Mad rushes at grocery stores. Toilet paper hysteria. Bottled water!?
That the COVID-19 outbreak is a serious issue is not controversial. However, that our social response to it is controversial, is beyond doubt. Most news right now is concerned as much with our cultural mood in the face of this pandemic, as with the facts about the pandemic itself. In one sense we can be happy that we are creatures capable of this kind of reflexive thinking. In another sense, it is part of the tragedy of our existence to have to reflect on our behavior, and wonder whether we have truly done good, or caused harm, especially in times of duress. In other words, did we display virtue, or vice, in these times that try men’s souls?
If there is one central part of the inner life of the conscious, moral agent that is man that COVID-19 has helped bring to light, it is our current attitude toward death.
So, what does our present response to COVID-19 tell us about our understanding, attitude and posture toward that final frontier? Well, it seems that it tells us one thing very clearly: that we are very afraid and very clueless about how to navigate the reality of death. Death has, once again, become the greatest evil, the most heinous and terror-inducing foe, that we face as a culture. A reality too uncomfortable for us in the West to take head on, and to place in the right context. Of course, part of the problem is thinking there is no context in which we can place death. Death is the cause of hysteria, when it is considered the worst thing.
That might seem obvious to most of us (that death is that which we as humans fear most), especially those who sit every Sunday in church, or Saturday in Synagogue, listening to ancient wisdom from people who saw death daily, and who taught about how to lead “the good life.”
However, for many moderns, death, and dead bodies (to include animal death) have been carefully sequestered from our every day perceptual life. From assisted living homes to intensive care units, to doctor assisted euthanization services for our pets; our technological advances and our social structures have allowed most of us, with the exception of those in the relevant fields (First Responders, Surgeons, Meat Packers, et al.) to live with relatively little contact to blood, decay, and to death. We don’t perceive it often, nor do we take the time to deal with its aftermath. Our chicken breast are all cellophane packed, and most of us won’t go near anything that looks like an internal organ.
Cadavers, for example, used to be displayed in homes for viewing, sometimes for days in a row. Once there were processions through our streets, where pallbearers would carry their loved ones to their final resting places. Now, they are quickly whisked off to funeral homes, and within 24 hours, in the ground, and out of sight. Once, every country church, and many in the city even, had a cemetery attached to it. A graveyard, if you will. But now, most of our mental images of church graveyards have been tainted by a long lineage of Hollywood slasher films, and other gratuitous imagery. The once beloved and respected dead, who we prayed to “Rest in Peace” are now involuntarily conjured up in our minds as blood-thirsty zombies, or ravenous ghouls.
It all seems far from us, nature red in tooth and claw, and we are only shocked when it strikes in the form of things like mass shootings, or pandemics. Perhaps we don’t even know how much we actually fear death, our fear is not before us, it is buried quite deep. Too deep to address. Death is far too unknown to fear. We have done well in avoiding it, except in our movies, which tend to only parody it.
But it is this kind of avoidance of reality, avoidance through creaturely comfort, that has weakened us in one very particular area: in our emotional endurance, or perhaps more classically, in our moral courage. As the famed psychiatrist M. Scott Peck once wrote in his seminal book The Road Less Traveled:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths….[But] most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisy or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy.” (16, italics original).
Indeed, this seems to be our lot in the Year of our Lord, 2020.
But, this is just the empirical part of why we fear death so much in our culture. There is a more fundamental fear than just the false images we have created around it, so as to avoid it. That is, that we have come to feel that death simply leads nowhere, and it ultimately has no purpose. Death has not lost its sting when it comes to the “social imaginary” of our times.
When it comes to history, our current social imagination only has room to accommodate individualized stories. Our public sphere and its means of communication: movies, TV shows, talk shows, and sporting events, is almost exclusively focused on the personal narrative. Images or ideas about what makes a people or nation great, or about great institutions or structures, let alone about transcendent things, whether Ideas, Forms, or Being, are hard to find. We dabble in them, but we drown in the simplistic; a culture without any epic poetry, and where the invocation of “prayer” has been emptied of any transcendent belief.
Even our contemporary gods (e.g. think Marvel Comic movies) are weak ones, who while physically indestructible, are exactly like us in every way, just like those Socrates critiqued, and that to the point of death. Thor gets drunk and fat when he loses his hammer, and Iron Man speaks the same dialectic as the 15-year old kid who the public school system has horribly failed. Our cultural ontology is limited in space, big enough only for one kind of thing: an unknown quantity of individual, concrete particulars, reducible to unconscious particles that communicate nothing to us, since that is just what we are: unconscious particles.
This, the sad aftermath of a century and half of Scientism, leaves us an ontologically empty culture. And, here we are, told to construct our own worlds from this, this mindless stuff, and to hope some “human spirit” remains to stand courageously before COVID-19, or whatever else is out there to get us. It is frightening. Without the daily physical engagement with death, and without the conceptual resources to contextualize its inevitability, how do we expect we would react when it suddenly confronts us? With virtue? Certainly some of us will, the better angels of our nature may show up, after all. But, when pain avoidance has become the primary good, not the creation of good itself, but the mere deconstruction of pain, one is left to wonder if those angels will show up with enough force to stay the hysteria. Will we run into the fray and perform the act of bravery, will we wade into the sea of turmoil, unafraid of the harm we might incur? Or, as Lewis said, will have enough “chest” to stay our ground at the third hour of the bombardment?
When pain avoidance is considered the greatest good in a culture, and, when morality is considered a social construct, ungrounded by any transcendent principle, or Person, then a recipe for evil is being mixed. For, the desire to escape pain, coupled with a subjective moral framework and no trust in the providential plan of the God who made us, is the perfect storm for human evil.
And this, unlike death, is the worst thing.
The first 3-year old child we see trampled over at the local Walmart by some adult grasping for toilet paper, or the first fist-fight over a case of bottled water, and then we will know. We will know we have lost the good fight, and death has gotten the best of us, once again.