May 2, 2020

JOHNS | Our Imagined Stability

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In the seven weeks since the University administration issued its jarring coronavirus-related closure notice, Cornellians have settled into a new, if uneasy, normal. Classes have altered their schedules and, sometimes clumsily, transitioned to Zoom, and many student organizations have managed to conduct regular events, social gatherings and even elections using similar online tools. Although all their offices are closed, most University resources have become available again as well, through emails and phone calls. The campus, however, lies empty. But after enough time away, most of us have come to accept this peculiar new way of being “at Cornell.”

Unfortunately, uncertainty still rules the day. There still are no real guarantees as to when this crisis will finally be deemed over, and some state governments are now extending their stay-at-home orders by weeks or even months. Meanwhile, increasing rumor and speculation over whether the University will be forced to move fall classes online has been understandably distressing to incoming and returning students alike. There can be no satisfying answers to these still-evolving questions – simply put, no one truly knows what the world will look like in four months.

All this has torn a gaping hole in our collective sense of normalcy, both at Cornell and in American life. Cornell’s former president Frank Rhodes once remarked that Ithaca is “centrally isolated,” putting into words what every Cornellian already understands: The campus is its own plane of existence, largely minding its own business while the rest of the world outside is off doing other things. Many college students also suffer from a collective but almost inescapable illusion that time is fake, that youth is endless and that the stability we enjoy is, or at least can be, a lifelong privilege. Cornellians are lucky to have predictable lives; the black ink of a syllabus may as well be carvings in stone tablets.

But the way the pandemic has invaded what seemed like an incorruptibly peaceful, secluded life at Cornell has served as an awful reminder that life actually is predictably uncertain. The curtain has finally been pulled back; our comfortable existences had only imagined stability. Even when students ultimately return to campus, it won’t likely be the same. For those born after World War II, which claimed the lives of 70 to 85 million globally, the coronavirus pandemic – with some 228,000 deaths to date and many more almost certainly to come – is the singular most deadly incident of our lifetimes. We may be centrally isolated, but the economic, geopolitical and personal impact of the coronavirus likely will take its toll on Cornell as well.

Amid all this unfamiliarity and instability, we have a rare opportunity to set our priorities in order. We have been given a costly yet valuable reminder of our own vulnerability and the immense trust we must place in one another to maintain life’s normalcy. By unanticipated necessity, many unimportant things have now fallen away; the first priorities of life – our family, our health and safety, and so on –suddenly have our near-undivided attention, and for good reason. Although we should obviously strive to reclaim the material stability that we had prior to the crisis, the lesson ultimately is that Cornell, and youth itself, are fleeting. Real stability is based in things that are constant; things that cannot be lost or destroyed.

Precious little lives up to this standard. Just about everything that is of this world can and will ultimately be taken away from us. Our favorite Collegetown restaurant and our own lives have one inexorable thing in common: They will meet their earthly ends, quite possibly with little warning. One of the only things that truly endures, regardless of how long it has been abandoned, is our spiritual faith. This, not the creature comforts of life as usual, is what all of us can always fall back on in times of crisis. This constitutes real stability in a world that is sadly often unstable.

This is a moment that tests the faith of the world. Whether religious or not, we are each having our resolve tested. With most Americans observing stay-at-home orders and facing, through the inhumanity of their cell phones and television screens, the difficult and seemingly bleak reality of worldwide suffering, questions are now implicitly being asked: What ultimately holds us together? What gives us hope?

For the 90 percent of Americans who believe in “God or a higher power,” it may be a return to faith and religious life. The realization that our lives are not ours to keep is not a depressing realization, but a liberating one: We are each called to live for the benefit of others, to acknowledge and share in sacrifice and to work for causes from which we may never ourselves derive benefit.

Religious Americans should draw on this principle, and deepen their faith, in this time of distress. In 250 A.D., during the worst days of the Plague of Cyprian – which killed thousands per day in the Roman Empire – Christians emphasized the importance of their service to the sick and needy and continued to evangelize, at great personal risk to their own lives. During the devastating 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, many followed in their footsteps, offering their houses of worship as field hospitals and sending priests and religious sisters to serve the communities in which they lived.

The coronavirus has inspired a similar response. Not only are religious leaders continuing to serve both the medical and spiritual needs of their suffering communities, but some are giving their lives to do so – either through simple exposure or by bravely giving up their own ventilators. These are choices that those who truly understand that something awaits us beyond this world can confidently make.

So when normalcy – whatever version of it we ultimately must accept – returns to our lives, we must not forget this moment. Real peace, and lasting stability, can and will come from our attachment to our faith; the stability of all the rest is merely imagined. It will all be taken from us in time. If we are to survive through this crisis and the next, we must ultimately learn to live beyond ourselves.


Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.