J.B. Potter & James Potter

Rising Above the Coronavirus Crisis: Using the Past for Orientation in the Present

09 May, 2020
Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has turned the world upside down. For an interconnected society that is used to being on the move, two months at home have felt like years. While some hoard toilet paper in an effort to exert some sense of control over their reality, others, even those in power, dismiss the pandemic and act as if everything were “normal.” Fundamentally, we all are attempting to orient ourselves during this uncertain time.

Knowingly or unknowingly, individuals practice orientation. Like breathing, it is essential to life, but occurs almost unconsciously. It is the framework for interpreting an ever-changing world and navigating everyday situations. In this decision-making process, we look for footholds within this framework. Footholds emerge from the recognition of patterns that support our thoughts and actions. Underpinning these footholds are memories – cherry-picked reminders of what we have done that serve as reference points for the decisions we make.

Like trails of breadcrumbs that show us the way, memories lead us in different directions based on our orientation. Although our orientation is primarily informed by our own personal memories, it need not be limited to them. If we seek to transform the specific actions we recall into a general call to action, we must, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “[touch] the mystic chords of memory” – use our collective past to orient ourselves in our individual present. By doing so, we can put the current crisis into perspective while emotionally equipping ourselves to deal with the “new normal.” A perfect example of the interplay between orientation and memory can be found on the outskirts of Colonial Williamsburg. This literal foothold is a footbridge on the Virginia Peninsula, not far from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

The city of Williamsburg became the capital of the Virginia Colony in 1699. Over three centuries later, Colonial Williamsburg is a major tourist attraction. With street after street of period buildings, this open-air museum is staffed by historical interpreters whose appearance, behavior, and surroundings give you a glimpse of life in late eighteenth-century Virginia. Designed for pedestrians, Colonial Williamsburg is accessible from the visitor center via a footbridge and an adjoining trail. The farther you physically walk along the footbridge, the further you metaphorically travel back in time.

As you begin your leisurely stroll across the bridge, you are greeted by a compass-shaped panel at your feet. It tells you that “you are leaving the 21st century.” At regular intervals over the 330-foot (100-meter) span of the bridge, there are rectangular, bronze plaques embedded in the walkway. On the top of each panel, you see the words “From this date…” accompanied by a year or decade.

One of the first inscriptions you happen upon describes how life was different in the 1980s. It reads: “your personal computer is your brain.” A few steps later, you arrive in 1940s, when “you watch no TV.” By the time you get to the decades that bookend the turn of the nineteenth century, the differences between now and then are drastic. In the 1820s, “you cannot travel overland more than 70 miles [(ca. 112 kilometers)] per day.” In the 1800s, “almost everything you eat was raised nearby.” By the 1790s, “your latest news is more than one week old.” At the end of the bridge, another compass-shaped panel reports that “you are entering the American Colonies.”

These plaques are subtle invitations to imagine how technology affects the habits of our orientation – our daily routines and the rhythm of our lives. By analyzing the ideas we encountered on this cleverly constructed “Walk Back in Time,” we can gain insights into how the coronavirus affects our orientation. News, for example, is no longer a week, a day, or even an hour old. In the age of mass media, TV and the Internet – augmented by increasingly personalized digital devices – allow us to follow developments across the world in real time. From the comfort of our living rooms and kitchens, we can track the spread of coronavirus in New York, Italy, and China.

The integration of technology into our daily lives has altered our orientation. The rapid dissemination of up-to-date information can inundate us with a never-ending newsfeed of stories. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus has been portrayed as a lethal threat to public health. As the situation worsens, suffering and dying cast ever longer shadows. Faced with the reality of our mortality, we seek to improve our chances of survival. This change in orientation has manifested itself in our heightened desire to keep ourselves fed and clean. In urban areas of the United States, for instance, lines of people snake through the parking lots of grocery stores, as news helicopters fly overhead and toilet paper and hand sanitizer fly off the shelves.

These supermarket scenes are a stark reminder of our dependence on industrial agriculture as well as our orientation to the food we eat. For most people, food comes from factory-fed stores, not family-owned farms. Unlike the inhabitants of the American Colonies in the 1800s, almost everything we eat is raised far away, often overseas. Modern forms of transportation – planes, trains, trucks, and ships – make this mode of consumption logistically possible through just-in-time production and supply-chain networks, but also enable coronavirus to spread from place to place with alarming speed. As widespread as an oil crisis and as disruptive as a natural disaster, a pandemic is the worst case scenario for a globalized world. Since it is an invisible killer with the potential to affect everyone everywhere, coronavirus obliges us to rethink how we interact with each other and with our environment.

It’s easy to equate taking care of ourselves with buying and consuming, because a key part of our orientation remains unchanged. Our sense of value is still rooted in dollars and cents. From the government, for instance, we want relief in the form of “cash, no questions asked,” in the words of author Roxane Gay. In the short term, putting money into our pockets tides us over and helps keep unwelcome thoughts of hardship and survival at bay. If we are intent on developing routines that will empower us to better navigate long-lasting crises, however, we have to integrate more self-sufficiency and sustainability into our orientation.

A step in the direction of independence and viability could be a literal step into the great outdoors. As was the case across the globe during the First and Second World Wars, victory gardens – in backyards, in window boxes, and on rooftops – would build food security at the grassroots level and would teach us how to ration resources. With limited personal connections to loved ones for the time being, we could cultivate our dormant connection to the earth. Achieving this lofty goal means fighting an uphill battle against an entrenched orientation that pervades the modern era.

Our society is structured around business productivity and mass-market consumerism. Due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, however, consumption of most goods and services has declined substantially. As companies change their sales models in an effort to attract customers, they encourage us to keep our orientation anchored in the world we knew before the crisis. From fast food chains to auto manufacturers, the message is practically the same. To persuade us to use its redesigned drive-through with minimized personal contact, Burger King closes its latest commercial by saying – “Let us take care of you while you take care of yourself.” To promote home delivery of new cars with favorable financing, the Ford Motor Company implores us at the end of its advertisement – “You have a lot to take care of. Let us help take care of you.”

SARS-CoV-2 is a reality check for our orientation, because the virus prompts us to question what we care about and why. We reassess not only our personal beliefs, but also our political views about the role that the public sector should play in the private sector. As we reorient ourselves in reaction to the crisis, what we value changes, and government adjusts itself accordingly. In this way, a disease in the body politic exposes deficiencies in a public body, be they in health care, unemployment benefits, or lending programs. The more a political system is oriented toward free enterprise and economic growth, the more acute such shortcomings will be. Addressing these issues through new policies and legislation will no doubt help us to cope with the immediate effects of this emergency. Nevertheless, for the long term, it is important that we use our response to the coronavirus to better understand the relationship between our orientation and society.

The most significant reorientation of American society arguably occurred during the Civil War (1860-1865). With the specter of southern secession looming, Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address in the hopes that the “mystic chords of memory” would remind Americans that they were defined more by what united them than by what divided them. To get his point across, the newly elected president rhetorically forged a bond between the past and the present – between silent testament and living proof. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Then as now, what is fundamental to overcoming the challenges posed by the coronavirus is the belief in “the better angels of our nature” – our ability to act virtuously and exercise enlightened judgment under pressure. The phrase was coined by Shakespeare, but the idea is as old as time. Indeed, the better angels of our nature inform our decisions when we take the long view. Years from now, we would like to look back on this pandemic and remember that we rose to the occasion. Over the last two months, however, most of us have spent an enormous amount of time indoors looking at screens, but only a fraction of that time looking inside ourselves. If it is indeed a “disease to remember too much of what happened in your past life,” in the words of Werner Stegmaier, then it is a debilitation to learn too little from your orientation in the present. By intelligently practicing this ongoing process of self-reflection, we can find footholds that will allow us to surmount the problems caused by coronavirus and ultimately rise above this crisis.

We appreciate all questions and feedback and are open to publish responding philosophical articles. Please contact: reinhard.mueller@hfpo.com


J.B. Potter is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. After serving as a Fulbright scholar and working as a translator in Mainz, Germany, he earned an M.A. in German through Middlebury College’s C.V. Starr School at nearby Johannes Gutenberg University. Philosophically speaking, he enjoys the works of Marcus Aurelius, Goethe, Clausewitz, and Joseph Campbell. Next semester, he will begin doctoral studies at Georgetown University.

James Potter is a graduate of Randolph College as well as the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome. As an avid reader of English, Latin, and Greek literature, he particularly enjoys the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Keats, and Nietzsche. This fall, he will begin his fifth year of teaching at Fredericksburg Academy in Virginia.

In their spare time, brothers J.B. and James volunteer as grant writers for the Inga Foundation, a nonprofit organization that stops slash-and-burn agriculture and ensures food security for subsistence farming communities in the tropics. More information can be found at ingatree.org