It’s Been a Year of Wonders

It’s Been a Year of Wonders February 23, 2021

One of the pleasant surprises of the new semester, now four weeks old, is that the discussions in all of my classes have arguably been the best in recent memory. Students not only are ready to discuss on all sorts of topics, they also are showing a willingness to be honest and “go deep” about themselves in ways I have seldom experienced. On some days, my classes are essentially teaching themselves with little direction from me. All I can say is: Thanks, Covid-19!

In my “Current Problems in Ethics” course last Thursday, for instance, my students were shocked by how directly relevant a novel about a 17th century village in England was to their daily lives. I’m teaching this course primarily through literature, short stories and excerpts from novels that serve as introductions to the various moral issues and quandaries that we are studying. After several classes of stories raising questions about moral duties between family members, particularly between parents and children, we moved to the larger question of What do we owe each other morally just because of our shared humanity, even if we are not family or friends?

One of the texts I assigned to frame the discussion was a several page excerpt in the large anthology we are using from Geraldine Brooks’ 2001 novel Year of Wonders. The subtitle of the novel is “A Novel of the Plague,” a clue that this story has immediate relevance to our current circumstances. The novel is based on actual events that took place in Eyem, a small village of lead miners and hill farmers in Derbyshire, in 1665 during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Although I have taught this course many times, this is the first time I’ve taught it in a couple of years. As I reviewed the text before class, I thought “Holy crap! I can’t wait to see what the students do with this!” They didn’t disappoint.

Everyone in Eyem knows that the plague is ravaging London, fifty or sixty miles to the south; thousands of people have fled the metropolis with only what they can carry. The villagers are suspicious of any strangers and consider prohibiting anyone new from entering their village, but before long the plague is ravaging the town, perhaps brought in an infected box of fabrics. Those who are able plan to flee the town, while the poor rely on homemade remedies to protect them as they await what seems to be certain death.

But the village Anglican priest, Michael Mompellion, argues for a different strategy. At a dinner conversation, he says that

If all who have the means run each time this disease appears, then the seeds of the plague will go with them and be sown far and wide throughout the land until the clean places are infected and the contagion is magnified a thousandfold.

From his pulpit the next Sunday, Mompellion calls on his parishioners to quarantine themselves within the village, out of both their moral and Christian duty.

Some of us have the means to flee . . . But how would we repay the kindness of those who received us, if we carried the seeds of the plague to them? Dear friends, here we are, and here we must stay. Let the boundaries of this village become our whole world. Let none enter and none leave while this plague lasts.

My students used this as a springboard to discuss the various challenges and inconveniences of Covid-19 life, including quarantining, being unable to travel, the difficulty of not seeing beloved older relatives and friends, mandatory mask wearing, and social distancing. To what extent do an individual’s moral duties to others require restricting one’s freedoms, often in ways that are more than mere inconveniences? Each student admitted having complained that “I am so over this!” at some point during the past months, making it immediate and real by talking about recent Covid-related matters on campus.

We are holding in-person classes this semester for students who wish to be face to face, but within very strict parameters that apply to all aspects of campus life. Mask wearing and social distancing are strictly enforced on campus. Large gatherings either off or on campus are prohibited, but there are many stories of such gatherings occurring on weekends despite the restrictions. There is evidence that many of these gatherings are organized and attended by seniors who are not willing to sacrifice normal celebratory behavior during their final semester, especially when it is very likely that all graduation events in May will be remote, just as they were last May.

My ethics students—several of whom are seniors—were torn between sympathy for those who just want to have a good time during their last semester, and anger at the obvious lack of concern for others on campus and in the surrounding neighborhood by the very same people. During the fall semester, everyone was sent home and all classes went remote for three weeks because of Covid-19 positive test spikes that were directly traceable to such forbidden parties off campus. We are currently hovering near the tipping point of that happening again. The direct moral tension between “What is best for me?” and “What is best for the community?” became even more clear as we returned to the story.

After Mompellion’s Sunday sermon, the whole town—some of them reluctantly—agrees to remain in the village in order not to facilitate the plague’s spread beyond their borders. All of the villagers except Colonel Bradford and his family, that is. The Bradfords are the highest ranking and wealthiest family in the village, accustomed to deference and respect because of their exalted social and financial position. Later that Sunday, Mompellion learns that the Bradfords have dismissed their servants and are preparing to flee the town immediately. Mompellion rides his horse to the Bradfords’ manor house, seeking to convince the Colonel to stay in the village. “I am here to urge you to reconsider your departure,” Mompellion says, arguing that “Your family is first here. The villagers look to you. If you quail, how may I ask them to be brave?”

Bradford responds that

I do not quail! I am merely doing what any man of means and sense must do: safeguarding what is mine . . . I mean to do as I said I would. I said then, and I say now, that my life and the lives of my family are of more consequence to me than some possible risk to strangers . . . I did not raise my daughter to have her play wet nurse to a rabble. And if I desired to succor the afflicted I would have joined you in Holy Orders.

For every student who criticized Bradford and his family for caring far more about themselves than about solidarity with their community, there was another who declined to criticize Bradford’s decision, arguing that although we may say that our moral duties to others are as strong as those we owe to ourselves, under pressure it is natural and appropriate to care about myself and those closest to me.

One student drew attention to another reason that the Bradfords were leaving Eyem. The were leaving because they could. Their social and financial privilege gave them options that their poorer and less fortunate fellow villagers did not have. Before long, this turned into a conversation about the various ways in which the ravages of Covid-19, which does not care who it infects or kills, have fallen most heavily on those very communities and groups of persons who are the least able to cope with it. Covid-19 has exposed the fundamental inequities that are woven into the fabric of our society. And, of course, it was impossible to miss the “Bradford-esque” nature of Ted Cruz’s departure with his family for a vacation in Cancun while his Texas constituents struggled with no electricity and unsafe water back home

There are no easy answers to any of these interlocking moral quandaries, of course. If there were, they wouldn’t be moral quandaries. But as a story set three and half centuries ago reminded my students and me, such matters are cast in a sharper light, and become uncomfortably real, when we find ourselves under unexpected and relentless pressures. The questions we would often like to ignore become unavoidable. It has truly been a year of wonders. We have many moral opportunities in front of us every day. As Pastor Mompellion exhorted his congregation, “Let us not flinch, let us not fail! Let us choose not the dull lustre of our base state when God would have us shine!”

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