What’s demanded of us for living relationally and responsibly in the midst of a global pandemic? What’s demanded in this time of uncertainty, chaos, and crisis—a time that’s highlighting how precarious everyday life is, especially for people meant not to thrive within oppression?
Sitting with these questions, here are three scenes. May weaving together story threads help with realizing—and perhaps reaching toward—collective responsibilities.
Scene 1: Processing with Friends
I’m complaining with a close friend: “I’m so angry with colleagues—primarily white people—acting like it’s just an individual’s decision whether to attend this year’s conference. ‘If you don’t want to go, then don’t go,’ they say, as though we’re not all in this together. As though there aren’t all sorts of considerations—from economic and institutional to family and health matters. As though the professional association has no responsibility. As though it’s unreasonable for folks to ask for disciplinary leadership.
We’re sharing how the outbreaks are impacting us and how we see colleges and universities responding. The more we talk, the more I notice familiar anger (and the question of where to direct this anger) that people mean so little within our institutions and within the United States cultural context. Any single issue—from teaching online to getting across town to preparing food—raises many more issues that underscore the severe precarity and injustice enacted on so many people.
How do we continue to live without assured rights to housing and healthcare? My anger turns to RAGE that food, water, shelter, rest—that security and health—aren’t protected as human rights. We’re not just in a coronavirus crisis: we’re in an everyday and escalating crisis of dehumanizing and depriving people, which cuts off all our humanity. My heart h-u-r-t-s …
This isn’t new. This isn’t just now. But the continued violence is too much. This needs to end. If not now, then when?
Scene 2: Navigating a Maze of Changing Plans
I wake from a dream that I’m stuck in quicksand, unable to move until others assist me. My body sinks into the mattress, recalling the dream’s details and realizing what my mind-body-soul is processing during sleep. I do, indeed, feel stuck in quicksand.
I’m unsure what the next days and weeks and months will bring. Do I work on the keynote that I’m scheduled to give? Or one of the workshops coming up? Or do I, instead, spend time canceling travel arrangements? Should I work on adjusting these presentations for an online audience? Where should I put my energy?
Instead of answering these questions, I direct my attention to where it’s going too frequently these days: scrolling through live updates related to coronavirus. I read headlines and a few details, then skim commentary on Twitter, then call a friend to process, and then turn back to live updates. The cycle continues with my anxiety mounting and my energy draining. I need a nap.
So, my body brings me back to sleep and to processing through dreams, where I find myself navigating a maze, feeling uncertain about which direction to turn, realizing that I can’t make this decision on my own.
Scene 3: Interrupting “Business as Usual”
I read and compose emails, wondering how to acknowledge that we’re in the midst of virus outbreaks (now a global pandemic) so that emailing itself feels not-normal and not-ok, even as I feel called to respond.
I write lines like: “The world is so rough and rocky right now. Take care.” and “What a time to be thinking about travel!” and “I’ve been wondering what to do, too. So much seems uncertain. I hope you’re well, and I send love.”
As the day goes on, I begin using the salutations of “wishes for health and wellness” and “may we all be safe and well.” With each line, I feel into a desire for different language—language to better express collective investment and community care. I revise my closing line to read: “wishes for health, wellness, and mutual aid.”
While I eke out these expressions, I wonder what I’m communicating by emailing at all. I want to interrupt “business as usual,” but here I am sitting at my computer, prioritizing the inbox. Instead, my body wants to “Cancel Everything,” in the words of Yascha Mounk’s Atlantic article.
I share the article with my friend Rasha Diab, who immediately alerts me to the troubling language of “social distancing.” It’s essentially the opposite language of social responsibility, the opposite of community care or mutual aid. I’m struck by how my desire for language that asks everyone to stop—to link individual actions with collective needs—still falls into the individualistic worldview—a worldview that imagines people who die of coronavirus as someone else, someone unrelated, someone who’s expendable.
We talk about how capitalism (neoliberalism) dehumanizes us all, asking us to prioritize work above all else. Above health and embodied knowledge. Above relations and accountability. And, certainly, above community care and collective responsibilities.
Beyond the Scenes: Reaching Toward Collective Responsibilities (Response-Abilities)
Threads of these scenes are loosely woven, unraveling through thoughts and emotions. As soon as I grasp one thread, many others asked to be acknowledged, reminding me there’s no single storyline.
In this time of coronavirus, as I feel and think, live and relate, I’m motivated by the following questions:
- How do I/we respond in relational ways?
- How do I/we embrace the ethics of community care and collective responsibilities?
- How do I/we act from commitments to social, racial, and environmental justice?
These remain open and ongoing questions accompanying me into everyday actions and interactions like the ones represented in the scenes.
The keynote I’ve been preparing (which is now canceled) had me writing about why I parse responsibilities as response-abilities (a move I learned to do through disciplinary training in composition, rhetoric, and literacy studies). Basically, to act responsibly (or to meet responsibilities), we must develop the abilities to respond.
To respond = to take action, to answer, to be accountable, to practice leadership, to reply, to acknowledge, to meet what’s required or asked of us.
As I keep considering how to respond—and what abilities I’ll need to block, build, and be with, alongside, for, and to others—I’m asking how to really embrace the idea that “we’re in this together.” What responses am I able to contribute? What responses are offered by others? What’s involved in reaching toward collective responsibilities?
This post is written by Beth Godbee, Ph.D. for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For related posts, you might try “Responding to White Supremacist Terror, This Time in El Paso” and “Holding Space and Being Present: Two Resolutions Following the Las Vegas Shooting.”
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