Social Distancing painting
Artwork by Humanistic Psychologist Nisha Gupta, PhD, titled, "Social Distancing Blues." Acrylics on canvas.
Note: An adaption of a talk given to the International Institute for Existential-Humanistic Psychology in Beijing, China, March 14, 2020

I recently gave a talk and dialogued with persons in China about existential issues related to our pandemic situation with COVID-19. The beads of sweat that formed on my brow were not due to the virus but due to what it meant to me that 507 people showed up via Zoom for this presentation. Although I have traveled often to China to teach and learn with Mark Yang and the International Institute for Existential-Humanistic Psychology in China and also supervise others weekly via Zoom, I have not endured what they have endured and did not know if I could offer anything of substance that did not come across as imperialistic or as a bouquet of platitudes.  But I wanted to respond to this call nonetheless.

Typically, “doc discourse” and its biological and epidemiological explanations were continually leaving out the inseparably intertwined existential concerns of this global situation and merited one more voice trying to bring the existential concerns to the same level of mattering as the biological ones. I am grateful for the scientists and doctors fighting for life and at times losing their lives in doing so, but natural science is not wired to address lived meaning , which I believe, is as if not more significant to those living through this situation.

I had originally called the talk “Pandemic Hope for Epidemic Times,” but by the time I was to present, the epidemic had already become pandemic. The heart of the talk was about highlighting existential issues central to encounters with COVID-19 and to propose that hope was and is stronger than what the virus has and can take from us. Hope, in other words, can be as pandemic as the virus, if, as Dumbledore reminded us, we remember to turn on the light. The rub, of course, is how to offer hope without disrespecting abject anguish related to the horror and mourning of the havoc wrecked in the virus’ path.

The existential concerns include the experiences of being unexpectedly visited by a black swan event, without our consent, that is unmitigated, that mocks our ability to get rid of it and that leaves us feeling impotent and incompetent. We sense its impersonal randomness as well as its personal targeting of us and our loved ones. We are handed the existential guilt of feeling perpetually incomplete in that we can never doing enough for enough suffering persons, thus feeling out of control. This out-of-control experience is perpetuated by the fact that the virus inflicting our being out of control is itself out of control. No one or thing is in charge. We are left vulnerable, insecure, incomplete, bewildered, scared, enraged, worried, disoriented, simply “little.” We realize what Cormac McCarthy left us shuddering with in No Country for Old Men: “…it is coming, and there is nothing you can do about it.” This is the lived experience of “the impossible.” There are, however, other dimensions of the impossible — the unconditional and the irreducible and thus hope.

Hope, for it to be itself, has to respond to and in these situations, not over the top of them. So, I reached to friends to help me offer a response: Kierkegaard, Blanchot, Mother Teresa, Fred Rogers and others, including China’s own courage and resilience. Hope, as Kierkegaard noted, is a recognition that “there is more than what is apparent” in any given situation. Hope shifts the figure/ground gestalt. Hope isn’t far off in the future but in the next moment and then the next. Yes, no doubt each moment a thrown visit to us “and there is nothing we can do about it,” but part of each moment’s finitude is that it has inescapable possibility embedded in it, that is, what the Continental philosophers of religion call, “what might be…perhaps”.

The existential givens that we are interconnected, that we can’t control what others chose to do if infected, that we are as much related to our environment as to each other, that our vulnerability and interconnection mean we are infectious and susceptible to infection, all also mean that we are open to being cared for and can care for others and that we are not alone, even if six to ten feet from each other. The existential reality that we are inherently incomplete and can’t take on everything and everyone, unwittingly discloses that we can and do take on something, someone, somewhere at some time all of the time. When Mother Teresa was asked how she handles the sea of suffering, she said, “one drop at a time.”

Yet our fear and terror has left more shadow sides of ourselves, breeding another contagious dis-ease for which we don’t wear masks to prevent impacting others: the contagion of greed rather than collaboration. Examples include hoarding toilet paper (screaming as a trope or metaphor in so many ways), blatant racism against the Chinese (I know of situations here in Chicago where hand sanitizer has been thrown on Asian Americans, not to mention the unconscionable discourse of our nation’s “leaders”), treating testing kits as commodities and so forth. I know this is not the flu. I also know this is not Ebola. I know that 2% of deaths is unthinkable if the 2% are those whom you love and know, but it is 2% and not 100%. I have appreciated the anarchy of the clown in responding to this situation, such as John Oliver’s advice to calm down if you think you can get the coronavirus by eating Chinese food and prevent it by gargling with bleach. He also advised, on the other hand, not to lick subway poles. And I appreciate the meme that remarked, “The way people are responding to this situation is exactly why we don’t tell them about what is really going on in Area 51.” Laughing at absurdity is a way to fight back and a way to embrace our fragility; this has always been the anarchic clown’s calling. Listen to them. The laugh is an act of hope.

Here are some of the questions the participants in China were asking me during this talk and our dialogue: “Why do Americans look at us so strangely when we wear masks? Why don’t Americans where masks? Why do people hoard toilet paper and leave nothing for others? How do I handle feeling so guilty when I am relatively healthy and others are dying? What could we offer Americans? What am I to do with my career, which I have just begun, as work has shut down and my industry may never recover; it took two years for us to recover from SARS?” I will leave these questions open for your own answers.

Here is some suggested advice offering hope: We may not be impervious or in control of what happens to us, but we are invincible in that we can respond (even to give up is a de-cide). Saying, “It’s going to be alright,” is helpful if we mean, “No matter what, we are in this together,” instead of, “Look only at the bright side of life.” Stress breaks down immune systems. Worry and obsession turbo charge cortisol. Cortisol stresses, which breaks down immune systems. Bios and logos (meaning) are inextricably intertwined. While washing your hands, wash your stress too. Stress, though, is existential — soap won’t do the job; you have to clear a space to give it a hearing. Viktor Frankl reminded us that although human beings invented the gas chambers, they also had the Shema Yisrael on their lips as they walked into those gas chambers. When asked how to talk with children about catastrophes and disasters, Fred Rogers said, “Tell them to look at all the people helping.” Hope doesn’t need a receipt to be itself; whatever the response to our hope, hoping itself opens worlds.

We are in a pandemic situation, but not just virally; our existential condition is pandemically hopeful, as hope is an ontological condition, while a virus is not. We are not viral every moment of our lives, but we are hopeful every moment of our lives, even in moments of despair, as we are intentional beings, leaning into an “in order to" and “so that” moment to moment. Meaninglessness and despair slouch toward a mourning-ful recognition of a heretofore limitation that is immoveable.  The mourning, though, discloses remembrances of prior possibilities and thus, the hope of hope. Keep in mind that even suicide is a desperate act of hope — an act I prefer we help each other not have to confront but an attempt at some kind of liberation nonetheless. I am also thinking of the bravery at Masada, where I was this past fall, and of the 9/11 hand in hand jumpers in the World Trade Towers taking their own deaths in their hands before the towers came down. These are the hardest of things to think about, but they still show the invincibility of hope in the most difficult times of our existence. Our situation need not be as extreme; momentary wonder about what might be mocks the mockery of nihilism.

Now for the unholy and unthinkable: Rather than fighting against COVID-19, what if we hosted this guest? I recall Rumi’s invitation in The Guest House: “…Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house...still, treat each guest honorably...The dark thought, the shame, the malice…meet them at the door laughing and invite them in…because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”  Strangely, as Passover approaches and we remember how the blood of the lamb diverted the path of the death angel, I will offer a cup of coffee if it intrudes into my house, and I assume it will. (As I write, I am symptomatic with something, probably not COVID-19, but I am afraid to go outside and cough lest I be stoned to death.)   This is where the bio doc and the soul doc work differently. Biologically we don’t invite COVID-19 in our houses, but existentially we fair better if we do. Does hosting stop if guests show up uninvited? Not how I grew up. I am wondering, though, if the Tao of COVID-19 needs us to live for it to live when it may be trying to die. Can the best way to medically and existentially host its remarkable tenacity, its beautiful resiliency, is to let it die with social distancing? Couldn’t hosting also be offering it an assisted virus-cide?  

There is an uncanny grace in the nihilism that this pandemic can evoke and invoke. Its shipwrecking brings us together (remembering Jaspers’ thoughts on boundary situations), it humbles our sense of being “as the gods,” which allows us to “be with” rather than “do to.” It reminds us of our capacities to respond in ways we never knew we could, it helps us clarify what matters and what seems to matter and it invites us to appreciate of life as a gift rather than a taken for granted right. Let’s thank those persons and moments of life now, rather than later, lest we mimic Michael Serres’ words in The Parasite, “The last look is over. Nevermore will I be able to say, ‘thank you.’ Thank for you this or that, for this miracle, for the turbulent sea and the fuzzy horizon, for the clouds, the river and fire, thanks for heat, fire and flames, thanks for winds and sounds, for the pen and the violin, thanks for the enormous meal of language, thanks for love and suffering, for sadness and for femininity…no I’m not done yet. I’m just beginning to remember who must be thanked. I’ve barely begun my hymn of thanks and my turn is over.”

I have aging and disabled parents, one of them with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, and other immune compromised loved ones in my life who are very vulnerable to this guest’s violence. I am frightened for them and for the annihilating grief I would feel if I lost them…or what I would lose if it took me. I could be paralyzed by this possibility or live in different ways. Both pathways make sense. Both responses have their own integrity. I am going to try to sing my hymn of thanks. I am going to laugh and I am going to eat pecan pie. And when I cry, I will cry hard, as hard as I will laugh when I laugh. I will hold out my hand to grasp your extended hand. We are existentially closer now than ever before in our “social distancing.” Let’s link arms and move through this event of Otherness together.

About the author

Todd DuBose Todd DuBose is a distinguished full professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Chicago and an adjunct professor at Saybrook University. He holds advanced degrees in philosophy, religion and psychology. He is the recipient of the APA’s Div. 32 (Society for Humanistic Psychology)’s Carmi Harari Early Career Award for Inquiry and Application, as well as The Chicago School’s Distinguished Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching, the Distinguished International Research and Scholarship Award and the Ted Rubenstein Award for Inspiration to Students. He is a licensed psychologist, though a former chaplain, is a co-founder of the American Association for Existential Analysis and the founder of the Khora Institute, a global consulting institute that explores who or what is left out when ideologies and practices of standardized care are established. Having taught in over ten countries and being a regular adjunct with the Circulo de Estudios en Psicoterapia Existential, in Mexico City, HELP University in Kuala Lumpur and the International Institute of Existential-Humanistic Psychology in Beijing, he is a world renowned teacher, supervisor and practitioner of post-humanistic existentialism, radical hermeneutics and therapeutic phenomenology, which when integrated with his other interest in the therapeutics of comparative and continental philosophy of religion, is described by him as  Khoratic Hospitality. He has two adult children and resides with his partner in Chicago. His avocational interests include cross-cultural, country-comfort-rustic-soul food “lit up,” human-animal bonds, classic rock, smooth jazz and soul, existentially inspiring film and theater and powerlifting. He was a dancer for two weeks in NYC, has experienced full body apparitions in paranormal encounters, trained a bit as a clown, scratched a lion on his back, volunteered to be Aerosmith’s chaplain and ye, is mostly and simply a human being.