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Commentary: Heroes are Compassionate

As we pass the one-year point of the COVID-19 pandemic, I've been wondering: what stories will prevail about this particular point in time one hundred years or a thousand years from now?  How will humanity, if our species is even still around, look back at this moment in time and evaluate how we responded to this distinct crisis?  

As a discipline, anthropology is all about storytelling.  The material remains left by cultures long gone allow archaeologists to construct stories about the past.  Biological anthropologists examine the diversity present in our human bodies and tell stories about where we come from and how we have adapted over time to changing environments.  Forensic anthropologists can read a skeleton like a book, identifying abnormal changes in the shape, size and density of bones that indicate disease or trauma, thus telling the story of how someone lived and died.  Cultural and linguistic anthropologists analyze written and spoken stories for explanations of why things are the way they are. Most importantly, stories do not just convey information, they convey meaning.

Storytelling is a cultural universal.  All cultures and peoples tell stories.  Stories are everywhere, influencing us every moment of our lives, although we rarely notice them. When we look at art, the story it tells is about a particular era.  Mention the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s and my mind is immediately filled with images from the late artist Keith Haring. 

According to author Barry Blinderman,  much of Haring’s work includes sexual allusions that were turned into social activism by using the images to advocate for safe sex and AIDS awareness.  So while Haring’s images don’t necessarily tell a story, people have assigned meaning to them.  I associate Haring’s imagery with the story of bigotry and discrimination against homosexuals, who suffered the most from the AIDS pandemic.  The story I read is one of the failures of our government to take the virus seriously, which resulted in the unnecessary death of untold thousands of people.  

I hope that the stories we tell about this historic time reflect what the late Joseph Campbell called the hero’s journey.  Campbell was an American professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College who during the Great Depression spent five years reading sacred texts and stories from religious traditions the world over. He identified several common underlying themes in many of the stories.  One theme he labeled the hero’s journey.  These stories have characters who are called to adventure, emerge victorious from a crisis, and then return to the ordinary world to help others.  During the latest crisis to face humanity, there are many heroes who have stepped out of their comfort zones, battled adversity, and are now returning to a more tranquil and normal life.  From the health care providers who cared for the ill and dying, to the scientists who created the vaccines, the frontline workers whose jobs could not be done remotely, and the thousands of volunteers who helped distribute food to those who found themselves out of work and in need.  These are a few of the many heroes in the story of our time.  Each and every act of empathy and kindness exhibited by these heroes defines what it means to be human.  

At the beginning of 2020, I had a story in my head about how the year might unfold, but reality didn’t fit my original plotline.  Thus, I have been tasked with rewriting the story, which helps me make sense of what has happened over the last 18 months.  What I have discovered is that despite the challenges and pain that this pandemic has caused, there is something beautiful that has come from this.  The heroes of our time have shown us, as Joseph Campbell wrote, that “The fundamental human experience is that of compassion.” 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.