A new sense of agency: Rethinking vulnerability and collective responsibility

One psychological impact of Coronavirus is that we seem to be more ‘aware’ of our vulnerability, which has been brought into our collective consciousness.

| 5 min read

We could view our current epoch as being defined by a particular type of vulnerability, to think of it as a quality, as much as a quantity. One psychological impact of Coronavirus is that we seem to be more ‘aware’ of our vulnerability, which has been brought into our collective consciousness.

Put another way, our sense of reality has come under threat recently, and has brought about a collective feeling of helplessness.

And while we have been aware of, say, the existential threat of the climate emergency for instance, that awareness has existed for a long time in a theoretical form.

Not anymore.

This increased sense of awareness is broadening.

For at the heart of the Covid-19 crisis there has played out a juxtaposition that has long been negotiated theoretically, but is now increasingly experienced in a practical form: individualism versus collective responsibility.

The right of the individual to choose. When it comes to that central conundrum in the Third Sector of finding funding and donors, there is now likely to be a renewed understanding of the broader vulnerability that people now feel. Of their ability (or not) to donate as they wish. There will also likely need to be effective realignment with the guardians of growing pots of wealth, where they exist.

That delicate balance of not pressurising donors - especially in times of crisis, where fundraisers must be sensitive, even if the need for donations has become even more fundamental to the survival of communities.

Covid-19 has put a renewed light on the role of communities and on collective responsibility. On laying aside differences and working together: wearing a mask, sharing food, observing social distancing, assisting the vulnerable. In short, communities defining themselves by the quality of their kindness.

Belonging and purpose improve health. People are healthier when they’re connected to social and community supports. When they are empowered to play meaningful roles in both their own health and the health of their wider community. Coronavirus has shown us how much we rely upon social connectivity and the great challenge to our lives when that connectivity is deeply affected.

On the level of knowledge, as we are made more aware of our vulnerability, this might spark the potential for a paradigm shift. Basic tenets of our social structures are being called into question, perhaps because their internal contradictions have been illuminated by coronavirus.

Questions such as: ‘What does a humane society look like?’ As well as: ‘What are our responsibilities to our fellow human beings?’

A key to addressing our vulnerability seems to lie in how effectively we are able to come to terms with – and take advantage of – the fact that life is fundamentally ambiguous.

Living with a contingent, where there are no simple answers to complex questions, where decisions are based on negotiations between many differing and sometimes competing demands.

There is a human tendency to think in binaries, such as good and evil, love and hate, pleasure and pain. Or the economy versus healthcare. And, of course, the individual versus the collective.

But are there ways in which we can think creatively in a non-binary sense? Particularly in the area of collective responsibility?

Binary thinking might provide ‘emotionally comforting certainties’, but the natural and human world is not binary. Everything is laid out by degrees of variation.

Thinking in a non-binary way, such as viewing life as fundamentally ambiguous for example, does highlight that we experience equal and opposite emotions at the same time. And it might help to negotiate the complex field of experience that coronavirus has become the symbol of.

Compassion is one such prism here, particularly when collective responsibility is expressed through compassion in public life. A society, then, that promotes adequate compassion, as an important ingredient of good citizenship.

Activities born of compassion can also be powerful antidotes to anxiety. And to the binary ways of thinking that anxiety spawns.

The anxiety of our current time works as a signal, I would suggest. As an indication for the possibility of change. By working and thinking creatively with our anxiety, rather than being a victim of it, we can perhaps use it to transform lives for the better.

It is possible that the notion of collective responsibility, long treasured within the Third Sector, could now carry beyond the crisis of Covid-19 with a renewed sense of agency. It will no longer be enough to simply hold opinions - unless we are willing to take matters in hand.

Originally published in Charity Finance Group’s magazine ‘Finance Focus’, February 2021.

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A new sense of agency: Rethinking vulnerability and collective responsibility

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