The crisis that is unfolding around the world with the coronavirus pandemic is frightening. And it appears likely that things will become worse before they get better.
We can only compare the mood of anxiety and uncertainty to what we experienced on 9/11 and during the financial meltdown of 2008. It is the sort of event that has enormous consequences for politics and economics, some that we can see plainly and others that we cannot yet anticipate. It is also the sort of event that etches itself into individual and collective memory. These coming months will be a defining feature of your life’s story and of our societies. In the future we will talk about the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020.
None of us has any expertise to offer on the science of coronavirus or appropriate public health measures. We will not pretend to offer anything useful beyond reinforcing the importance of social distancing and handwashing.
But we need not have any expertise in those domains to offer other kinds of advice. The kind of advice drawn from having lived through other defining events like 9/11 or 2008, and possibly – though only possibly – having a bit of wisdom as a result.
First, the urgent measures necessary to mitigate the effects of coronavirus, and thereby to save lives, will likely generate much turmoil, confusion, and anxiety in the coming weeks. Perhaps months. Planning for the short term future suddenly is very difficult. Will classes resume in person at all? Will commencement happen? If I leave campus, when will I see my friends again? Will I even be permitted to travel?
The answers are unknown. A great many things are beyond our control. We like to remind ourselves that, if this is our first time feeling this sense of loss of agency in our lives, we must consider ourselves lucky — multitudes of people around the globe have to deal with an inability to plan for the future frequently throughout their lives.
Still, it’s important to remember what is in our control. Yes, that means strict personal hygiene, handwashing, and social distancing. But just as important is ordinary kindness for each other and for strangers. Simple gestures of kindness and friendship are always important, and they are even more so during crises.
It is a wicked irony that you can best serve the wider community, and practice empathy for vulnerable people, by reducing your contact with the wider community. The most pro-social thing to do right now is to practice social distancing.
And yet you can make an effort to reach out to people around you and check in to see how they’re doing, how their friends and family are doing, and whether they need any help. If they need help, try to organize help for them.
Second, in that spirit, we recognize that the current situation imposes many hardships on students, especially on those with family members directly affected by coronavirus, those who face financial difficulties as a result of the crisis, and those who have no safe place to go other than perhaps their campus housing. This is a time of heightened stress, and people respond to stress in many different ways – from diving into work to decision paralysis – all of which are normal. And when stress is combined with feelings of isolation and actual social distance and self-isolation, everything is worse.
We strongly encourage you to reach out, virtually, to your closest friends and loved ones. Invest in the communities to which you belong—bring whatever energy you can to them and let them, in turn, be a source of inspiration to you.
We are currently working on several approaches to engaging the Stanford community to assist. One resource that the Stanford community has already developed is this “Community Offerings” spreadsheet (link removed for blog post). In the meantime, share with relevant university leaders any urgent issues concerning the university’s crisis response.
Third, and finally, we have a practical suggestion for you. This is a nearly unprecedented crisis at Stanford and across the country and the entire world. It will be studied in the future by historians, scientists, economists, public policy makers, and more. And as we said at the start, it will be a defining experience of your life.
In that spirit, assuming that you and your loved ones are personally safe and healthy, we encourage you to document your own experience of these days in writing. We are inspired by this tweet from a Yale colleague, Nicholas Christakis:
“If I were a college president & was closing school for a once-in-a-century reason, in order to help build campus community & curate a historical archive, I would set up a system so students could record their experiences, as a kind of individual and collective diary. #PlagueYears”
Start writing today. And if you’re a builder and would like to volunteer to help make a system to facilitate this shared documentation and reflection on a wider scale, contact us.
We close with a reflection on crisis, by Harvard classics and philosophy professor Danielle Allen, who delivered her words as a speech at the University of Chicago on September 12, 2001.
Take care of yourselves and of each other.
I am glad I know the authors of this letter and grateful they agreed to let me post it. I hope it helps you, also. Please take care of yourselves, your loved ones and your community. If you can do something to help someone, please do.