There’s a lot to be sad about if you take a look at reality. And of course there’s a lot of beauty. But let’s just say that sometimes beauty itself seems to be a waning voice in the choral program of life. The minor chords start to dominate; it becomes harder and harder to sing a positive tune over what’s going on.
Albert Camus in his book The Plague ends with the wisdom that there will always be rats – always plague bearing rodents – but that it’s the responsibility of humans to do whatever they can to fight them anyway. He believed we must work against the suffering, even if it’s a fight we can’t win. Healthcare workers are embodying this ethic now, knowing they can’t save everyone, but can save or at least comfort many.
There’s an image in Irish mythology that exaggerates the futile and heroic fight. When the hero Cuchulain discovers that he killed his own son, he stands in the surf and slashes away at each wave – not a winning strategy. As Yeats put it in his poem about the hero, he “fought with the invulnerable tide.”
The invulnerable tide I’m feeling now isn’t a virus; it feels like human stupidity and cowardice.
Someone will come up with a vaccine. Lives will be saved from the viral form of death. But cowardice and stupidity seem to come in wave after wave.
Humans seem to overwhelmingly opt for control instead of empathy, even though reality tells us that we ultimately can’t control death. But empathy asks for nothing more than kindness in the present moment, and maybe the advanced form is a wisdom that can set up a whole system of empathy through things like national healthcare, protection of beautiful environments, and an education that emphasizes critical thinking over wishful thinking that supports corporate ideals.
So why do we just sit back and let the rats do their thing? Why do we become rats ourselves, fighting over abstractions like religion and interpretations of the Constitution when, hey, there’s some suffering going on in front of me that some medicine and fearless comforting could do a lot to alleviate; maybe even a walk in the woods that are free of pollution and commercials for toilet paper would at least turn down the anxiety part of suffering.
I see on the left, where I tend to reside, a strident ratty-ness when religious faith of any kind is ridiculed and shunned as ignorance. I can give a lot of examples of science that has been unquestioningly believed in and ended up being hokum and technology that has improved life in the short term and wreaked havoc in the long term. There’s an anti-Christian arrogance that I’ve participated in myself. To declare that someone’s belief that Jesus suffered on the cross because of his love for humanity is a stupid myth is as bad as saying that wearing a mask doesn’t do any good.
Yes, clever rats use religion to sell evil. And clever rats use a worship of “progress” to sell evil also.
So dealing with the rats includes not making enemies out of anyone who is trying to reduce suffering in a clearly effective way. A religious person who takes in refugees is not a rat, not someone to be treated with arrogant condescension. An atheist who works tirelessly in a lab to create a vaccine is not a rat. A rat is someone who uses their belief system to validate their personal greed and lack of caring.
I’m sad that so much nastiness and ridicule, so much emphasis on an individual’s right to make as much money as possible, continues to make life more miserable than it has to be.
Those of us who can hide safely away from the rats may have the means to keep moving out of one neighborhood after another, one country after another, one school after another, one job after another, hoping that somehow we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from a mean world.
But if nothing else, a pandemic proves that we cannot run away from reality; and everyone else’s reality is ours.
Here’s my hope – teachers and parents will help children be strong and happy critical thinkers who can suspect that judging others for who they are and what they believe in is rat behavior. Judge the actions, not the person. If someone has an orange comb-over, that’s okay. Don’t ridicule the hair; ridicule the desire to profit from sales of a medicine that doesn’t work. Future grown-up humans can be encouraged to work with anyone and develop any plan where the focus is on making it easier to face the inevitable suffering that life includes as well as healing all the forms of suffering that can be healed.
So, I’d say to Cuchulain, “You wouldn’t have killed your own son if you’d asked the right questions instead of running your sword through him. So now what you need to do is step away from the tide, turn away from the relentless waves for a while and tell others what you learned about making big, sad mistakes. Put the sword down. Put it down and go get some bread and tea for yourself, and enough to hand out to others.”
The headlines about rats are my waves. I need to put the sword down now.
Kris RoushMay 7, 2020 at 12:20 pm
Beautifully written; I so appreciate it when we all take turns ably expressing what we each sometimes can’t quite capture in words. You did that for me today. Thank you.
I don’t know whether I’m observing human behavior or American behavior or Trumpist behavior or ???
I’m reminded of Stephen Hawking’s prediction that it will be greed and stupidity that finally destroys us. That’s all I see on the news, though tempered with local stories of altruism.
So much to reconcile. It occupies much of my contemplative time.
Thanks for inspiring me to sit down and write again. I have a feeling there’s plenty of material there these days.
KateMay 7, 2020 at 12:23 pm
Thanks, Kris — it flowed out of me after a rough night.
Cirrelda Snider-BryanMay 7, 2020 at 7:17 pm
What good advice you give us, you give Cuchulain. Putting experience to work, you are — reflection using a lifetime of gained experience, then sharing the insight. Thankful for your voice, Kate!
Dianne SchliesMay 8, 2020 at 9:48 am
Well said! Thanks for that.
Nancy GageMay 9, 2020 at 2:57 pm
Yes, yes, and yes. Thanks for writing this, Kate. For raising your voice.
We tiny humans want simple answers. We want to eat hamburgers and not kill cows. We want to go back to business as usual and for the virus to go away. We want to pay fewer taxes and have better schools.
I can stay hopeful because I believe people are reckoning with this reality, and really and truly thinking. Perhaps from this teachers will be paid like the professionals they are. Perhaps teachers’ salaries will be high enough that the very best people choose this profession. Perhaps people will recognize that factory farming is damaging us all. Perhaps we will come to realize what is essential and what is not.
Perhaps in feeling, seeing, and experience the misery we are in, as a country and a world. people will reach inside for answers that are not so simple. That are not based on greed. That recognize that the enormous inequality in allocation of resources is not just unfair but deadly.
On Facebook this week, I saw a video of a man speaking about the death of his son by suicide. It was a fairly long statement with a lot of detail. Three days before his 13th birthday, the boy hanged himself in his closet. The man was overwhelmed with grief of course, and I suppose the core of his message, his overt message, was that kids need to be in school, need to have their friends, need to have physical activities. So, one might say he was of the “open up” camp. (He considers his son to be a victim of COVID.) On the surface, he seemed not to be one of my “tribe”; he was burly, bearded, “manly.” The boy was heavily into video gaming, and he’d gotten a new, good monitor a few months ago, and he’d carelessly broken it (or perhaps in the grips of the moods that teenagers are prone to). His parents created a plan for him to do extra chores, be more pleasant to his sister, more helpful around the house, for which they would replace the monitor. He did his part, and his parents replaced the monitor. As his birthday approached, they told him that they were giving him some other computer-something that would enhance his gaming; he was very, very excited. Three days before his birthday he broke the new monitor and then killed himself. Perhaps the boy had “anger issues.” Perhaps his carelessness or recklessness was because of hormonal changes. The father did not go into detail about any “issues,” but he said his boy was a normal kid. A kid who had no outlet for whatever he was feeling. This man was not demanding that we “open up,” he was not carrying an assault rifle and storming a courthouse (those are the rats). But listening to him, I began to understand that this is not an issue with two sides in opposition to one another.
I don’t have answers. Our troubles are too big. But people are working on little pieces of the troubles, and it may come to something. I believe that we need guaranteed income for everyone, which seems almost impossible politically. But maybe, as we ponder, as people suffer, as we share ideas…who knows? If people had enough guaranteed income to buy meat from animals that are humanely raised and slaughtered, if people could afford to buy things not “made in China,” if people could collectively express their needs and be heard….who knows?
Thanks again, Kate, for so eloquently opening this conversation.
kate66May 10, 2020 at 9:35 pm
What a tragic and weird story — it says something about the dependency, the intense dependency, on something external, like a computer, to make us feel okay. I know I’m much more into the screen than I ever have been. I feel for the father, so sad.