Center President Brooke Hecht sat down for a conversation with Ceara Donnelley, Vice Chair of the Center’s Board of Directors, on April 7, 2020. As colleagues, good friends, and mothers of young children, they shared questions and ideas they have been considering as the novel coronavirus has turned worlds and worldviews upside down. The conversation, shared here, has been edited for clarity and length.
Brooke Hecht (BH): You sent me an article by Aisha S. Ahmad that I really appreciated. Ahmad shares, “Among my academic colleagues and friends, I have observed a common response to the continuing Covid-19 crisis. They are fighting valiantly for a sense of normalcy—hustling to move courses online, maintaining strict writing schedules, creating Montessori schools at their kitchen tables. They hope to buckle down for a short stint until things get back to normal. I wish anyone who pursues that path the very best of luck and health. Yet as someone who has experience with crises around the world, what I see behind this scramble for productivity is a perilous assumption. The answer to the question everyone is asking—’When will this be over?’—is simple and obvious, yet terribly hard to accept. The answer is never.”
What are your thoughts on that? And, if you agree, how do we even begin to process that?
Ceara Donnelley (CD): I think the impulse for many of us right now is to launch into the “to do” list. Productivity is a way to cope with uncertainty—and perhaps to even imagine that we will “crush quarantine.” I think it’s a very normal human impulse, but it can go awry if there is no recognition that that is what we’re doing. And this drive to busy ourselves is not necessarily predicated on a belief that this is a short-term challenge. It’s more a way of attempting to assert control in a situation where we have no control. Because if we actually consider the enormity of what’s happening, or the absolute uncertainty of what this means or how long we’ll be in it, it can feel like too much.
Sinking into a new reality is not something we can rush. We are learning day by day what the reality of this situation is and how we can best exist within it. Something that has become increasingly apparent for me in the last few weeks is that we don’t even really know yet what it is that we are going through. This time reminds me, potently and powerfully, of the time that my parents were in hospice. I knew that my world was changing in the most life-altering, profound sorts of ways. And yet I could not speed up my understanding of the changes. I just couldn’t. I just had to get through the days, with a mixture of awareness of the bigness of what was going on combined with the necessity of surviving.
BH: Part of what we are experiencing right now is a clear look in the mirror—and not just a reflection of how we respond individually to crises, but also a reflection of where cultural, political, and institutional systems work and where they do not. Inequality, broken healthcare systems, and fragile economies are laid bare.
Another clear truth is that we humans are in fact able to change certain realities very quickly—practically overnight. As stated in the Center for Humans and Nature’s manifesto: “Business as usual is not inevitable; we can create the future we seek.”
CD: One visceral reality is the tenuousness of life as we know it—of society, of the world economy. It is sometimes hard to be fully aware of the fact that we are vulnerable to nature. Crises like these make it plain, even though many of us may even still try to compartmentalize and deny our deep interconnections with the natural world. Of course, in some ways, it is an indication of our evolution as a species that we can compartmentalize and carry on. Looking closely at the current situation, it could be very despairing and immobilizing.
BH: Certainly for healthcare workers, delivery people, and others on the front lines (not to mention parents new to home schooling), compartmentalizing can be an important coping tool. On the other hand, it can also be part of our dysfunction. When we imagine that we are separate from other people, countries, nature, viruses, we set ourselves up to be caught off guard when the truth is different from the story we have been telling ourselves. The coronavirus is a clear reminder that we humans are organisms and that we are embedded within nature’s realities. Perhaps we’ve all been compartmentalizing too much—and creating a very strange “reality” around ourselves?
CD: I think that is really true. Historically, perhaps this moment is somewhat unprecedented, in the sense of how truly global this pandemic is. Of course, there have been many plagues and wars over time. One clear truth—both now and historically—is the disproportionate suffering of the poor and vulnerable. But what is mind boggling to me is that this pandemic, though in differing ways, is affecting almost every soul on Earth. That is astounding.
The Arundhati Roy quote the Center shared on Twitter really speaks to me: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We cannot, must not, return to normality.”
So how do we start over? And I mean from the beginning. Channeling my dad, this is an opportunity to “get our heads screwed on straight.” What scares me is that we could very easily squander this opportunity. The minute this threat begins to abate, people individually and collectively could default to business as usual instead of using this time as a gateway, as a recognition that our roles as we have known them have flown out the window.
BH: Sometimes I think we have more power than we realize. I have to believe that there will be many leaders who stand with and behind the idea of imagining the world anew. It’s no longer a tenable excuse that we humans are incapable of substantial, lifesaving, and rapid change. What if there is a collective of organizations and individuals who stand up to say that we are not going back to business as usual? One small example could be organizations that continue the practice of canceling or not attending “non-essential meetings.” Why were we even having non-essential meetings in the first place?
Charles Eisenstein says, “COVID demonstrates the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important. What else might we achieve, in coherency? What do we want to achieve, and what world shall we create? That is always the next question when anyone awakens to their power.”
What could a new manifesto—of what we believe is possible—look like?
Ceara’s eight-year-old daughter enters and describes an alligator she is watching—ironically through a nest camera—at their home outside Charleston, South Carolina. Ceara pauses for a conversation with her daughter before resuming her call with Brooke.
CD: Well, there is a huge void of leadership from the top right now, and other countries are doing a much better job of issuing clear guidance from the top—and with consistency. Yet there is a collective wisdom bubbling up right now. We are thinking together about what it means to be a responsible citizen. From this opportunity will emerge new leaders, organizations, institutions, politicians, who will distill what we’re learning about the fragility of our economy, our healthcare system, and our relationships with nature. A new manifesto will also need to distill a series of shifts that are tangible and that give us some agency in creating that new world.
BH: I’m thinking back to what you said earlier—that sinking into a new reality is not something we can rush. To that end, quarantine does give us time. If we are in some form of quarantine for the next twelve to eighteen months, it is not just COVID-19 we will be facing. We will also have the pressing ecological and social justice issues—that are present throughout the world—remaining squarely in front of us. The novel coronavirus is sharpening our focus on these social and environmental challenges.
I recently listened to excellent interview done by Meghna Chakrabarti with Rebecca Solnit on WBUR’s On Point. One of the callers to the show used the phrase “forced opportunity” to describe our current time. Our response to this virus cannot just be that this virus is “the enemy,” but rather it needs to very explicitly and tangibly address the wrongs the virus is mirroring back to us.
CD: This gets to the question of silver linings. You have told me about your discomfort with the idea of “silver linings” with respect to this pandemic. I don’t have that same kind of discomfort. Again, I relate it very personally to my experience with my parents dying. The fact of their deaths—the experience of it—was something that made me who I am in ways that I wouldn’t want to give up. I’m a better person for having gone through those experiences and those losses. Would I change history, and not have them die if I could? Yes. One hundred percent. But the fact that they did, the fact of their cancers, had an unbelievably beneficial impact on my development as a human being. Those two things have to be able to co-exist. It’s not that one justifies the other. But rather the task is to take death and loss and profound uncertainty—and make meaning out of it. The meaning is the silver lining. To not make meaning would be the irresponsible thing, I think.
BH: That is so well said.
It has been hard for me to hear people talking about the “silver lining” of the coronavirus. While I think it is very good news to hear—and see pictures—of reduced pollution and the return of birds and fish to areas where they had been absent, I nonetheless experience a terrible awkwardness with any thought of a “silver lining.” People are dying and, as we have said, in many cases it is the most vulnerable among us. There is increased racism, authoritarianism, nationalism, more power grabs. How do we process beauty in such a terrible context? I’m in a murky place in this regard.
If I’m being honest, maybe what is hard for me with regard to the “silver lining” is that I find it to be very, very difficult to hold together two opposing things. It is hard to hold grief, fear, and uncertainty together with love, joy, gratitude, and insight. Speaking for myself, my default is to want to experience these things separately, to keep a wall between these different kinds of emotions. In a conversation earlier today with WPR colleague Anne Strainchamps,Anne talked about the fabric being ripped between these two emotional spheres—that they are now bleeding together. She helped me realize that this is yet another compartmentalization that I have been carrying—and that keeping these kinds of emotions separate and in their own containers does not
CD: Yes, it is hard. But, honestly, that is what I have learned from my parents’ deaths: In that loss and grief, I have experienced the most direct, profound beauty and meaning I’ve ever encountered in life—well, outside of parenthood. It’s a stripping down of artifice to the essence of humanity. And the essence of humanity can’t just be pure joy, or pure sadness, or pure grief. I see those things as inextricably linked. I just read an article in the New York Times about happiness versus meaning at this time.  The author, Emily Esfahani Smith, used a term I hadn’t heard before: post-traumatic growth. While trauma can certainly cause post-traumatic stress disorder, it can also serve as a foundation for meaning making. And, collectively, that’s what this time is—the opportunity for transformative, powerful growth.