Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Memorial Day Weekend Dilemma
In the time of coronavirus, I listen to Dharma talks Zoom’ed from the San Francisco Zen Center. This past Sunday, Jiryu from Green Gulch Farm considered the phrase “shelter in place” as a wider spiritual metaphor. In the kitchen at Tassajara, the Zen Center’s mountain monastery near Big Sur, there’s a picture of a fish in a puddle. The caption reads, “like a fish in a puddle, what pleasure is there here?”
Jiryu remembers working in that kitchen during the peak summer heat, seeing the fish and the question, and feeling almost insulted. “Not much” was his answer, sometimes. But he knew the picture was there as a reminder of one of Zen’s key teachings: the importance of staying put.
This teaching is newly salient, of course, now that it applies as well in Tassajara’s cramped, hot kitchen as in our individual lives. We often think we need a wide horizon for freedom, but the truth is that we are always here, bound by some set of limitations. The Zen question is, how do we find shelter in this place? How do we find freedom within these bounds?
With people across the world, my partner and I are struggling to answer these questions honestly. We’re contemplating a trip from northern to southern California to see family this weekend, questioning whether it’s OK to push the bounds of shelter in place.
Since mid-March, the State of California has ordered everyone to avoid unnecessary travel, and this is the first time we might surpass the distance of a few miles from our home. We don’t feel the need to make a political statement like the protestors who wield guns and speak the rhetoric of live-or-die liberty. But we basically agree with them. We believe we have the right to choose whether or not it’s safe for us to travel. And luckily no one will stop us from packing the car and driving south, if we choose to.
We’re struggling with a different question. What are the ethics of obligation when no one is sure of the truth?
California bases its public health order on the advice of experts and epidemiologists, who base their official recommendations on data and probability models. To contain the spread of coronavirus, we should all avoid contact with others as much as possible, they’ve said. In other words, we should all restrict our freedom to protect vulnerable people and the healthcare infrastructure. Here the logic and ethics of obligation are clear. Everyone fears the prospect of an unmitigated spike in cases, so we should all be willing to limit our movements for the common good. Right?
The problem is in the particulars. If none of us have been sick after nine weeks of sheltering in place, how great a risk is it for a few family members to meet over Memorial Day weekend? There is certainly some risk, since we could be asymptomatic and infect our loved ones unknowingly. We could also catch the virus from one of them and transmit it to other people. Yet how high is this risk, really? Does anyone have an accurate picture of reality?
This is the question on everyone’s minds, and it’s impossible to answer. I want to say that if I’ve followed the prescribed social distancing and hygiene measures up to now — at least I think I have — there’s a minuscule chance that I could infect someone. If my partner and extended family have done the same, shouldn’t it be safe for us to see each other? Maybe the benefit of seeing loved ones during a stressful time outweighs the benefit of remaining cautious. Or am I making too many assumptions?
The truth is we don’t know. This is Dr. Fauci and the State of California’s point. They’re asking us to think collectively, not individually, and veer on the side of a generalized caution. Yet the protestors, most Republicans and the president say this is unacceptable, given that the actual danger is unknown. (This is the most charitable explanation of their position; more cynical ones are certainly plausible.) Many distrusted the advice of experts and scientists before this crisis, so the enormous curtailing of individual liberty is a hard sell.
Weirdly, I find myself pulled toward some of this skepticism, and Buddhist metaphysics helps make the case for it. Before and after the coronavirus, the authority behind the science is the scientists. They use methods based on mapping reality, but they admit they don’t have a perfect picture; they’re still making guesses and asking people to believe them. They suggest this is better than going without their models and recommendations, and probably they’re right. But in America we don’t like to rely on others for our decisions. Even if it’s a delusion, we like to think we can think for ourselves.
This is what my partner and I are trying to do ahead of this weekend. Trying to make our own assessment of risk and cost and benefit. Are we better off accepting the constraints of shelter in place and finding freedom in this set of limits? Or is a higher purpose served by transcending these limits and connecting with our family? What is most courageous and compassionate? What is most ethical in the near and long term?
The pandemic is a gift in that it highlights these questions of public risk and personal gain in ways many of us were less attuned to before. But it hasn’t erased the long cultural and psychological training that until recently allowed us to treat the world as one vast horizon of freedom.
We tend not to appreciate the Zen teaching of staying put, because there’s always been more for us to do. Now that there’s less, we’re suffering. It feels like worse suffering than we had before the pandemic, but probably we’re just forgetting. Our memory, like our ability to stay with discomfort in the present moment, runs short. It’s unclear whether this makes us more or less free.