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.
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