,
Tsar Vladimir will shield us from disgrace.
I watched the speech by Valentina Tereshkova,
she looked so good, her eyes so brutally kind,
she was a perfectly post-Soviet cover
for everything we immigrants left behind.
Go Clamming and Recite Russian Poetry
for M. and T.
At low tide I bring my daughters
where the ocean meets the pond,
we call this area “Three Waters,”
beyond it lies Nantucket Sound.
We join a troop of local pickers
digging the yellow sandbar;
in our parti-colored slickers
we look like tourists though we are
Bostonians. The virus, dreadful,
has sent us running to the Cape,
in Chatham we’ve taken refuge,
this dacha is our last escape.
How long we’ll last? G-d only knows,
the clams lie buried in the mud,
the sun is bright, the panic grows,
G-d grant that we don’t go mad…
Warding Off Despair
for mama and papa
I can’t convince my parents to stay
indoors and follow the quarantine.
They say: “Don’t isolate us.” “Ah, touché!”
I can’t convince my daughter who’s fourteen
that patience is a virtue, and the world
will soon recover and become pristine.
I can’t convince my daughter who is twelve
that Levin’s love for Kitty is not a lie,
and Vronsky’s love for Anna is not a poisoned well.
I can’t convince myself the plague is nigh,
and we should hastily evacuate
to the deep country where we could survive.
I can’t convince my wife it’s not too late
to load our things into a makeshift ark
and sail off toward an unknown fate.
And so what’s left? The pharmacy, the bank,
the Russian store, take out: Japanese,
the park, the soccer field, the riverbank,
the puffy clouds, the sun, the ocean breeze…
I’m still alive. Not down on my knees.
A Post-Soviet Guide to Coronavirus-Induced Insomnia
Lenin liked the Moonlight Sonata and Swiss penknives,
Stalin liked plays by Bulgakov and funerals of old Bolsheviks,
Khrushchev liked corn on the cob and abstract painting,
Brezhnev liked young nurses and boar hunting,
Andropov liked chamber theater and lawn tennis,
Chernenko liked black holes and Siberian dumplings,
Gorbachev liked failed empires and Louis Vuitton bags,
Yeltsin liked any kind of vodka and brass bands,
Putin liked pestilence and silence.
A Prayer for Italy
for Stefano Garzonio
Death dares not rhyme with Italy,
for Italy only rhymes with vita—
perhaps not always sweet, yet vibrantly
alive, beloved, undefeated.
To Russian Jews this love came free,
here we spent our Roman holiday,
we rested, one foot in Ladispoli,
the other in America’s doorway.
O Italy, who will steal your bicycles
and rent Umberto D.’s old lodgings?
Milan, devoid of your miracles
the world feels so lonely.
What use are verses of remembrance
when the Italian earth is trembling,
when Bergamo, like a frenzied ambulance,
is racing to its day of reckoning?
The Tiber meets the sea at Ostia,
the Arno sleeps at Ponte Vecchio.
These broken rhymes, a feeble offering…
My friends in Italy, I pray for you.
(An Homage to Daniil Kharms)
If in my Soviet childhood
I’d heard this episode,
I’d think that in all likelihood
I’d think that in all likelihood
‘twas utterly absurd.
A Russian Immigrant put his kids
and wife into the car,
his plan was to escape COVID
his plan was to escape COVID
by moving not too far.
They quickly realized: their hound
by accident stayed behind,
they turned around
they turned around
and went back to Brookline.
They drove across the empty fields
on a desolate highway,
a runaway feels
a runaway feels
the way they felt that day.
“Don’t worry, guys,” the Immigrant said,
cheering up his family.
“The Cape is safe
the Cape is safe,
at the dacha we’ll be free.”
State Trooper stopped them at the bridge
and asked them who they were,
they felt on edge
they felt on edge
but tried not to demur.
Then at the supermarket where
they’d shopped for many years,
the cashier’s stare
the cashier’s stare
confirmed their worst fears.
Around the corner from their lane
a town cop pulled them over,
“What brings you down?
What brings you down?”
he asked them with a glower.
“Our place is here,” they replied,
“our taxes fund your school.”
They really tried to be polite
they really tried to be polite,
tried hard to keep their cool.
That evening as they walked their hound
a neighbor accosted them,
“You bring your Boston germs around
you bring your Boston germs around
and spread ‘em in our town.”
Our Immigrant wanted to transplant
his family to Cape Cod,
but now he worries that his plan
but now he worries that his plan
will do them little good.
He sleeps all day, he guards all night
his family and homestead,
his rifle is loaded all right
his rifle is loaded but his heart,
his heart is filled with dread.
La Chanson des Chiens
Dogs in the park maintain the proper distance,
they probably sense the owners’ reluctance
to come together and take an open stance
against the power of happenstance.
The park is like a hospital; with masks on
the people’s faces hide their contagion,
yet every walker in the park could be an agent
of the mysterious, virulent invasion.
Some canine partners look quite attractive
in their masks and gloves, hence the protective
attire has become the new elective
affinity, a fashion for the restive.
The weeping willows clench their greening lancets,
to them, of course, the human drama is senseless,
with our dogs, in our silly dresses
we look incredibly defenseless.
Life in the park is growing distant, static;
we stand apart and talk: an Irish medic,
a Russian Immigrant, a Parisian academic.
Another day of the pandemic…
Cholera in Crimea
And I remember a photo: a military
Man, clean-shaven like a billiards ball
I don’t remember the epidemic, just the panic:
August 1970, Sebastopol, the smell
of rotting apricots, my mother’s dainty tunic,
Uchkuevka beach, the cotton heat, the groundswell
of fear. Seething lines at the ticket office,
vacationers like wartime evacuees.
The talk of spreading illness. Words like “orifice”
or “dehydration” hanging in the breeze.
The hasty packing. My collection of stag beetles
forgotten on the windowsill. Our train
arriving at Kursk Station. Empty bottles.
My parents kissing on the platform. Reunion.
I didn’t know another parting was near:
my father, a doctor, would be dispatched to Crimea.
Maxim D. Shrayer is a Professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies at Boston College and the author of fifteen books in English and Russian, among them A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and, most recently, Of Politics and Pandemics: Songs of a Russian Immigrant. He lives in Brookline and South Chatham with his wife, Dr. Karen E. Lasser, and their daughters Mira and Tatiana.
Copyright © 2021 by Maxim D. Shrayer