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 Allen 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:
The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”
We can think of other works where fear reigns. There’s H. G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” which, despite its reputation as simply a tale of aliens, is more about human fear on a mass scale, as the most civilized of nations comes unglued in days when faced with an unstoppable nemesis. Or, somewhat more contemporary, we see a plague-induced panic in Stephen King’s “The Stand,” as the thin veneer of culture strips away as the bodies begin to fall.
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, appropriately named “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.
What we see in “The Plague,” and in these other works as well, is the daunting reality of facing our own pretensions. We coast along in life under the illusion that we’ve got it all together. Sadly, this is often as true for the churchgoer as to the brazen atheist and the unreflective hedonist. 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.
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?
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 hour may come at any time, at any place, and to anyone.
This is why artistic works like those above are so valuable. They are momento mori. Whether historical like Boccaccio or fictional like Camus, these tales enable us for a moment to remember that we are but dust, that our pretenses will fail, our causes will falter, and our lives will end.
They force us to ask the sorts of questions we’d be more comfortable remaining unasked. 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 and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973 as well as editor of the forthcoming Dual Citizens: Politics and American Evangelicalism.