Character and calling in a time of crisis

No doubt you have seen the advice, attributed to Mister Rogers’ mother, that we should look to the helpers in those times when the news is scary. As the frightening realities about the spread of the Covid-19 virus have unfolded over the last few weeks, there are also plenty of stories of heroes and heroines on the national and local level. Paying attention to their stories and especially to the virtues that they embody in this harrowing situation can be an opportunity for students to consider how the virtues intersect with calling. Here, I’ll mention two examples, but there are many others now just as there will be in the weeks and months ahead.

Francis Collins speaks about the coronavirus, his faith, and an unusual friendship.

Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institute of Health, has exhibited a calm wisdom as he has worked to explain why our day-to-day choices can make an enormous difference in a collective effort toward slowing the spread of the virus. In this lengthy essay in The Atlantic, Peter Wehner focused on the leadership role that Collins has played during this on-going crisis. The first half of the essay chronicles the most recent warnings and dire predictions, but a diligent reader is rewarded in the second half with a biographical tribute to Collins. It is a story that is perhaps unexpectedly one of profound faith and a clear calling.

In describing Collins, Wehner draws upon the rich vocabulary of the traditional virtues, citing Collins’ honesty, his integrity, and, although he doesn’t use this word, his benevolence. Collins’ himself frames his call to the American people in the terms of civic responsibility and selflessness:

 I think we as a nation have to get into a place of not just thinking about ourselves, but thinking about everybody else around us, and particularly the most vulnerable people—those who are older and those people with chronic diseases.

Francis Collins

We learn that helping people who are suffering has always been Collins’ basic commitment, one that has informed his life, including his decision to shift from studying physical chemistry to medicine. The essay goes on to describe the trajectory of Collins’ religious faith: how let go of the atheism of his young adulthood, the influence of reading C.S. Lewis, the spiritual experience of listening to certain kinds of music, and his abiding friendship with the late Christopher Hitchens, a vocal and notorious atheist.

The essay is well worth reading and could be the centerpiece of a vocation-centered assignment by posing the following types of questions:

  • What particular virtues does Francis Collins exemplify in his words and actions? What virtues are explicitly named in this essay? What positive characteristics are described but not named?
  • How would you describe Francis Collins’ vocation based on what you have read in this essay? What is his calling? How is it manifested in the work he is doing now?
  • How would you summarize the trajectory of Collins’ religious faith? What were key moments or influences? How do you make sense of his friendship with Christopher Hitchens? How does it relate to his calling? Does it indicate additional virtues?
  • How might Francis Collins be a role model for you in the context of your own life right now?

The second example comes out of Chicago. By now, most Chicagoans are likely familiar with the name Allison Arwady, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health who has appeared regularly on the nightly news offering updates and advice. In addition, Arwady is now hosting a regular Facebook live program called “Ask Dr. Arwady.” (#AskDrArwady).

This recent feature on Arwady from the Chicago Tribune, while not as lengthy or detailed as the piece on Francis Collins is also full of virtue language and contains a clear statement of calling. Here are some questions that could be paired with the article, prompting students to consider Arwady as an exemplar of certain virtues:

  • How does Dr. Arwady’s former colleague, Julie Morita, describe her? What virtues does she name? What other virtues could be attributed to Dr. Arwady?
  • What life experiences are described in the article that have been significant in Dr. Arwady’s life?
  • If you had a chance to interview Dr. Arwady, what questions would you ask her?

Given that most students have now returned to their homes, a follow-up assignment could ask them to find out about someone in their community who in some way is helping during this unprecedented, challenging situation. Students’ could base their reflection upon a write-up similar to those mentioned above or they could be invited to take on the role of the journalist, perhaps even interviewing (by phone or Zoom, of course) the person. The task is to not just focus on the person’s activity or work, but to explore what kind of person they are and how their actions reveal an underlying sense of calling. Being attuned to the helpers among us can be an antidote to despair.

For more on the connection between the virtues and vocation, see these blog posts by Andrew Irvine, Tom Perrin, Rachel Mikva, John Barton, and Jeff Brown. For an analysis that problematizes the Mister Rogers’ meme about “helping the helpers,” see this piece by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic (October 2018).


Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

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