The COVID-19 pandemic makes it all too clear that humans on this planet are interconnected. We have watched in real time how one person’s behavior in Wuhan Province can affect the life of a farmer in rural New York. As scientists across borders and oceans work to study the virus and find a vaccine, we see that we will be more resilient and stronger if we work together.
As with any widespread crisis, this pandemic has the capacity to increase our compassion for each other. Compassion literally means to “suffer with” from the Latin root -patior which means “to suffer” and the Latin prefix of com- which means “with.” Our social isolation makes us realize how important community is to us, like when we deny ourselves sweets for weeks, after which we crave them more than ever. Over these months we have found connection through technology: our children learn digitally, we gather for holiday meals through Zoom calls, visit museums online, and even walk through fields of spring flowers on virtual tours.
Now as we consider easing restrictions, we know that life will not return to “normal” soon or go back exactly to where we during the first days of 2020. We will forever be changed by this crisis and must change our behaviors for the foreseeable future. Wearing masks and maintaining social distancing when we leave our homes is one way we show social solidarity and that deep feeling of struggling together for the common good. But this pause in the normal business of everyday also provides us with an opportunity to see the cracks in our social fabric and a chance to rebuild our communities in healthier, more resilient, perhaps more equitable ways. Reshaping society will require a period of investigation and deep questioning to ensure that some good might come from this loss of life and suffering.
The members of the original Oneida Community chose to form a society that in their view would be more egalitarian and less selfish than the surrounding American culture. They prided themselves on acting according to the “we-spirit” rather than the “I-spirit,” all members united in the pursuit of a common goal to find a “new Eden” on farmland in upstate New York. After the religious community disbanded and the descendants joined together to build a successful silverware company at the turn of the century, Oneida Community Limited’s head, Pierrepont “P.B.” Noyes, insisted that the new institution remain true to the community’s original purpose. He sought an equitable distribution of the company’s profits between factory workers, salesmen, and management, creating an environment “which will allow us all to live together as brothers,” as he once phrased it a 1909 Annual Agents’ Banquet.
We two sisters are descendants of the Oneida Community founders, and we are starting this blog to provide a forum for ideas about community, drawing on the history of this 19th century utopian experiment and its twentieth-century transformation into a globally successful silverware company. We are calling it “The Tulip Tree,” after the tree our ancestors planted in 1851 in an open quadrangle at the center of their communal living space, the Mansion House. It created an inviting spot where members could gather and talk or work in the coolness of its shade, and where children could play. The tree is still there today, towering above the four stories of the Mansion House, and is the tallest known example of its species in New York State. Through this blog we would like to continue the conversations it once inspired.