Take It Personally

How to Keep the Pandemic from Becoming an Abstraction
Health care workers wearing protective masks pray for COVID-19 patients in the emergency room at a hospital in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 14, 2020. (CNS photo/Willy Kurniawan, Reuters)

For most of us safely quarantining at home with the help of Zoom and Netflix, the pandemic’s body count may seem as abstract as the casualties of a war fought on foreign soil. Bombarded with bad news, we shake our heads and look for some distraction to calm or amuse us. Maybe a YouTube concert, maybe Tiger King. We do our best to keep up with the latest advice from medical experts, or the moving accounts of health-care workers on the front lines, but after a while we—or at least I—become inured to the shots of bodies stacked in freezers. In her Regarding The Pain Of Others, Susan Sontag argued that photos of raw death and suffering fail to pump up our empathy. Maybe she was right. So what then? How should we feel about the hordes of lives being lost every day. How should we grieve?

I’m a Kierkegaard scholar by profession. I won’t bore you with a listicle of “six things Kierkegaard can teach us about dealing with COVID-19,” but his writings do tap us on the shoulder and remind us that we might think twice about our response, or lack thereof, to mass death. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he recites a list of objective facts about death:

For example, to die. I know what people ordinarily know about this: that I shall die if I take a dose of sulphuric acid, and also if I jump into the water, sleep in an atmosphere of coal gas, etc. I know that Napoleon always had poison on hand, and that Shakespeare’s Juliet took poison, that the Stoics regarded suicide as a courageous act and others considered it cowardly. I know that one can die from a trifle so ridiculous that even the most serious-minded person cannot help laughing at death.

Kierkegaard concludes with this confession:

But, there you have it, even with this almost extraordinary knowledge…I can in no way consider death something that I have understood…. It seems to me that I better think about this, in case life mocks me should I become so erudite as to have forgotten to understand what will happen to me sometime.

In other words, there are the objective facts about death, and then there is something entirely different—I need to think about what it means that I will die! Abstract knowledge is one thing, an existential appropriation of that knowledge another.

I disagree with Kant, and so by the way does Kierkegaard.

Every day, I absorb a textbook’s worth of fresh information about this new virus, about its symptoms and origins, about the prospects of a vaccine or treatment, about the likelihood that it will return with a vengeance this fall or next year. The first thing I check is the death ticker. This morning (May 13) CNN reported that 83,807 Americans have died from COVID-19. As the death toll mounts, it becomes more and more obvious that those who assured us that there was nothing to fear, that the virus would miraculously disappear in the spring, were dead wrong and catastrophically incompetent. But so far, no one I know personally has died from it. Yes, the classes I teach have moved online and that is a pain in the neck and a strain on the eyes, but even with the shelter-in-place directives, I have my movie list and I can go for a run or walk the dog whenever I want. It’s been said before and should probably go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the experiences of those of us who soak up the plague news but have yet to lose a loved one is worlds away from the experiences of, for example, the child of a health-care worker who has died from the disease. My experience of COVID-19 is mediated by the media and now by ads using the disease as a marketing ploy, which often end with some phrase like “We are all in this together.” Not quite.

But maybe Sontag is partly wrong. Last week I saw a clip of health-care workers shedding their personal protective equipment after a grueling double shift. Their weary faces still bore the imprint of the masks they’d been wearing for sixteen hours. One nurse spoke calmly of the psychological strain of watching people drowning in their own fluids without a loved one to hold their hand. She lamented that these patients can’t even see the faces of their caretakers because of the armor of protective gear. As a result, many of these angels in PPE have taken to hanging lanyards around their necks with big photos of themselves smiling, just so that those in the maws of death can at least imagine the human being at their side. The same nurse also revealed that every time one of their patients dies, the team of doctors and nurses hold gloved hands around the deceased, bow their heads, and slowly pronounce the patient’s name. This nurse nursed my numbed heart back to life.

Some philosophers, such as Kant, insist that because we can’t command ourselves to feel emotions, we have no duty to feel empathy, while other philosophers, such as Hume, treat tender feelings as the core of morality. I disagree with Kant, and so by the way does Kierkegaard. We may not be able to choose exactly what we feel, but we have some sway over our emotions. When we find ourselves becoming numb to thousands of people dying, we need to wake up. We need to call upon our imagination to nurture the fellow feeling that, in these darkling times, often goes sadly missing.

In a recent interview in Truthout, George Yancy asked Judith Butler what lessons we should be learning from the pandemic. Her reply is worth quoting at length:

We are given over from the start to a world of others we never chose in order to become more or less singular beings…. To survive, we take something in. We are impressed upon by the environment, social worlds, and intimate contact. That impressionability and porosity define our embodied social lives. What another breathes out, I can breathe in, and something of my breath can find its way into yet another person…. These reciprocal and material modes of sharing describe a crucial dimension of our vulnerability, intertwinements and interdependence of our embodied social life.

In Butler’s view, the proper response to the pandemic is not mainly a matter of feelings but of political action aimed at protecting the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters, those who have no choice but to risk their lives working at the dollar store or the local meat-packing plant. Do that and maybe then we’ll have a right to say, “We’re all in this together.”

Gordon Marino is professor of philosophy and director of the Hong/Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His most recent book is The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (HarperOne).

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