How COVID-19 Is Unmasking Our Humanity
[This article was referenced in“Psychology Today” on June 4, 2020: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/human-flourishing/202006/balancing-negative-news-reporting-promoting-the-good]
In my previous article, The Silver Lining Behind the COVID Threat, I focused on the pandemic as an opportunity to redirect our attention toward the three most important human longings and life’s ultimate ends: Love, Learn and Play (LLP). The response we are seeing to COVID-19 around the world supports this premise — the outpourings of love, learning and play illustrate how this crisis has triggered us to spontaneously engage much more deeply with LLP. We can use these examples to delve a little deeper into what Love, Learn, Play means.
Before the pandemic, most of us were working hard each day just to keep up with the frenetic pace of daily life at home and work. We needed our weekends just to recover from the stress of the week and prepare for the equally stressful week to come. With the free time we had left, few of us had the energy to ask the big, existential questions: What is the meaning and purpose of life beyond our daily responsibilities? Who are we? We tended to focus on the what and how, and tune out the why without even realizing it.
But a crisis is a natural time to reset. Anyone who has been through a natural disaster or faced a health emergency knows that one’s thoughts suddenly focus, with laser-like intensity, on family, community and indeed, on the fragility and meaning of life. The pandemic is prompting all of that and more, because many of us have more free time than ever before to think deeply about what matters most.
Psychologists often study the behavior of children in order to understand more about human nature. There is a lot we can learn from them. After a child’s biological needs are met, he or she exists in a state of contentment and well-being, doing little more than loving, learning and playing. I was struck by this insight when I spent a week with my nephew and his infant daughter. Once she was fed, rested and dry, all she wanted to do was play, her eyes shining with love as she soaked up information around her like a sponge.
As we grow into adulthood, however, we develop socialized selves, essentially a set of socially constructed desires and identity markers, that obscure our inherent longing for love, learning and play which we experienced so naturally and unconsciously in childhood. But in times of stress and crisis, we can be shocked out of our socialized selves. Faced with the most serious global crisis most of us have ever experienced, this is exactly what is happening now. As we get in touch with our more authentic selves, examples of Love, Learn, Play are everywhere.
Medical professionals all over the world are exemplifying love by putting themselves in harm’s way, risking their safety and potentially the safety of their loved ones to keep others alive. They see the stranger in the hospital bed as someone else’s loved one and as a fellow human being in need and they don’t hesitate to help. This is the deepest form of love.
But it is not only doctors and nurses who recognize that our health depends on embracing our interdependence and on cooperation. A Catholic diocese in China that received a shipment of medical masks from the Vatican early on in the outbreak, reciprocated by sending masks to the Vatican at the height of Italy’s crisis. Father Chen Ruixue of Xi’an said,
“Only when all people work together to fight the disease can we overcome the pandemic.”
Even in politics we are seeing glimmers of love. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo made a plea for assistance from other states as his state experienced an explosion of cases (at one point New York had more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any country in the world). Cuomo vowed to return the favor to any state willing to help. Oregon was the first to answer the call, which, along with China, sent ventilators to the Empire State. “The power of love, as the basis of state, has never been tried,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Perhaps COVID is changing this.
Professional athletes of all kinds are also performing acts of loving generosity. NBA players have paid out of their pockets to help cover the salaries of arena workers who have lost jobs. Major League Baseball announced plans to offer financial assistance for players in the minor leagues who don’t have multi-million-dollar contracts like their MLB counterparts. Members of professional sports organizations have been helping to feed the hungry too. Chefs from the Montreal Canadiens have offered services, while Russell Wilson, a Seattle Seahawks quarterback, has donated money to Seattle-area food banks.
At the grassroots level, we’re seeing what I call eLLP as technology serves to connect us in more meaningful ways than ever before. The app NextDoor, for example, introduced a Help Map feature that allows you to mark yourself as someone who can assist an at-risk or elderly neighbor by picking up groceries, running errands or even calling to check on them. Of course traditional volunteer efforts are surging as well. In Brooklyn, 3,000 volunteers who make up the mutual-aid network Bed-Stuy Strong have been crowd-sourcing donations to provide no-contact grocery deliveries to people in their community facing food insecurity. Similar volunteer delivery networks have sprung up all over the world. In India, at least 50 million people are being fed by volunteer organizations daily since the lockdown.
Pope Francis has pointed to such cooperative acts of selflessness as evidence of the “creativity of love,” which finds its way even in the darkest of times. In all kinds of ways, people are demonstrating humanity’s resourcefulness in expressing the deep longing for love and togetherness that characterizes LLP.
Romantic love is also being expressed freely and creatively. Apps such as Quarantine Together are providing an outlet for entertainment and romance through texting and video chatting while we’re stuck home alone. But low-tech romance is thriving too. A young man in Brooklyn started waving to his neighbor who was dancing on her rooftop, eventually sending a message by drone to ask her out. The two had a “dinner date,” setting up tables on their separate rooftops. He then showed up at her door in a bubble suit to take her on an old school date. The quarantine succeeded in bringing together two people who otherwise might not have met.
We can express love in all relationships: between individuals, groups and societies. There is an expression in Okinawa, ichariba chode, which roughly translated means “Even if we only meet by chance, we are still brothers and sisters.” This is the point at which love expands beyond our loved ones and ordinary social channels to encompass love for all. It is this universal empathy tied to our humanity that grants us the willingness to shutter ourselves indoors for months in order to save lives. The psychologist Erich Fromm sums it up beautifully:
“Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one ‘object’ of love. If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment or an enlarged egotism.”
Thanks to the Internet, it has never been easier than it is now to access a near-limitless stockpile of knowledge without leaving home. We’re seeing learning expand at all levels. Not only do we have time to learn new things, but learning makes us feel good. Two recent studies suggest that learning a new skill, gathering new information or seeking out an intellectual challenge can insulate us from the negative effects of stress including negative emotions.
Udemy, an online platform that connects people all over the world with instructors who teach everything from accounting to Arabic, reports course enrollment has surged more than 400 percent since April. As school has moved online, there’s also been a spike in children’s book sales. And as the virus throws income inequality into sharp relief, retailers and online schools are stepping up. Audible is offering free access to audiobooks for kids. Epic, a virtual library for kids with 40,000 titles, is allowing free worldwide access through schoolteachers. Khan Academy, the non-profit that provides free online education to kids around the world, is now offering daily school schedules for students 2 to 18 and daily lesson plans for parents and teachers to help the more than one billion children affected by school closures. As usage on the site soared in the first few days of the lockdown, Bank of America, AT&T, Google.org and Novartis helped the site scale up to meet demand.
Many higher-education online course providers are offering free or heavily discounted classes to help the millions of people who have lost jobs. Coursera created the Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative, which offers government agencies serving the unemployed free access to 3,800 courses and 400 specializations. For individual learners, they are offering free certificate courses. Great Learners, an Asian platform focusing on workplace skills, has launched Great Learning Academy, providing free classes in analytics, machine learning and cloud computing.
Netflix is offering more than twenty hours of free documentaries on everything from nature, to politics, to design, with no signup required. Zoos and museums around the country are offering remote access with virtual interactive tours.
But of course there’s also much deeper learning happening during this pandemic. We are learning that we are not Christians or Muslims, Democrats or Republicans, gay or straight, Chinese or American. We are not our plans, our aspirations or our goals. In our normal social contexts, these identities may feel important to us. But before we are any of these things, we are learning first and foremost that we are deeply interconnected and interdependent human beings who are all vulnerable to this virus.
Perhaps it is time to replace the arrogant notion that we are all-powerful with a bit of humility. A virus measuring less than a hundredth of a millimeter has brought us to our knees. In the absence of a treatment or vaccine, the only thing keeping us, and those around us, safe is our behavior and actions. When we look out for ourselves by distancing or wearing a mask, we are also looking out for others.
We are learning too how our actions are impacting the planet. Thanks to the reduction in human activity, we’re seeing uncharacteristically clear skies in places that typically have acute air pollution including India, England and Southern California. Fifty million people in India have seen the Himalaya for the first time from their homes. Similarly, the return of animal species to locations that have not witnessed their presence in decades is a reminder that our non-human neighbors have as much right to the planet as we do. The videos and photos documenting these phenomena are more than just uplifting or amusing: They teach us that we are not the only species that matters. As it says in the Qur’an,
“[A]ll the creatures that crawl on the earth and those that fly with their wings are communities like yourselves” (6:38).
Indeed, we are stewards, not masters on this earth.
When we value learning as one of humanity’s three ultimate longings, we can appreciate learning as an inexhaustible lifelong journey, rather than a series of transient stepping-stones. When we treat learning as part of who we are rather than just something we do, it will change who we are, how we think, behave, view the world and view others. And that is the kind of learning that will allow us to see the silver lining in this crisis and rebuild a better world once it has passed.
It is easy to underestimate the importance of play, but play is indeed a hugely significant part of who we are and can be harnessed as a powerful force for good in the world. Scientists across disciplines have been studying how play impacts and shapes the brain, as well as its role in creativity, innovation and positive health outcomes in humans as well as in other species.
The power of play to drive innovation is attested to by writer Steven Johnson in his TEDTalk (October 2016), during which he notes that, “Sometimes people invent things because they want to stay alive or feed their children or conquer the village next door. But just as often, new ideas come into the world simply because they’re fun.” By way of example, he goes on to tell the story of how modern computers came to be — essentially as the culmination of several millennia of playing with musical instruments. First came flutes, which were simple tubes with holes that could be covered with fingers to produce different sounds. The principles behind this simple design then led to the invention of the organ, which in turn triggered the invention of a whole host of keyboard-based devices: pianos, typewriters, and eventually modern computers.
If play can be the driving force behind technological innovations that change our world in profound ways, then it certainly cannot be discounted as something frivolous.
In parallel terms, play helps us to innovate internally, shaping who we are as individuals and how we behave in communities with others. Stuart Brown, M.D. founder and president of the National Institute for Play, said in an interview with Stanford’s Health Improvement Program: “Play is a survival drive that is necessary for adaptation, flexibility and social learning. Play helps us belong in the community, develop the ability to suppress unwanted urges, and regulate our emotions.” Clearly, adaptability and emotional regulation are two essential skills that will help us psychologically weather the current circumstances.
It’s no surprise then, that we’re seeing people crave play and engage in it in wonderful ways in the midst of this crisis.
We’ve all seen the delightful videos of quarantined Italians singing from their balconies. In many neighborhoods, residents sing “Bella Ciao” (“Goodbye Beautiful”), a song with connotations for national identity, freedom and resistance. The viral spread of these videos led Germans to sing it in support of their European neighbors and post their own videos. There have been dance battles from across balconies in China, as well as group exercise and even bingo games in Spain.
In California’s Bay Area, a group of elementary school teachers decided to take virtual Zoom classes a step further than most, incorporating dance parties into these sessions. They invite students to dance with their teachers and classmates in an effort to preserve the social element that makes school and learning fun.
Animal shelters across the U.S. have been experiencing much higher adoption rates than normal. Faced with a lockdown, many people whose pre-pandemic lives made pet ownership difficult have decided to bring a new family member into their homes — to play with and to love. There are few things that connect us more viscerally to our desire for play or inspire deeper feelings of love than animals. In many cases, as we are reeling from the effects of the coronavirus, animals are flourishing thanks to the love and attention many of us can now share.
Young people in particular are proving adept at engaging in socially connected play through technology. Birthday parties continue, with kids gathering on the Houseparty app. Young adults connect through gaming and its blogs and message boards. The social aspect of gaming is fertile ground for cultivating each aspect of human potential Brown notes above: adaptation, flexibility and social learning. Video games might not be for everyone, but play of some kind is essential for all of us. Brown laments the fact that many adults have forgotten that the longing for play is programmed deep into all of us and that “When we honor that design, we tend to be less violent, more communal and healthier.” Brown suggests we tap into our memories from childhood in order to reconnect with this longing for play. Once again, this is something we can all do from home — memories are always with us and easily accessible.
Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens, one of the first serious studies of play, written in the 1930s, notes: “Play is not simply the joyous rambling of children; it is central to all forms of creativity and communicates the highest ideals of communities.” If we are to keep the flame of creativity, ingenuity and culture itself alive during this crisis, play, not only as an activity but as a mindset, is essential.
COVID-19 has caused untold suffering all over the world at every level of society. Suffering is most cruel when we are unable to attach a redemptive narrative to it. But that is not the case here. We can think of this crisis as a cultural reset that will help us recognize and embrace our interconnectedness, not only now, but for years to come. Our suffering can be redemptive, helping us overcome our ego-driven outlooks and rediscover what is most important in life. If we take note of the amazing displays of LLP around us now, and realize they are representative of our true nature, we can seize the opportunities this crisis has revealed to completely change the way we experience and view the world. When things return to normal, our new mantra should be Love, Learn, Play.
The LLP Mindset is like a software app. It has surely come at a high cost, and we will have to clear some space in our hard drives, dispensing with certain illusory desires and false identities. But the good news is that it is an app that is compatible with all operating systems — people of all races, nationalities, religions, beliefs, and socioeconomic classes are free to ‘download’ the LLP Mindset. And once it has been installed, we will see big improvements in our species and the world.
We see some of this playing out in the current protest movement. That African Americans have faced centuries of institutional racism and racially motivated violence is not news. There have been unwarranted acts of police brutality against African Americans before, from the vicious beating of Rodney King to the more recent killings of Breonna Taylor, George Flloyd, and Rayshard Brooks. But this time, thanks to the COVID-19 lockdowns, we were already in a state of heightened awareness of our interconnectedness and common humanity. With this awareness, such acts were unacceptable. With excess time and mental energy, freed up from our daily compulsive lives, we felt empowered to take action. We are living through a watershed moment in the fight against racism, which is also a fight for LLP.
Check back for our next article, where we will examine what stops us from engaging in Love, Learn, Play even though they are our deepest longings, life’s ultimate ends and the keys to enhancing our wellbeing.
For more about LLP, read our other blog articles here or visit us at https://medium.com/@universalenlightenmentforum
Akhil Gupta is the founder director of Universal Enlightenment Forum. He spent five years at Harvard University as a Senior fellow/Guest. He was the chairman of Blackstone India from 2005 to 2014. He is on the Advisory Board of Stanford Business School, the Leadership Council of Harvard Divinity School, and the Advisory Board of Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Initiative. He is at work on two books: one on Human Flourishing, and another on common themes across religions.