The Coronavirus and Its Gifts

T. S. Eliot famously enumerated the three gifts of old age. I believe old age does have gifts, real gifts. And perhaps so does this horrific period we are going through – at least for those of us fortunate enough to be fearful but yet untouched, those of us lucky enough to have homes to shelter in and food in the cupboard. Without minimizing the pain and fear of this plague, it might be worth thinking about what unintentional gifts it might be strewing in its wake.

For one, there is the gift of time. I must admit that I miss the ritual of my weekly meetings and errands. I miss regular exercise at the gym, and the mental and physical energy I garner from the women I do yoga with. I miss concerts and movies and travel. All of a sudden days yawn wide, and it is up to me to see that as suffering or opportunity.

Time allows for depth. Our generation has seen our opportunities to read, watch, experience, travel and meet people multiply. And yet, there is less and less time to reflect on what we read, what we see, what we really think. Auden was worried about this over fifty years ago:

Again, while it is a great blessing that a man no longer has to be rich in order to enjoy the masterpieces of the past, for paper-backs, first-rate colour reproductions and stereo-phonograph records have made them available to all but the very poor, this ease of access, if misused – and we do misuse it – can become a curse. We are all of us tempted to read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music than we can possibly absorb; and the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to, is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind it than yesterday’s newspaper. (“Words and the Word” in Secondary Worlds)

I have often talked about the joys of “re-reading” (for another view on this see Vivien Gornick’s Unfinished Business – Notes of a Chronic Re-reader or my story “Nothing New”), and now we have the time. The books we love are probably in the house or loaded on our Kindle, and their very familiarity may provide both comfort and surprise at how  different they seem as both we and the world are in a different place.

A second gift of Covid-19 might be an increased cognizance, a more visceral recognition, of our own mortality. The virus reminds us that we are “knocking on heaven’s door.” Most of us have never lived such times; we have been singularly fortunate. For other generations in other places, it was a situation they were intimate with. I am reminded of Freud’s “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” Freud is speaking about World War I, but he could easily have been talking about the coronavirus:

We were [before the war], of course, prepared to maintain that death was the necessary outcome of life, that everyone owes a debt to nature and must pay the reckoning – in short that death was natural, undeniable and unavoidable. In reality, we were accustomed to think it were otherwise…. It is evident that war is bound to sweep away this conventional treatment of death. Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in him. People really are dying, and now not one by one, but many at a time, often ten thousand in a single day.

The world has not gotten to 10,000 deaths a day yet, but over 60,000 people (an undercount assuredly) are being diagnosed every day. Mortality will rise.

Cultures through the ages have understood that people know that they are mortal and yet act otherwise; Sartre said that our own death was “unrealizable.” Yet, in the denial of truth there is no freedom. In the Katha Upanishad, the young Nachiketa goes to Yama, the God of death, and says “O king of death… I can have no teacher greater than you.” In the ancient Mesopotamian myth Gilgamesh, the hero is devastated by the death of his friend Enkidu and goes off on a search for immortality. And when he finds the answer (a magic plant), a snake steals it from him (sound familiar?) and he has to face… his own mortality and the mundane concerns back in his kingdom of Urdu.

The third lesson would entail the virus  waking us up (does it have your attention yet?) and making us realize that we’re part of nature – for better or worse – and we had better start acting like it. Like death, this is something we know cognitively but not viscerally. We are also part of each other and need to do what we can to help. Jung said that “Everything could be left undisturbed did not the new way demand to be discovered, and did it not visit humanity with all the plagues of Egypt until it finally is discovered.” (Thanks to Paul Levy at the Buddhist Global Relief web site for this citation.) Let’s hope it does not take “all the plagues of Egypt” to make us find a “new way,” and let’s pray this particular plague winds down sooner than expected. But let’s also hope that this liminal experience teaches us something about our vulnerability, about our place in the universe. That it humbles us.

Here is a story about a plague/flu that I wrote about a dozen years ago. It is not the coronavirus, though it does come from China. My fictional plague is not often fatal for the individual, but it may be for the species. Just a thought experiment. But doesn’t life feel rather like a thought experiment these days? Be safe and use your time well.

Guns, Mortality, and Old Age

During WWI, Freud wrote an essay entitled “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” I recommend it. He says that WWI is a “new” kind of war in its disregard for noncombatants, the wounded, and any rules of engagement. Freud points out that the Great War brought two forms of disillusionment – one having to do with the illusion of the true nature of man and nations and the other regarding our illusion that death either does not exist or is very far away. Massive disruptions and killings make us face the fact that death is close, just as far away as the next trip to the mall. “Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in him. People really are dying, and now not one by one, but many at a time.” So it felt to Freud in 1915; so it feels to us today. People are dying in a way that seems senseless and makes us feel defenseless.

The recent (and continual) rounds of massacres of the innocent scare us with their demonstration of the thin veneer of civilization. They also remind us of our mortality in a way that other things do not. Tactful news outlets do not publish the bloody photos; however, our imaginations are as graphic as any photo. Regardless of how healthy we are, how many sit-ups we can do or how often we get a mammogram, it could be us.
One would think that the older we got, the more we would make friends with death. He is a neighbor, after all, and we have many mutual acquaintances. If you live in an area dense with retired folk, the way I do, deaths come along at a regular pace – sometimes long-expected and sometimes suddenly, but yet we cannot quite believe that it could be… me. Yes, we know we will die; we simply do not quite realize it most of the time.

Our generation grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb. We should know death is never far away. I was a child in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis – we were well aware that we were within reach of short range missiles. My father dug a fallout shelter in the crawl space under our house and stocked it with rice and canned goods. We slept upstairs knowing that someday we might have to retreat to the earthen cavity to end our days, and yet time passed and so did that awareness. It is, indeed, amazing that mankind has not used this technology of destruction in the past seventy-four years. Especially since, let’s face it, we cannot even control the use of AR-15’s.

So we look into the face of random death again. Freud says that facing this unwelcome truth is no entirely a bad thing. It “has the merit of taking somewhat more into account the true state of affairs and of making life again more endurable for us… . If you would endure life, be prepared for death.”

None of this is to say that we should not do something about the violence that surrounds us, should not try to re-establish a civilized society where fear does not govern. If civilization could control the atom bomb for all these years, it would seem we could exert an effort to stop gun rampages, and we should do everything we can to do so. And if we find that the fear that guns engender is to the benefit of any person or agenda, we should wonder about why that is and what we can do about it.

My story this week, “A Spoonful of Sugar,” is about one woman’s insight into her own mortality. I recommend the Freud essay and also recommend Ernest Becker’s book Denial of Death.