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Oscar Bulaong is a professor of philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila University and a former Visiting Scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.
In the midst of the current quarantine, we look back and see how our lives have been upturned by the COVID-19 virus. We discuss and react, in a range of emotions, to how different people are responding to this crisis in different ways: from righteous indignation at the incompetence of some public officials to admiration for the heroic front-liners. This is an extraordinary time, which coincidentally occurs during Lent—a time of fasting, abstinence, and penitence. The following three reflection points are offered to those of us at home, whose main responsibility seems to be only to prevent the spread of the virus by staying home, and yet are seeking some ways to comport ourselves ethically in the coming weeks. How can we spend this time?
1. Time to Deepen Self Knowledge—Almost all sources of wisdom around the world and across generations promote self-knowledge. Ancient greek philosophers invoked, know thyself. Buddha demonstrated the connection between meditation and enlightenment. Jesus promised mercy when we admit to a transgression against holiness. In different ways, they teach us that self-knowledge is the groundwork on which we can build any kind of spirituality.
But self-knowledge is a vague thing. How can we recognize, even perhaps, assess it? One valuable piece of counsel I received as a young person was to observe myself at a time of crisis. A crisis, after all, exposes character traits—both good and bad—that are often hidden by how we typically project ourselves to others during times of non-crisis.
In observing myself in a crisis, it may be useful to ask: What did I do, what did I say? How did others react to me, what did they say? What triggered me, how did I feel in confronting the problem? Did I act in a unitive or divisive manner? It often helps to write the answers down, at once to objectify the observations, as well as to reveal to ourselves the patterns of our own behavior.
Yes, of course there is time to call out others, to assess their competence in the face of crisis. But there is value in devoting an equal amount of time to look inward and deepen self-knowledge.
2. Time to Practice Measured Detachment—Wise people also counsel us to nurture spiritual detachment. Of course this does not mean apathy. Instead it comprises, on the one hand, the admonition to not be slaves of worldly desires; and on the other, the appeal to sharpen our focus on our purpose and mission.
Detachment might begin by listing down our “favorite” deadly sins and committing to stop nurturing them. Is it greed—in my last trip to the supermarket, did I purchase goods to the extent that others were deprived? Is it sloth— which deliverable that will create value for my organization have I been postponing for pointless activities? Is it pride—when was the last time I was rude to someone because they did not recognize my status? Is it gluttony—which food or substance do I plan the rest of my day around, to ensure maximal ingestion of it? Is it lust— who was the last person I looked at as an object of my pleasure?
I admit that these are some of the questions that I struggle with, in a recognition of my worldly desires. But the primary purpose of this recognition is not only to hold back from them and to put an end to the corresponding bad habits that diminish my person. The goal of spiritual detachment is to uncover the gaps in my life and to realize that those gaps are meant to be filled with my deepest yearning. To practice detachment is to clear a space to rediscover the proverbial “true north” of my life. Is it holiness and salvation? To contribute to a better world? Is it the welfare of those whose lives I affect? It also helps to write down the answers and describe that which our soul most desires.
Whatever that may be, it is often the unspoken mission against which we will measure the entirety of our lives. And there are two wonderful results that a mission accomplishes in a life, especially when it becomes declared: (1) it organizes attitudes, beliefs, words, actions, and habits—even a career—around itself in a systematic way, and (2) it crowds out and replaces bad habits. Thus mission inspires, indeed breathes life into, our existence.
Purpose orders our life. What a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Spiritual detachment entails that my main task is not merely to struggle against my worldly appetites, but to nourish my deepest spiritual desire, which thereby makes those self-diminishing appetites lose power over me. And this ordering is made possible by the measured detachment of spirituality.
3. Time to Reaffirm Ethical Commitments—What the two reflections above bring about is that we become better people. In the humble effort to deepen self-knowledge and nourish spiritual detachment, becoming a better person is no longer a vague motherhood statement. For self-knowledge and detachment (or the lack of them) create character traits—whether good or bad—that have real impact on our families and communities during a crisis.
More than simply providing a standard for judging right from wrong, which in our black-and-white society today might cause more harm than good, ethics exposes the underlying process that creates our words and actions. In this case, the process is more important than the results.
How then can we spend this time? This extraordinary situation offers to us an extraordinary occasion to stop and reflect, as well as to recommit to our deepest values, which ordinarily we may not be able to do. Doing so reveals the ethical way to help those in need, not only because it is fashionable or high-minded, but always because of a more and more focused mission that orients our words and action towards genuine impact.
Donation is of course an outstanding way to help in relief efforts, especially for daily wage earners and front-liners. But donation is just one way to be ethical in a time of quarantine. For each day is a unique instance for enacting my mission. We are seeing inspiring stories of people who customize their responses, not limited by their constraints but inspired by a genuine desire to alleviate the suffering that surrounds them: Families that are repacking plastic bags of food to drop off in front of the village tricycle stop. Colleagues who put up a donation drive to buy materials to make PPEs for hospitals. In the news, there was a student who mixed a disinfectant solution and sprayed some streets around his community. Therefore, in this extraordinary time, we ought to respond to the need of others in our own special ways, which we figure out in the process of a deepening self-knowledge and an inspired mission.
Maybe this is what spirituality concretely looks like—a person of focused action whose deep self-knowledge and clear mission make the world around her a better place to live in.