In Mitch Albom’s best-selling novel, Five People you Meet in Heaven, a man named Eddie dies.

His entry into heaven is a reckoning: Eddie must meet with five people who had a significant impact on his life, or on whom he had a significant impact. Of the five people Eddie meets, only two are known to him; three are strangers.

The premise seems implausible at first. Surely, the people we spend the most time with – those we love and share our time and energy with – are the ones we impact, and are impacted by, most. However, what Albom’s novel reveals is a truth we all accept but frequently fail to live by: the fact that, as philosopher Carol Gilligan puts it: “we live on a trampoline – if we move, it affects a whole lot of people.”

The reason we fail to live by this basic truth is because so many people are invisible to us. We’ll never share their joys, hear their pain or witness their suffering. They could lead lives of utter bliss or abject misery and we’d never know. This leads us to assume that if we don’t know about them, then we can’t affect them, and vice versa.

Of course, this is nonsense – and we’ve never had so striking an example as we do now, wrestling with how we respond to the novel coronavirus and the threat of COVID-19. Most of those who are threatened by this virus are invisible to us. We’ll never know their names or see their faces. We’ll never know most of the people who miss out on groceries because of our actions at the supermarket, or who have taken our fair share in a moment of selfish desperation.

Despite the fact we all know the ties that bind us together extend further than our eyesight does, it seems clear that many are still struggling to see how that applies during a pandemic. We have seen cases in Australia of people placed in isolation ducking out for a trip to the shops, exposing others to immense risk, people flagrantly disregarding advice around social distancing and isolation and welfare recipients expected to continue to fulfil ‘mutual obligations’ despite it placing them at risk of infection.

How do we account for the gap between what we know – that we’re connected to one another – and the way that so many of us are behaving?

It takes moral imagination to remember the people we can’t see – to give them fair representation in our weighing up of how we should act.

But that imagination can be stymied because it butts heads with a competing force, that unsurprisingly, comes from economics: moral hazard. Whilst moral imagination asks us to apportion our attention, care and concern to those who are most at risk; moral hazard thinking encourages us to offset as much of our own risk onto others as possible.

Moral hazard thinking allows us to justify a quick sojourn to grab a coffee, despite having been in contact with person who is suspected of being infected. Moral hazard thinking that allows us to be wilfully blind to the effects on the community that stem from hoarding essentials. There are personal gains to be had by putting ourselves ahead of everyone else – but the fact that so many are succumbing to the temptation is perhaps a measure of how far we have to go to arrive at a point where, as poet Mary Richards described it, we can open our “moral eye” to see what – and crucially who – really matter.

Richards believes poetry and literature can provide a pathway to opening the moral eye. Other research attributes moral imagination to childhood and upbringing; experience of diversity; a sense of safety and communal security and face-to-face encounters with those who we’re failing to consider.

However, each of these pieces of research is about developing moral imagination. We should also take a second to think about what’s required to put it into practice. For so many of us, the fact we don’t remember the people we can’t see isn’t due to lack of ability, it’s because we’re choosing to look away. We have a nagging sense, in the corner of our mind, that there’s someone else we could consider – someone whose perspective would force us to change our behaviour. And it’s easier to turn away.

But true moral imagination – and moral redemption – lies on the other side of looking. It begins when we dare to understand the other person as having a claim against us. We need to accept them as people who can burden us with their needs, and who do – and should – rely on us. As philosopher Eleanor Gordon-Smith recently wrote:

“We have to start caring about strangers, richly caring – caring in the way that makes us prepared to put their wellbeing before our own. What will unite us right now, and God knows we could use it, is finally seeing each other as worth making sacrifices for.”

In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, the last person Eddie meets is a child – a civilian caught in a war zone in which Eddie was a soldier. Eddie set fire to the building where she was burned to death. For his entire life, he knew he’d seen a shadow moving and suspected there was someone there, but never indulged the thought. He decided instead to turn away. Until at last, at the end of his life, he finally faces her – and permits himself to see what he did to her. Instead of turning away, he bears witness to what he’s done. And in doing so, he’s not only redeemed of the guilt, he’s able to see himself anew.

After the war, Eddie worked in maintenance for an amusement park. After parting ways with his ‘fifth person’, having shown the courage to face what he’d done and who he’d harmed, he is then able to recognise all the lives he’s saved. Surrounding him in heaven are countless faces – all people who lived because of his ordinary, quiet work. People he never met, would never know, but who lived because of what he did.

This is the pivot that our moral imagination requires of us. We shouldn’t see the social distancing, isolation, quarantine, travel bans and the host of other impositions on our behaviour as frustrations or burdens to be resented and worked around where possible. We should see it as an opportunity to rescue people. To save their lives.

Even though they’ll never know our names or see our faces, grandkids will be given a Christmas with a grandparent they never knew was at risk; someone will receive a piece of advice they never would have heard; a cancer patient will make it to the end of therapy and learn they’re cancer-free.

It seems easier to turn away from the uncomfortable truth. To focus on the risks and benefits to us without bearing in mind the possible effects on the unseen masses.

But doing so makes our world so small. It robs them of the community care and support they deserve, and it robs us of a richer way of thinking about ourselves and our relationships with others.

Call it a circle of life, a trampoline, a moral community or whatever you will. Just have the courage to see it for what it is: a demand and an opportunity to be better.


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