The baser instinct in me wants to write about the great frustration that is politics and the incongruity of people believing, perhaps, that they are preaching to a unified choir when they post their rants and memes on social media. Several people posted in my feed recently about how the Democrats unbelievably killed “the Coronavirus Bill” without a single vote in favor of the relief offered by the Republicans. While several people in my feed posted about how the Republicans tried to pass a Coronavirus bill that only benefited corporations to the detriment of all hardworking Americans.
Do we bother to listen to what each other is saying?
But I will resist the temptation to jump into that fray. Again.
I would rather write about the coronavirus… and death.
Not that I am being unduly morose. The reality of a deadly virus, and of death itself, is top of mind in these trying times of sheltered isolation social distance.
In more normal times, we are pretty good at keeping the thoughts of death at bay, even when they creep close to the threshold. We seem to have no end to the diversions gladly available to escape them or to drown them out.
It’s a brute fact, though, that one day we will die, and probably much sooner than we like to think. Not even taxes are as relentless as the inevitability of death.
In times like these, we are much more aware of it. We can’t escape it. It’s everywhere we turn, and we aren’t used to it.
We have it pretty good in these often not very United States. We haven’t had a war on our own soil since 1865. We are healthy and wealthy in comparison to much of the world. We have many diversions: national pastimes, myriad hobbies for every kind of enthusiast and we have as much entertainment at our fingertips as we can access beyond our front door.
But death inevitably lurks. With the current corona virus outbreak, the United States is experiencing something like the emotions we might feel in a war. Like Britain in WWII, death lurks closely to all of us in a way that most people alive in the United States have never really experienced unless they fought overseas.
As CS Lewis said to his British audience during the last World War[i], it (war then, the corona virus now) forces us to remember death. We have learned to deal with (and hold at abeyance) the cancer that steals the unfortunate life of a 60-year old, 80-year old, or even a child, accident statistics and such things.
The deaths that take the unfortunate and the vulnerable seem distant to most of us, but a war or a pandemic sneaks death into the bedroom of our thoughts where they presently haunt us.
And maybe that is just as well. We are going to die. “All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us know.”
Nothing has changed. It’s just that we are now more aware of “the sort of universe in which we have all along been living”, and we have to deal with it. Humanist hopes are shattered in times like these. “If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”
The disillusionment inevitably, eventually will come sooner than we think, even if we escape these times with our lives, which most of us will do.
For the Christ believer, we have occasion to question: “Death, where is thy sting?” And we can answer: “This world is not the end game; it is the pilgrimage to another world.”
[i] Yet war [the coronavirus] does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War [the pandemic] makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.
All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still. (C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time”, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Harper San Francisco, 1980), pp. 62-63)