Faculty Insight: “Hope and COVID-19” by Prof. Pat Shade

professor in a campus building

Dr. Patrick Shade, associate professor of philosophy at Rhodes College, is the author of the book Habits of Hope. His teaching and research interests include medical ethics, care ethics, the history of philosophy, and philosophy of education.

It’s easy to multiply fears during this time of uncertainty. Will I get the virus, and if so, will I survive? If I survive, will I suffer long-term effects? And what will happen to my loved ones? To my future plans? In the midst of this pandemic, we need a good dose of hope.

But we also need to recognize that hope is a dangerous thing, especially when interpreted as a form of wishing. Wishing COVID-19 won’t touch our lives does nothing to stop it. False hopes are doubly dangerous in that they can inspire reckless behavior as well as waste precious energy and increase the likelihood of despair. What we need, then, are hopes that walk the tightrope between sober acknowledgment of real conditions and passionate commitment to cherished goods. The key, I argue, is to cultivate pragmatic hoping. At its heart are habits we all possess in some measure, namely, habits of resourcefulness, persistence, and courage. I call these “habits of hope,” and this is a good time to nurture and interrelate them.

As members of the Rhodes community, we have many resources relevant to finding our way during this time of crisis. Education is itself a hopeful practice, since it focuses on developing abilities that secure for us a desired, but still out of reach, future. As participants in higher education, we each have already secured a strong basis on which to build. Even though most of us are physically distant from one another, our collective resourcefulness can still protect us from isolation and despair.

To see what I mean, consider what I call our “economy of hope.” We often think of an economy in relation to goods and services that can be monetized, but more broadly an economy is a system of resources—whether material or human (or spiritual)—and the norms that guide their development and distribution. It has components shaped by (1) bodies of knowledge; (2) practitioners of that knowledge; (3) institutions (of research, of government, and even of insurance) that support relevant practices; (4) laws that protect against careless and inhuman practices; and (5) morality.

As members of the Rhodes community, we have direct access to, and are participants in, many of the components of an economy of hope. As a college, we focus much energy on components (1) and (2), and as a liberal arts college with a strong commitment to values, we have much to say, think, and do about (5). The more we know—and the more self-reflective we are about our practices and the norms that affect them—the more resources we have to define and pursue genuinely realizable hopes. We don’t need to waste our time on wishing; we can hope in a manner that translates into planning and moving towards realizing our desired goods.

Consider our many resources. At the core are our habits of critical thinking and doing. Here, “critical” means not “negative and destructive,” but “vital.” The critical thinking skills we’ve developed can protect us from panicking and help us distinguish fact from fiction. An important product of our liberal education is the ability to think across disciplinary lines—to integrate what we know, think, and feel—so that we can hope with our hearts and our heads. 

Reflect on how our various courses foster insights relevant to understanding and responding to the pandemic. From the sciences, we learn how viruses behave, and our courses in history and the social sciences teach us how people have responded to past pandemics. In Search, we study the deplorable manner in which the Athenians responded to their plague. Thucydides’ account records a possible response, but we know it is not the only one. Our service experiences show us deep wells of generosity into which we can dip during times of need. Our courses in the arts offer us diverse ways of exploring and expressing our feelings. Resourcefulness is vital to maintaining the connection with others that fuels our hopes to weather this storm as best we can.

Beyond resourcefulness, we also have habits of persistence and courage. Encountering dramatic changes to our daily lives is hard and disconcerting. Persistence requires maintaining commitment to chosen goals, but it’s a dynamic commitment that adjusts means and ends in light of one another. We can’t persist in our older patterns without increasing the spread of the virus; thus, our classes are now online. It may be tempting to “check out” during an online course, especially if no one is watching. But doing so abandons an opportunity to continue developing the skills and knowledge identified as important to pursuing a higher education. Persistence, then, requires reflecting on which things are needed to maintain amidst all this change. Persistence is often funded by the love and support of others who know one’s goals and abilities best. Pursuing hopes is rarely a private affair.

In a time when we are faced with a barrage of conflicting information and messages, we need to not only persist in finding the truth, but also have the courage to state it. We can emulate Dr. Anthony Fauci, who draws on his expertise to articulate and defend the truth, even when it contradicts the views of people standing less than three feet away. We can emulate Greta Thunberg, who showed how effectively young people can command attention when the adults in the room don’t really get it. And, of course, we can combine the insights of these two role models to ensure that young people realize the risks we all face and the extent to which getting through this requires both individual and collective efforts. Finally, facing sickness and death is just plain scary, but again, we don’t have to do this alone.

Beyond these three habits of hope—resourcefulness, persistence, courage—is perhaps the most powerful aspect of the life of hope: hopefulness. I understand hopefulness as the master habit enabling us to remain positively oriented towards the future even when particular hopes fail. It is what is meant by “hoping beyond hope.” Hopefulness arises from coordinating hope’s other habits, ensuring that they inform and are interwoven with one another. Cultivating persistence, resourcefulness, and courage in tandem with one another helps us see—and remember—that we are capable of transcending current crises, especially when we think and act critically and collectively.

Of course, we have to be realistic and recognize that many of our hopes in the context of the pandemic are contingent on the judgment and actions of other people, whether they be our neighbors or our leaders.  In a democracy, we have a responsibility to participate in collective decisions, especially to press our leaders to be both realistic and resourceful in their (really “our”) responses.  Hoping always involves an element of vulnerability, but pragmatic hoping calls on us to prepare and respond as actively, intelligently, and compassionately as we can.