Blog: Finding Resilience through a Moral Imagination

Thursday, May 21, 2020

By Michelle JackettMichelle Jackett

Michelle Jackett is a graduate of the Peace and Conflict Studies program (BA ’11) and holds an MA in Conflict Transformation, specializing in Restorative Justice (‘13). She currently works as Coordinator of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement and teaches Restorative Justice for PACS.


Did you know caterpillars turn to goop inside their cocoons before becoming butterflies? I learned this fun fact from Rebecca Solnit in her recent article “’The impossible has already happened': what coronavirus can teach us about hope.” More than a fun fact, the caterpillar’s transformation is an analogy. Solnit gives numerous examples of the unprecedented change that can emerge during, and in the wake of, disasters. Peasant revolts following the Black Plague that led to more rights and freedoms for the marginalized. The 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake that sparked a revolution. Canada’s recent COVID relief packages bringing us closer to a Universal Basic Income. As a caterpillar does in a chrysalis, pieces of our social, economic, and political systems are dissolving and rearranging.

While I want to believe that this pandemic will give way to positive change, I know that there are many ingredients needed to transform systems and the people within them. Although necessity is a strong change agent, more is required to sustain the kind of change many of us are hoping for post-COVID. The late economist Milton Freidman said that the actions that follow a crisis depend on the ideas floating around at the time. Do the most buoyant ideas out there reflect directions you want to go?

Solnit refers to the goop inside a chrysalis as “imaginal cells”. This language brought to mind peacebuilder John Paul Lederach’s “moral imagination” – the ability to draw from one’s relationships and experiences to imagine more just, equitable, and peaceful realities. Your moral imagination has been at work if watching things fall apart and come together in unexpected ways has led you to see life in a slightly new light. This pandemic has ignited my own moral imagination and compelled me to confront the areas of my life that need to better align with my values.

I remember the early days of the pandemic as a process of turning inward. Setting up my family’s COVID rules of engagement (frequency of handwashing, grocery store protocol, etc.) consumed my thoughts. As this attempt to control my circumstances failed, I found my naked privilege waiting for me on the other side. I saw that those already suffering at the hands of violent systems – systems that I benefit from – feel the destruction of this pandemic most acutely. I saw that my ability to turn inward was dependant on a full cast of supporting characters and my social location. Although this awareness began as paralysing guilt, I have befriended this added discomfort and shed guilt to make room for love.

Where my initial reaction to the pandemic was a turning inward, I have slowly begun to face outward again. Through the chrysalis experience of dissolving and rearranging, I have found capacity to care for others and the courage to challenge my own complacency with unhealthy systems.

Recently, a family member offered me another helpful analogy. “Like the oaths doctors have taken,” they said, “don’t we have an obligation to use our gifts to help if we can?” What a parallel to draw! Hundreds of thousands of health care professionals are coming out of retirement or working overtime because of their commitment to helping the vulnerable as best they can with the skills that they possess.

In the middle of this crisis, when many of us are tempted to turn inward, we have an opportunity to get real about what matters most and make changes that will strengthen our communities. So I ask you, what oaths have you taken? My hope for us is that we might seek safe spaces to dissolve and rearrange so that we can emerge with greater clarity and capacity for putting love into action. For me, this looks like seeking mentorship, studying permaculture, and inviting my community into chrysalis with me. We are amidst one of the biggest opportunities for change in this century, but we can only make the most of it if we allow ourselves to be changed first.


This blog post is in a series of reflections on how COVID-19 relates to and has implications for the Peace and Conflict Studies community of students, staff, faculty, and alumni. If you would like to submit a reflection to this series, please contact Rachel Reist at rreist@uwaterloo.ca