Levquist went on, ‘I am close to death. That is no scandal, old age is a well-known phenomenon. But now the difference is that everyone is close to death.’
Gerard said, ‘Yes.’ He thought, it consoles him to think so.
‘All thought which is not pessimistic is now false.’
‘But you would say it has always been?’
‘Yes. Only now it is forced upon all thinking people, it is the only possible conception. Courage, endurance, truthfulness, these are the virtues. And to recognise that of all things we are the most miserable that creep between the earth and the sky.’
From The Book and The Brotherhood Iris Murdoch
Family movie night was A Bug’s Life recently which is only the second time we’ve watched that particular film (unlike Cars or Mary Poppins which are on continual repeat). At the end of the film, we played a fun four year old game which is “what bug would you be if you were a bug?” The womenfolk picked ladybugs and I said I’d be a native Texas honeybee. The next day, at the soccer field while we rested in the shade and watched ants on the ground, Wobbles said “We aren’t really bugs, are we Papa?” “No, of course not.” The question, a reasonably standard one as four year old questions go, struck a chord with me as I have been thinking about this experience of living in a pandemic, meditating on Levquist’s comment regarding how death and its proximity is forced on all people.
It is true that death has always been close. Only in modern times have we been somewhat isolated from death with our wars in far off places not even shown on TV and modern medicine keeping us alive (but not particularly healthy) for what seems like forever. Modernity, with its veil of isolation, from death, from philosophy, from connection, has made it difficult to deal with a situation where it seems to lurk round every corner, on every apple at the grocery store, in every visit to the veterinarian. We are ill-equipped to deal with this situation because our lives are built around newness and change and distance from the day to day truth of a life cycle we very much a part of. Modernity has conditioned us to function only within change, a new job, a new phone, always searching and needing new stimulation. All that is solid melts into air as Marx and later Berman put it.
But now, in the midst of a pandemic, death and finality have come to the fore. As it turns out, our sheltered modern life with its constant change does not protect us from the realization that we are in fact bugs as far as Mother Nature is concerned. Our life feels just as capricious as the ant for whom death lurks near. This is terrifying and unsettling. However it doesn’t stop the ant. He and his community continue on being ants, building, gathering food, operating as if tomorrow is guaranteed but also operating as if it isn’t, that the natural cycle of things involves both life and death. If Bob the Ant ventures forth for food but doesn’t come back because a four year old girl happened to bounce her soccer ball by at an inopportune moment, the contingency of the event (or life) does not seize the community
I have found myself recently talking about how I long to go to a coffee shop to work and how in 9-12 months, life will be back to normal once the wonder and genius of mankind has found a vaccine. In some sense, this is likely true. People who say that they aren’t sure we’ll ever have a vaccine or be able to conquer it forget that mankind has been infected by diseases throughout history. Science has always found a way through. We will find a vaccine or a treatment or just achieve some significant level of herd immunity. Life will resume. Life will be normal. But our consciousness of life may be altered. The illusion of difference from the bugs, that we in some way are qualitatively different when it comes to the contingency of Nature will be squashed. While life will return to “normal”, it is a mistake to long for that day because in the interim, thousands more people will have died, thousands more will have been infected and possibly suffer from as yet unknown morbidity effects. Longing for that day assumes one even makes it to that distant promised paradise.
Instead, perhaps the Bob the Ant and Marcus Aurelius are better guides. Aurelius, the famous Stoic emperor of Rome, said “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” Modernity teaches us that if we don’t like how something is going, we can change it. The Stoics teach us that in actuality there is little we can change other than our mind and our reactions to our situations. True happiness comes from this, that each day is precious and that our appreciation of it is key to our being.
The way we are truly different from the bugs is not because we can somehow pretend that death is not near. It is in our minds’ ability to comprehend this and still find power and meaning in the beauty of the day, to choose not to suffer from that anxiety of the unknown. The ant suffers no anxiety (as far as I know, never having been an ant.) We suffer anxiety because we pretend to live our lives in some non-guaranteed future day when things are rosy and the contingencies of life have been solved. That future is an illusion. The anxiety that stems from it is a curse that can be treated by focusing on the day we have been given. Is that easy? No of course not. Our entire media structure (one that we choose to participate in) is built around panic and rage and catastrophe. But today is the key to happiness. Flowers in the garden. Heat of the sun on our face. When we choose to wish for some future, we lose both because today is wasted wishing and the future will not happen as we wished anyway. Aurelius also said “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
I couldn’t explain to Wobbles that we are neither ants nor non-ants, that while it seems that our lives are different, more meaningful, the contingency of Nature applies equally to us as it does to them. We are not squashed by random acts of soccer violence but we do catch a disease from a trip to the grocery store that might kill us or fail to wake up because our hearts stopped in the night. A child’s mind lacks depth to understand this. But a child’s mind has something greater, the ability to live for only today. We played soccer (and hopefully killed no ants), we ran to the fence, she beat me there occasionally, she laughed her infectious laugh when she did, all during a pandemic that continues to rage across the globe. That anxiety I feel about longing for a distant future where I can work in a coffee shop will not be remembered in 10 years but, God willing, the moments of watching my child enjoy the experience of today will remain. Levquist and his pessimistic, Schopenhauer-like outlook were wrong. Learn to appreciate the moment of today and the pessimism turns towards optimism. It will always be a struggle but it will always be worthwhile.