A Year ‘at a distance’: Is there hope ‘when this is all over’?

Covid Anniversary Blog

A year ago we started to experience changes to even the most menial of tasks, including the weekly shop. Stripes of yellow and black tape appeared on supermarket floors guiding us around (sometimes unfathomable) one way systems, and indicating where we should stand in a ‘socially distanced’ queue. Plastic screens that used to adorn checkouts in the 1970s were hastily (re)instated.. and then we were told to don masks and ‘shop alone’.

I wrote at the time that while this physical distancing was necessary in a pandemic, it also brought into focus the risk of our being distanced from each other in ways that the philosopher Gabriel Marcel, called our ‘unavailability’.

After many months of forced separation, there is clearly a longing to be physically together again.

We recall the delight that accompanied the announcement that there could be some kind of limited family gatherings over the Christmas period, and the profoundly moving scenes of family members being able to hold hands with relatives in care homes for the first time since the pandemic started.

But what of Marcel’s more richly nuanced idea of our being available to each other – our disponibilité?

The pandemic has allowed us to reflect on what it means to offer the gift of ourselves in hospitality to another. But more than this, it has allowed us to think about what this means in original, practical, ways and how we can maintain this availability over time. These are ideas that Marcel captures in what he calls our need for ‘creative fidelity’ in our relationships with others.

The tragedy of the pandemic is all too evident in the devastation of lives, communities and the economy. But it has opened up opportunities for us to forge new ways of being available to each other emotionally, spiritually, practically, and temporally, despite physical distance.

We ask whether the world will be the same once ‘all this is over’. Perhaps not; but I want to hold on to the idea that creative fidelity, and the idea of availability, are examples how we can have hope for finding new ways to be together again. 

Amanda Fulford is Professor of Philosophy of Education at Edge Hill University.

This piece is written in response to a post originally published in the Covid-19 blog on 20th May 2020 by Amanda which can be found here.


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Emerging from Lockdown: Shared Experience as we (re)commune together

Since late March we have been separated from those whom we love, our friends and even our business acquaintances. We stand two metres apart in our shopping queues. We see poignant, yet often painful, pictures on our televisions of grandparents with spread hands on panes of glass trying to ‘meet’ their grandchildren. On our daily walks out, we actively try to avoid those walking towards us; we step into the road and apologise, or cross over to avoid any kind of contact. In all these different forms of interaction, we are worried about our vulnerability when coming into contact with others. Stories on the news about continuing death rates from the virus running into the hundreds each day, does little to ease the nagging doubts.

In his book Creative Fidelity, first published in 1964, the French philosopher, drama critic and playwright, Gabriel Marcel, reflects on how, as human beings, we are in relation to others. Of course, Marcel was not writing during a global pandemic, but he was writing at a time when he saw an increasing tendency towards our human relationships being marked by a kind of utility, resulting in forms of what we might call distancing. In trying to counter such tendencies, he argues for relationships marked by openness to others, and which are signified by a certain exposure or vulnerability that he refers to as ‘porosity’ or ‘permeability’.

To encounter another, he writes, is to,

‘devote our attention to the act of hospitality…Hospitality is a gift of what is one’s own. i.e. of oneself’

Gabriel Marcel, Creative Fidelity (p. 28)

While we are rightly constrained from offering hospitality to each other in the way in which we commonly understand it (inviting people into our homes, sharing meals, and so on), Marcel is thinking more of a kind of hospitality to the other which he describes as disponibilité, commonly translated as ‘availability’. Being available – freely, emotionally, temporally – has still been possible to do.

As restrictions are eased, there is a risk that as we relate to each other, we will be warier, or in Marcel’s words, we will be ‘present, yet in a mode of absence’ (p. 33). What is clear, though, is that the possibilities for what Marcel calls our ‘communion’ with each other will be based on our shared experiences. As he writes:

‘What brings me closer to another being and really binds me to him [sic]… Is the thought that he has passed to the same difficulties as I have, that he has undergone the same dangers… It is only in these terms that a meaningful content can be ascribed to the term fraternity

Gabriel Marcel, Creative Fidelity (p. 8)

Perhaps it’s almost impossible, at the moment, to think of relationships in Marcel’s terms; but perhaps it has never been more urgent and important.

Prof Amanda Fulford is the Associate Dean Research in the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University.


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We Make the Road by Walking: A ‘Kinder’ Society after COVID-19?

“In December 1987, Myles Horton and Paolo Freire, two pioneers of education for social change, came together to ‘talk a book’ about their experiences and ideas”

(Bell, Gaventa & Peters, 1990. p xv)

The seminal book that ensued, ‘We Make the Road by Walking’, marked a major landmark in the development of participatory education for the empowerment of the poor and powerless.  The work of Horton and Freire provided an underpinning democratic and democratising epistemology which guided the work of the Highlander Folk School, (later to be called the Highlander Centre) and continues to influence participatory and democratic education processes to the present day. 

Resonating with the work of Fals-Borda and Rahman (1991), and de Sousa Santos (2007), it provokes us to imagine different, more socially just concepts of knowledges, their creation, and their value/valuing.  In relation to this, Freire suggested that for this to happen, required a renewed understanding of knowledge and power. The people’s knowledge, which he calls ‘organic’ knowledge, is interwoven with and derived from their experiences and practices.

More than ever in recent history, we are having to make our road by walking.  With the imposed partial lockdown, there is growing evidence of the ways in which many people have found positives in the experience by finding new, and often better ways, to live their lives both in family and community contexts. 

Within hours of the lockdown being announced, social media platforms across the UK were advertising community-based mutual aid groups, with contact details being collated and shared on an open google document. This rapidly became a way of mutualising skills and knowledge across communities within an ethos of care.  My own local group quickly became full of offers to ‘shop and drop’, help with gardening, collect medicines, etc. Despite being seemingly disempowered in relation to the way we had previously led our lives, this community-based initiative developed a sense of power and authority that was rooted in their own contextual knowledge and skill sets.

Of interest also, was the ways in which our highly complex society began to explore and redefine itself. The media carried daily accounts of the fact that people had taken up gardening and growing edibles, of an increase in arts and crafting, a return to reading (usually paper rather than electronic texts), and an increase in shared family meals, cooked from scratch.  Our collective actions and voices at this time speak to the hope of a kinder, and better world. This is an opportunity to reimagine society, and how we construct it.

Dr Mary McAteer is Senior Lecturer in Professional Learning at Edge Hill University.


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