A contagion stalks the land, and we play at not being afraid.
We make our jokes, suggesting a black market for toilet paper and how this is all an introvert's dream. We cultivate rationalizations, noting that more people die in a week from tuberculosis than this new blight has felled in all. We keep our distance, zeroing in on the implications for the 2020 election.
But we are afraid.
It's hard not to be scared when we see the numbers grow, when we see $11 trillion wiped from the economy, when we see the affected areas slither their way across the map, ever closer to home. There's something unnerving about a new and unknown ailment that the powers that be are powerless to contain.
It's unsettling when all the comforts we've grown accustomed to enjoying seem to be slipping from our grasp. Dining out with friends, greeting associates with a handshake, even touching our own faces — all of these now cast an ominous shadow on our lives.
We are not the first to face such fears. And, as much as we wish it otherwise, we will not be the last. We can look back to the most famous plague of all — The Black Death — that wormed its way across Europe nearly 700 years ago.
From there we read Boccaccio's morbidly beautiful account where he describes the fabulous and wealthy in his city who: [A]fter dining heartily with their friends here, have supped with their departed friends in the other world!
Our shaky confidence in our prepping abilities — what with our Netflix, our Facetime and our hoarded toiletries — also finds it echo in the past, this time in delightfully dark words of Edgar Allan Poe. In his tale, "The Masque of the Red Death," an Old World princeling hides away from the disease outside, secure in the knowledge that he is safe:
One of the finest creative presentations of humanity under extreme duress comes from Albert Camus. As the world struggled to come to terms with the horrors of the Second World War, Camus penned what is arguably his masterpiece, "The Plague."
It is not so much the story of a contagion as it is a metaphor for humanity come to the end of itself. With the advent of an unrelenting disease, each of the characters is, in one way or another, confronted with the absurdity of their earlier existence. What do all of their pursuits, whether noble or petty, mean when faced with an unavoidable and indifferent death? With them, we are forced to consider why we do what we do, what our lives mean and what it will all matter in the end.
We have our beliefs that keep our questions at bay, but, so long as the pressure is small enough, we're never forced to consider how woefully insufficient are the props that hold up our sense of moral balance.
This is why pandemics are so terrifying. We can eat as healthy as we like, we can exercise as carefully as we wish and we can take all the precautions we desire, but, when faced with a plague, a war or other unavoidable catastrophe, we can no longer pretend that the Grim Reaper can be kept away forever. Such moments are reminders that the final moment may come at any time, at any place and to anyone.
Now, we can avoid thinking about these things. We can work ourselves to the bone so that we're too busy. We can delve into every pleasure imaginable so that we're too numb. We can invest our lives into causes and hobbies so that we don't see how empty and meaningless our existence without God is.
But there will come a time when none of these is enough. We all have a breaking point for our lives: The death of a loved one, the loss of a job or, as today, the menace of a disease that kills without thought, without malice and without compassion. It may not come until we face death ourselves, but there will be a moment when none of the things we've built our lives upon will matter at all. At that hour, what will we say is the reason that we live?
Is the world, as atheism would have it, devoid of all meaning but what we create ourselves? Is it instead, as the hedonist would say, merely a merry-go-round with a short chance for pleasure? Is it, as the workaholic would suggest, all about doing your duty and putting in your hours?
Or is it, as Christianity would teach, the time and place to which the God of the universe has called you and even now works to redeem all existence to his original Shalom? Our answer to these questions will shape the course of our lives, even as we face death each day.
Timothy D. Padgett, Ph.D, is the managing editor of BreakPoint.
From BreakPoint, March 13, 2020; reprinted by permission of the Colsen Center, www.breakpoint.org.