As Measured from a COVID-19 Shelter in Place
“What are we looking for in our ambition? What do we hope to find at the end of our aspirations? In Augustine’s experience – like our own – the answer is complicated. There is a bundle of hopes and hungers bound up with our ambitions, but so often they boil down to the twin desires to win and to be noticed, domination and attention – to win the crown and be seen doing it…When our ambition settles, as it were, when we imagine that our goal is to be noticed or to win, or both, we are actually lowering our sights. We are aiming low. The arc of our ambition hugs the earth…”
– James K. A. Smith “On the Road with Saint Augustine“
COVID-19, for all of its unwelcome inconvenience, sheltering for all, and suffering loss for far too many, clarifies. It delineates essential from extraneous. It reorders priorities, closes countless doors, and presses humanity toward a shared and noble cause – a single ambition – safeguarding life from a virus.
Healthcare workers battle on the front lines as the rest of us step back to support and make room. Substantial personal sacrifices are made easier in light of our shared purpose. Loss of freedom, finances, work, school, and gathering all find their sacrificial value underneath the arc of this ambition that now unites us.
It’s been my privilege to get to know and engage with students in its shadow. And I’m personally moved by the experience. I’m surprised by what I see…
Students, many of whom have taken on substantial debt in pursuit of higher education and professional training, have left campus and its vibrant social scene perhaps for the balance of the school year including graduation. Now, they are literally stuck at home facing a suppressed and fragile economic outlook and job market. If like me, you spent your days talking to them, what would you expect to hear? What do you imagine would characterize their disposition and outlook?
Dedicated. Bold. Steady. Patient.
Despite my surprise, you could almost see it coming before corona came into view. Today’s students and graduates are generally not in it to make a quick buck or to secure their win at another’s expense. When you ask them what they want from their career or first job, they regularly describe a mission of caring for others and the world. Regardless of job function, they want to somehow help. It’s consistent with how they’ll consider the human and environmental cost before buying food, clothing, and transportation. In favor of fast food and fast clothes, they’re pioneering “slow food” and “slow clothes” movements. They make personal sacrifices to achieve a greater public good and are already shaping corporate strategies by how they reframe work and consumerism. It’s not that they don’t enjoy luxuriating if and when they are able, but they more apt to incorporate global, systemic thinking into their decision-making.
And so I am impressed and inspired by how amidst the difficult demands of COVID-19, they set their faces like flint – often unflinching in handling the setbacks and making the requisite sacrifices. Granted, there are many lingering and important questions requiring attention including tuition/housing cost reimbursement and providing student relief and assistance, but in my new Wonderbench work, I draw courage from their posture – dedicated, bold, steady and patient.
I am learning from them how to shelter in place, work and rest.
And back to the start, James K.A. Smith showcases in his recent book, how Augustine, African Saint, thought deeply 1,600 years ago about freedom, justice, human ailments, and the arc of ambition. He also helps me at this time…
“The arc of our ambition hugs the earth as we expect to find fulfillment from people looking at us. What if you’re wired not to be liked but loved and not by many but by One?… Resting in the love of God doesn’t squelch ambition; it fuels it with a different fire. I don’t have to strive to get God to love me; rather, because God loves me unconditionally, I’m free to take risks and launch out into the deep. I’m released to aspire to use my gifts in gratitude, caught up in God’s mission for the sake of the world.”