Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: We all need to become Buddhists

Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: We all need to become Buddhists
The Rev. Ian Markham (Photo/Virginia Theological Seminary)

The first U.S. case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on Jan. 20, 2020, meaning this pandemic in America is about seven months old.

When the shutdown started in March, we still had hopes for in-person graduations to be held. As graduations dissipated, we reassured each other that things would be back to normal in the fall. As fall plans are more complicated, we are now focusing on our plans for Thanksgiving and for Christmas and for next summer; suddenly even these plans might be difficult.

Not knowing when this will end is driving us all crazy. If we knew that this would be all over by the end of October, then we would grumble but put our heads down and find a way of coping.

But this is not an option. The virus has its own timeline and trajectory, and if humans
make themselves available to the virus, then the virus will take full advantage of those humans.

Our attitude to the trajectory of the coronavirus is partly linked to our attitude to time, which is shaped by our culture. For those of us in the West, shaped by Christianity, our attitude to time is linear. Just two hundred years ago, the Western assumption was that the world had been created recently – approximately 7,000 years ago – and the world will end soon with the second coming of Jesus.

As Christianity dissipated in Western culture, this attitude to time continued in a secular form. Western culture continues to believe that the imminent demise of humanity is likely. From survivalists to fears of a nuclear catastrophe, Western culture has continued to assume that the future is finite and limited.

Western Christians and secularists both believe there is one, precious life on earth. For Christians, this one earthly life is in preparation for the afterlife; for secularists, it is this one life and then extinction. Put together, these beliefs reflect a distinctive attitude to time. The result is a Western worldview that tends to be characterized with a sense of urgency, the imperative of scheduling and an anxiety about tomorrow.

To simplify a little, in the East, we find a cyclical attitude to time. For the individual, every human life is endlessly reborn and the cycle of life starts over again. The origins of the world are obscure and definitely a long time ago; Hindus do not think about a start to time. Instead, the seed-plant analogy is popular: A cycle of creation starts with a seed that becomes a plant that flowers and then dies, but the flower generates the next seed which creates the next cycle and so it goes on.

Creation is a constant of being born, dying and being reborn, which on some Hindu accounts continues into the future. This creates an entirely different set of attitudes. Disasters come and go, but the world moves slowly on regardless. This attitude to time and life creates a distinctive disposition. There is less emphasis on scheduling and urgency.

This pandemic needs an Eastern attitude to time, which will be hard for us. But let me offer some suggestions.

• First, stop all planning. Do not plan for Thanksgiving or Christmas or even next summer. You will expend significant time making arrangements, for example, organizing flights which may be canceled or hotels where you may have to quarantine for two weeks. Instead just decide that the future will be written as it occurs.

• Second, be spontaneous. Instead of endless conversations about a possible cocktail hour, outside, with some friends, just send them a text right now and invite them around tonight. Most people have plenty of flexibility in their schedule. Take advantage of it.

• Third, do not postpone. If you are planning to mark your 50th birthday with a big party, then do not postpone until that is possible, but have the big party on Zoom – use the breakout rooms – and then mark your 53rd with a big party. Postponing assumes that normal is coming back soon; this may be not be the case.

To get through this pandemic, we all need to be more Buddhist in our attitude to living and life.

The writer is dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary.