Op-Ed: Staying Human During the Pandemic

Suggested resources for those who need a respite from the daily news cycle and who are yearning to maximize this time of solitude
Carin Berkowitz and Dan Fatton

The past several weeks have certainly been strange for most of us — busy at times, full of frantic planning and activity, followed by eerily odd slowness, with plenty of moments of silence and uncertainty. There is a palpable sense of fear right now, but also anger, sadness, distrust, and sometimes when we’re lucky, hopefulness.

On Thursday, March 12, the New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJCH) made the difficult decision to proactively request all organizations funded by its public programming to cancel all public events between March 14 and the end of May, in order to do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19. We committed to supporting all rescheduled events with the original funding allocations, and we informed all grantees that we would extend deadlines to support postponements as needed. While we think that the work we do to create connections and strengthen communities is of the utmost importance, particularly in a time of crisis, facing a pandemic situation, the imperative to protect the most vulnerable among us seemed the appropriate priority ethically.

It turned out that many of our partners, both speakers and sites, were relieved; people had felt some obligation to continue with scheduled events until instructed not to proceed. And in the days that followed, there has been ample literature published on social distancing and the urgency of “flattening the curve.” The idea behind social distancing is that physical distance between people will slow the spread of this highly contagious virus, particularly given that asymptomatic individuals seem to act as vectors for COVID-19, unwittingly continuing to pass the disease to others, including those more vulnerable to its effects.

Practicing social distancing is hard; it is uncomfortable for us to intentionally separate from loved ones, avoid restaurants and shops, skip routine medical appointments, or pass on coffee with friends, but we hope it will pay off by diminishing what might otherwise be large numbers of patients developing symptoms of COVID-19 at once. We are all working together to “flatten the curve.”

But despite the imperative for social distancing, we also need to maintain social contact, even if we need to heed the advice of public health experts and do so at a physical distance. At NJCH, we focus on fostering dialogue, striving to bring communities together to talk face-to-face about challenging issues. As humanists, we feel keenly aware that the needs we serve — for human contact, for compassion, for community, for analysis and perspective —are stronger than ever, and so, taking the lead from others in our broader cultural community, we are trying to get creative. We are trying to make sure that in the midst of staying alive, we don’t forget about being human.

Online classes, tours, fun, music

We know many people will be rightly focused on just getting by, dealing with the anxiety of being in the midst of a pandemic, possibly able to work from home, probably dealing with new responsibilities and, frankly, just trying to survive. Still others might welcome the opportunity to just take some time for quiet reflection. Yet, for those who need a respite from the daily news cycle, for those with more ample time to fill, and for those yearning to maximize this time of solitude, there are many good resources we recommend:

NJCH has always focused on the ways in which the humanities make our communities stronger by helping people engage in dialogue around tough issues and helping them explore new perspectives through history, literature, and cultural studies. That mission remains essential in this moment, as our worlds are becoming fragmented into cloistered households and interactions that can be had at a distance of at least 6 feet. It strikes us that this is also a moment in which we should remember what the humanities can do for us as individuals: transporting us, giving us a new and broader perspective, reminding us of our creativity, of beauty, and of our inherent humanity.

The current public health crisis is also likely to leave some individuals struggling with their mental health, seeking ways to keep the anxiety or sense of isolation at bay. We think the humanities can help. We would love to connect with you about those resources. After all, some phenomenal institutions have made their content freely available, but learning is so much more fun among friends. So we encourage you to take a virtual tour and then tell us what you think. We invite you to tweet at us using the hashtag #StayingHuman or to connect with us on Facebook to share additional humanities resources, to reflect on your interactions with the resources we posted here, or to tell us about other ways that the humanities are helping you weather this crisis.

Stay home, and stay well, New Jersey.