“In wartime, not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever.” — C. S. Lewis
As the tally of American lives lost to COVID-19 steadily approaches a quarter of a million, with the global count still unknown — due to a lack of widespread testing in many developing countries — but doubtless well into the millions, each one of us is reminded of a simple truth, which most of us have always known but never truly acknowledged: that we are mortal. For every one of us, be it sooner or later, the clock will run out, our blood will be cold, and our physical bodies will cease to exist.
Now, in normal times, most people manage to ignore these morbid thoughts, but these are not normal times. We are relentlessly reminded that death may lurk behind every corner, in the form of an invisible enemy who may be silently inhabiting anyone we interact with, or perhaps even ourselves. If we ever forget, we are reminded, whether by another announcement from the CDC, the cancelation of an event we were looking forward to, or, Lord forbid, a family member or loved one contracting the disease. Most people go through life ignoring the looming specter of the grave, but now that COVID has made that impossible, they are forced to either face their fear of death or compensate for it in some other way.
So much of our pandemic tribalism, specifically the nastier part of the reopening versus lockdown debate, is compensation for this fear. Not only is hating the other side a nice distraction from the ever-present threat of death, but it also gives people a stage on which to act out their overreactions to the reminder of mortality, whether it be through denial or paranoia. Some people deal with their fear of death through denial, through burying their heads in the sand and declaring that there is no pandemic. These are the people who compensate for their fear by blatantly violating public health protocols. “After all,” they seem to say, “how could I possibly be scared of death if I don’t even take minimal precautions to guard against it?” But denial doesn’t make the problem go away, and sooner or later they are forced, painfully, to face this fact.
Interestingly enough, this is not a new phenomenon, with studies finding that an increase in the risk of death often leads to a decrease in the acceptance of the risk, and thus a decrease in precautions to guard against it. The effect is especially pronounced in late adolescence, people to whom COVID poses relatively little threat, but who still reject precautions out of a more complex version of the same fear.
On the other side are those who acknowledge their fear of the threat — and then take it to an extreme. To them, even the slight risk of death seems intolerable. “Let life be locked down,” they seem to say. “Let the economy be ground to a halt. Let us have no more weddings or parties or classes or anything that makes life worth living, so long as we can keep ourselves safe.” The problem, of course, is that COVID has not created a new reality. It has merely made the old one more apparent. All activities have a risk of death, from driving to showering to staying home and social distancing. Yes, even the very activities that keep you safe from COVID have also been shown to leave you at a higher risk from other causes of death, from cancer to suicide. This is not to say that we should not take reasonable precautions such as mask-wearing, but rather that we ought to admit that, however careful we may be, death will find us eventually.
Whether by denial or by overreaction, many of us have reacted to our delusions of immortality being shattered not by facing the truth, but by finding new ways to ignore it — and by hating our fellow citizens who compensate in the opposite direction. But there is also an opportunity here for each and every one of us. Rather than ignoring our mortality, or pretending that we can avert it through enough precautions, we could face the truth head-on. We are all going to die, and that includes you, dear reader. You might slip in the shower tomorrow, or be killed by a drunk driver tonight, or have a heart attack before you finish this paragraph, and, while precautions can delay these outcomes, there is not a thing you can do to prevent them. What you can do is take the opportunity COVID has presented to let go of any delusions you may have, and think, really think, about the epistemological implications of your impending doom. Sooner or later, you will die. Are you prepared?