3/17/2020 15 Comments
During this period of social distancing the new normal for my wife and I involves juggling teleworking at home while helping our three children keep up with their schoolwork and keep up their spirits as they are isolated from their schools and their friends. This morning, my 5-year-old son entertained himself by building some puzzles, but then he left them in the middle of the floor. As we were cleaning up before lunch I encouraged my 8-year-old daughter to help her brother clean up the puzzles, to which she responded indignantly, “But I didn’t play with them!”
I took the opportunity to remind her (and myself) that, especially during this difficult time, we must look beyond strict moral rules about personal rights and responsibilities and look for ways to generously and graciously serve others, with gratitude in our hearts for all of the undeserved goods that we enjoy.
This lesson I shared with my daughter is a lesson that we must all take to heart as we deal with the uncomfortable side-effects of social distancing amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. A world where we all demand our rights and only help solve those problems for which we were personally responsible is a cold world indeed. A world where we give to each other all and only what we owe to each other is a world devoid of love. In the face of this global health crisis, the challenge before us is not simply to live, but also to learn something of what it means to love.
Across the country, our primary and secondary schools are closing and trying to provide as much support as they can for parents who are trying to continue their children’s education at home. Our colleges and universities are transitioning to 100% online education. Our small businesses are trying to balance their need for continued revenue with the importance of protecting and preserving public health. Our elderly are struggling to balance their need to avoid public spaces with their need to travel to multiple stores in an attempt to find groceries and other basic necessities like toilet paper. Our churches are trying to find creative ways to serve their communities while having to cancel services. Our healthcare providers are trying to protect their own health and provide for the medical needs of their communities with sorely limited medical equipment like masks and hand sanitizer, dwindling numbers of hospital beds, and far too few medical tests available.
Meanwhile, the social commentators, which is everyone with a social media account, are expressing contemptuous moral criticisms at every turn. Even those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid coming into contact with the Coronavirus are already feeling the serious financial, psychological, relational, and ethical symptoms of this pandemic. Speaking as a doctor (of ethics), my prognosis is that these symptoms will only get worse before they get better.
In response to this growing suffering, many Americans have responded by emphasizing an ethics of rules, rights, and responsibilities that focuses on who owes what to whom. Some have suggested that colleges, universities, and private schools must prorate tuition payments to account for any missed days of teaching, even though their professors and teachers are working overtime to develop remote learning resources. Others have suggested that the government owes tax dollars back to anyone whose income has been negatively affected by government-imposed restrictions on public gatherings. Some insist that it is their right to stockpile food and toilet paper, while others have suggested publicly yelling at apparent hoarders in an attempt to shame them into putting items back on shelves. Still others insist that they have a right to continue gathering in large groups as often as they please, even though doing so is contributing to the spread of a highly contagious and deadly disease.
If we are going to survive this pandemic with not only our physical health, but also our moral health—indeed, our humanity—intact, we must go beyond an ethics of rigid rules, rights, and responsibilities, to an ethics of grace, generosity, and gratitude. The best among us are already demonstrating these virtues in both grand and quiet ways, but I offer these reflections here as a reminder to all of us of the importance of shifting our public conversation away from that which is merely morally required to that which is good.
To show grace to another involves being patient, being quick to praise and slow to criticize, and looking for ways to help them without making them feel inferior. Rather than criticizing school curricula, parents must show grace to school administrators and teachers who are working overtime to put together last-minute lesson plans for at-home learning. Rather than complaining about the lack of available food on the shelves, shoppers must show grace to overworked grocers who are struggling to keep shelves stocked and lines moving. And we must all look for ways to serve those who are most in need in the coming weeks and months, without making them feel inferior because they are in need.
Graciousness supports and is supported by another virtue—generosity. Generosity involves giving to others well beyond what is required or owed. The global pandemic is affecting us all, but some of us are suffering more than others. If we are going to survive this pandemic together, we must all look for ways to give generously and graciously to others out of our time, talents, and resources.
Just like my daughter who didn’t make the mess with the puzzle, none of us is personally responsible for this virus or its economic effects, but it is a cold world where everyone only cleans up the messes they were responsible for making. We can generously practice social distancing in order to protect the health of others, especially those who are immunocompromised. Those of us who can afford it can generously contribute our money to food banks, churches, and other nonprofit organizations who are trying to serve their communities. We can also practice generosity by shopping as much as possible at small businesses and offering larger than normal tips to service workers.
And no matter how bad things get, we must remember to be grateful for our lives, our health (as long as we have it), our friends and families, and all of the people on whose hard work and goodwill we rely every day.
During my last trip to the grocery store, the cashier started to ask me out of habit, “Were you able to find every…” and then he answered his own question: “forget it.” Rather than complaining to the cashier about all of the items that were completely sold out, I told him and the woman who was helping to bag my groceries that I was looking forward to trying some new foods this week. Their relieved and surprised responses suggested that they hadn’t heard many positive or grateful remarks in recent days.
When we feel grateful for the good things in our lives, we do not see them as things we deserve, but as undeserved gifts, and this can help us to graciously recognize the generosity and goodwill of others. But this is counter-cultural—we live in an age in which ethical reflection is consumed almost entirely by focus on individual rights.
While rights certainly are important and we must defend basic human rights in every corner of our society, a moral outlook that sees every good thing as something to which we have a right is an outlook that leaves no room for gratitude. A moral perspective that is concerned only with self and rights will, in the end, be self-righteous.
Rather than demanding our rights to every personal comfort and freedom we normally enjoy (many of which are not rights at all), and rather than helping others only when the rules of moral responsibility strictly require it, in this trying time we must all look for ways to show gracious generosity and generous gratitude to others. If we do, we might just get through this pandemic with both our health and our humanity intact.
I am in love with my wife.
Katie and I have been married for thirteen years and I cannot even imagine my life without her. Married life is rarely easy and there are days when I do not feel in love with her (and likely many more days when she does not feel in love with me!), but I never desire to be married to anyone else. She is the only one for me. You might say that she is my soulmate.
Perhaps you don't believe in soulmates. Neither do I, at least not in one popular sense of the term. That is, I do not believe that there is just one person out there in the world with whom I could have been happily married, or who is uniquely "perfect" for me. In fact, had my life gone differently, I expect that I could have fallen in love with someone else and that she (whoever she is) could have ended up being "the one" for me.
Of course, I couldn't have been happily married with just anyone. Katie and I are united by our common faith in and love for Jesus Christ, we have always had compatible senses of vocation and visions for family life, we share many interests and passions, and we have always greatly enjoyed each other's company. But surely she is not the only woman with whom I could have been so compatible.
In what sense, then, is she my soulmate? In what sense is she the only one for me? In his essay "Love's Bond," the late Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick explains that when two people enter into a loving romantic relationship they begin to form a "shared identity" with each other. The two, who were once "I" and "you," begin to form a "we."
One aspect of this new shared identity is shared emotions. My love for Katie causes me to be saddened by the things that sadden her and to share in her joy when things go well for her. I really do love her with all my heart.
Another important aspect of a "we" that Nozick highlights is the "pooling of autonomy." When Katie and I first began dating, I made most of my decisions independently of her, except when we were planning to spend time together. The longer we have been together, however, the more we naturally take each other into account in our decisions. Of course we make major decisions together about our finances, our parenting, and our long-term plans. But we also take each other into account in more mundane decisions, such as what kind of food to buy at the grocery store, what shows to watch on TV, and what to read. Sometimes when I am eating at a restaurant without Katie, I will even avoid ordering a dish that I know she would like because I do not want to enjoy it without her.
In marriage, the two become one, not just physically, but psychologically through the forming of a "we." Even before you are married, when you fall in love and begin to share your beloved's emotions and pool your autonomy, your individual identities - your very selves - begin to overlap. This can be illustrated by two overlapping circles like the wedding rings pictured above - Nozick suggests that this might be the traditional heart shape. What were once two independent selves become united in a shared identity.
Each person in a "we" maintains some of his or her independence and unique personality, but the new shared identity - the "we" - is a part of each of them. Just like our individual identities, every shared identity is unique. Once you have formed a "we" there is only one person who can "complete" you in love. This is how someone who might not have been your soulmate before you met can become your soulmate over time. Soulmates are not "out there" to be discovered, but they can develop.
This is why breakups can be so painful. To lose the one you love is, in a very real sense, to lose a part of yourself. Sometimes it is best to breakup with the one you love. But the more that you have formed a shared identity, the more difficult and painful the breakup will be. So you must be careful about whom you choose to date. You might think it is merely a "casual" relationship, but you could unknowingly be forming a "we" with someone who would not be a good lifelong partner for you. Fortunately, God's love can heal any broken heart. It is His love that makes our hearts whole. Even so, those of you who are searching for "the one" must try to guard your hearts, only allowing your heart and your self to be formed together with another whose heart is already shaped by God's love.
What about those of us who are married? How can we learn to love our spouses as our soulmates? I said above that I am in love with my wife. I also love my wife. Loving and being in love are not the same thing. To say that I am in love with my wife is to say that I have passionate, loving feelings toward her, I am preoccupied with her beauty, I am filled with excitement at her presence. Although I always love my wife, I do not always feel so in love with her. As anyone who has been married for very long knows, the feelings of being in love are fleeting, even in the best marriages. We must not depend on the feelings of being in love for our happiness. If we do, we will not only miss out on happiness, we will miss out on true love.
If we want to be happy and whole in marriage, we must commit to treating our spouses with love, kindness, and tenderness even when we don't feel like it. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we must do the works of love even when the feelings of love are not present. Husbands, we must follow the example of Christ by loving our wives as we love ourselves (Ephesians 5:25). Wives, you must do the same for your husbands. For, once you have formed a shared identity, to love your spouse is, in a very real sense, to love a part of yourself - your "other half," your soulmate.
Why we should believe the best of our political opponents
Character is often revealed in conflict. And if the political and social conflict of recent months has revealed anything about the character of our nation, it is this: Americans—at least many of those with the loudest voices—assume the worst of people who disagree with them. Sadly, American Christians are no exception.
If you voted for President Trump, then you obviously condone racist bigotry and sexual assault. If you voted for Mrs. Clinton, then you obviously condone treason and the mass murder of the unborn through abortion. If you say that Black Lives Matter, then you must not believe that all lives matter. If you say that All Lives Matter, then you are insensitive to systemic racism. If you are for open borders, then you are blind to the threat of domestic terrorism. If you are against open borders, then you are deaf to the cries of innocent immigrants escaping from the terrors of war and genocide. If the media gives too much coverage to a story, then they are biased and irresponsible; not enough coverage, then they are apathetic and irresponsible.
Our stubborn unwillingness to believe anything but the worst of those with whom we disagree would be understandable, though still lamentable, if it were an effective strategy for changing people’s hearts and actions. But it is not. As every good teacher, coach, and business leader knows, believing the worst in others is a decidedly ineffective strategy for bringing about positive change. If people believe the worst about you without giving you a chance to prove them wrong, what do you have to lose by being at your worst? Look for the worst in others and you’ll likely find it.
Fortunately, there is a better way—the way of love. If we want to bring out the best in others, we must follow Jesus's command to love them as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Part of loving our neighbors as ourselves is believing the best of them. In his book, Works of Love, the 19th-century Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argues that the best way to help others become more loving is to “presuppose” love in them. Taking his cue from the biblical teaching that love “builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1), he argues that it is God who lays the foundation of love in our hearts. Since every building must be built up from its foundation, if we want to build others up in love we must begin by actively looking for evidence of God’s love in them, expecting to find it, even when it is hardest to see—“even in the misguided, even in the corrupted, even in the most hateful.”
Yet, presupposing love in our political opponents does not come naturally to us, and sometimes for good reason. How can we see God’s love in people who treat others with blatant disrespect, or who support policies that would threaten the safety, or health, or even the lives of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable? While this is psychologically difficult, it is not impossible. In fact, this is how we already love our families and closest friends. When one of my children does something that offends or disappoints someone, I find myself wishing that the offended party would see the love in my child's heart as I do, rather than seeing my precious one through the ungenerous and judgmental eyes of disappointment, anger, or hatred. We are all in need of grace and forgiveness after all.
Kierkegaard suggests that when others—even our enemies—recognize that we view them with the generous vision of love and believe the best of them, they will be encouraged to rise to the level of our belief. He asks, “Have you not experienced this yourself, my listener? If anyone has ever spoken to you in such a way or treated you in such a way that you really felt built up, this was because you very vividly perceived how he presupposed love to be in you.”
How many of us have been spurred on in our moral and spiritual growth by the generous, undeserved encouragement of another? How many of us have experienced the increase of grateful love in our hearts when someone believes the best of us, especially when we have done something to disappoint or offend? Quick and full forgiveness strengthens a repentant heart. And a generous presumption of love often functions like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The presumption, even against the evidence, helps to draw out the love in which it believes. In keeping with this insight, recent psychological research reveals that when we publicly attribute virtues to people, and thus indicate to them and others that we think they are virtuous, they are more likely to perform actions consistent with those virtues than are people who we simply exhort to be more virtuous (Mark Alfano discusses this research at length in his book, Character as Moral Fiction [Cambridge, 2013]).
But if we try to see others as better than the evidence suggests they are, don’t we disregard the truth? How willing we are to disregard truth in order to condemn, but never to praise! Fortunately, we do not have to disregard the truth in order to believe the best of others. We simply have to choose to interpret the available evidence in the most generous way possible. We have to choose to see others as we wish to be seen—in the best possible light, the light of love. As Kierkegaard observes, “If mistrust can actually see something as less than it is, then love also can see something as greater than it is.”
This is not to say that we should stop criticizing our leaders and fellow citizens when they treat others disrespectfully. Nor should we stop protesting unjust laws and policies. Nor should we make ourselves vulnerable to the mistreatment of others. Believing the best does not preclude preparing for the worst. But as we protest and fight for justice we must not give in to the temptation to believe the worst of those whose actions and policies we oppose. If we really want to inspire positive change in the hearts of others instead of fomenting hate, we must presuppose love. By lovingly believing the best of others, including our political opponents, we just might help them become more loving. And even if we do not help them become more loving, we will become more loving ourselves.
I love Jesus, my family, basketball, and music. I teach philosophy and I think and write about ethics, emotions, virtues, and Christian thought. In a culture that encourages us to jump to conclusions and form firm opinions with little reflection, I invite you to think slowly and carefully with me about how to live well in our complex world.