Updated: May 27, 2020
Galen Guengerich is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming “The Way of Gratitude: a New Spirituality for Today.”
In some places, fear has remained unspoken. Walking into a relatively crowded subway car the other day, I saw an Asian man sitting alone on one of the long benches. He was wearing a mask, sitting quietly, looking at his phone. All of the other benches were full of passengers, several wearing masks, but none of them Asians. The seating may have been just a coincidence, but the scene it created was striking.
In other places, fear has been openly expressed. In speeches, the president has made dark references to a “foreign virus." People who wear masks and look Asian have been verbally assaulted and physically threatened — even if they have never been to Asia. In New York, one Asian man was sprayed forcefully with air freshener. A woman was punched in the jaw.
But in this time of pandemic, the enemy we face is not other people, no matter how different or distant they may be from us. The enemy is the disease. Covid-19 is an illness to which people, often unwittingly and always unwillingly, play host. No one wants to get the disease, and no one wants to be treated like a contaminant.
This is easy to forget, especially when keeping others at a distance seems precisely the point. We’ve all become experts on the trajectory of sneeze droplets and the half-life of surface contamination. How far is far enough from other people when you’re picking up groceries, or riding the subway, or attending a worship service? After all, if you get too close to an infected person, you might get infected, too.
While this is obviously true and worth taking precautions against, it’s also true that the person is not the infection. When you conflate the two, you become susceptible to a moral disease, one that gets transmitted not by bodily fluids but by fear.
The term “xenophobia” usually is invoked to describe the fear that leads people to act with contempt toward foreigners or strangers, to keep them at a distance — or worse. But in the introduction to her translation of Homer’s “Odyssey,” Emily Wilson points out that the Greek word “xenos” — the root of our term “xenophobia” — can mean both “stranger” and “friend.”
For the ancient Greeks, the willingness to welcome strangers was one of the hallmarks of civilization. In an era before paper money, modern hotels or public transportation, travelers had to rely on the generosity of strangers to find food and lodging, and to provide supplies for their journey. Wilson says, “The willingness to welcome strangers is figured as enough, in itself, to guarantee that a person or culture can be counted as law-abiding and civilized.”
What was true in ancient times remains true today. Those who shun strangers aren’t just unmannerly; they are uncivilized. Anyone who might be infected by the novel coronavirus needs our compassion — not our hostility. As the scripture says, love your neighbor as yourself.
To be sure, we need to do what’s necessary to protect ourselves from sickness. In so doing, however, we need to ensure that we don’t wall ourselves off from other people, many of whom may be suffering, either from fear and anxiety or the virus itself. The most vulnerable among us — people who are frail, or those without medical insurance or paid sick leave — will need our love and support the most. If we can give it, we should. This means showing up. Offering heartfelt words and compassionate deeds, even if from a distance.
On the subway, I sat down on the bench near the Asian man wearing a mask. We shared a bench and a common enemy: the coronavirus. At the next stop, a couple entered the car and sat near him on the other side. When we acknowledge what we have in common with other people, we tap into a powerful source. It’s what has enabled us over centuries to become civilized. If we stay civilized, if we keep the connections that unite us strong, we will together make it through.