Students are streaming into the Zoom call as I begin a lesson on Ancient Greek Philosophy. The “faces” that look out from their bedrooms, desks, or black screens with bright white letters are dull, virtual representations of students. Reactions are delayed; attempts at laughter or reaction fall flat. Screens click on and off a live view. We are all caught in this moment together; trying to learn something about the distant past in the present personal and community crisis we face.
Who do these students see? What image an I projecting out into their worlds? My screen is always live, active, talking or cajoling them into some kind of response. How do these fellow humans see me and how can I see myself as I really am? Not as some kind of projection, but as some kind of authentic me?
I think about how the COVID experience has changed the way I think and feel. We are all, I believe, subject to dependent arising; that what happens around us shapes our understanding and reaction to the world around us. We are caught, for better or worse, in these shifts in society and changes in the world around us. In fact, in a very post-modern sense, we are shaping each other around the world. For example, I planned to lead a trek in Bhutan this coming summer…the chances of that happening seems impossible. Not taking students to Bhutan will affect the folks who are counting on that income. Many people will be affected, economically, from the decisions we make in COVID land.
But it’s beyond all that, isn’t it. We are affected economically, and it’s the human interaction that is being reshaped by these quarantine and distancing rules. Who we ARE is molded by every decision in every moment by people we know and many who we do not. Who we really are is changing, moment to moment, into something else entirely.
Still, I haven;’t answered my own question: who am I to these students? What am I projecting to them? Doubt? Fear? Self-loathing? Or hope, a sense of calm, awareness in the now? Maybe, more directly, that talking about ideas can be a balm in these very difficult circumstances.
So, in the Zoom class, I pose questions, I ask about the connections between Plato and us…his idea of an individual verses how we now perceive the world. Can we find some way of making those contacts to the distant past and learn something from it? On this day, in this class, no. We don’t. Students are silent, dulled by their experience, driven to distraction by the very low hum of the computer screen and the glare of the LED lights brilliantly flashing into the eyes of those held captive by the classroom meeting. It’s the early AM and those blank screens shouting back at me, “leave me alone” are oppressive.
I struggle to make contact, emotionally, intellectually, anyway I can. And yet. And yet….the screens send back their forceful message…no, not today, sir. I imagine my students saying, “not in this moment as we are forced to endure this class by the powers that placed us here.” Tragically we both are struggling with these virtual spaces, each of us wondering at our own selves.
We all see the limits of human interaction in this electronic medium. At the same time, we experience the very question that is now a part of our daily existence: who am I in this virtual sphere? Where am I in this COVID land? Am I who I was or am I somebody else.
It is without question in my own mind that, yes, we are not who we were and, more importantly, we will never be who we were. That lesson could lead to a glimmer of hope: if I am not who I was, who CAN I be?