The Final Disillusionment

COVID-19 has been a ruthless teacher. It has rendered many previous assumptions dubious, if not derisory, as it has surfaced corresponding inconvenient truths.

Epidemics happen elsewhere. Especially Africa, with Ebola and HIV/AIDS. And Asia, with SARS. Not Europe and North America.

Sure, we have an opioid epidemic. And we have large-scale mental health problems, and heart disease, and lung cancer. But even those occur chiefly among poor people, marginalized people, other people.

But now? Everyone, everywhere, with no vaccine or cure yet in sight.

Advanced western societies are well managed. Yes, those failed states and dictatorships and totalitarian regimes will bungle a Bad Thing into a Monstrous Thing. But not us.

And then northern Italy becomes a plague hot spot. Spain, Germany, and France are now in the top ten countries reporting cases. New York City, of all places, is an anguished ghost town, while the United States as a whole is a patchwork of contradictory policies with the world’s largest caseload.

Health authorities can be trusted. Those nice people in white coats know what they’re doing and what they’re doing is always good.

Except when the World Health Organization plays politics with China and Taiwan. And heads of American medical agencies alter their information and advice under the influence of the White House. And physicians go online to offer quick cures and to pooh-pooh public health protocols.

Ordinary people can be counted on to be decent. Most people are basically good and will behave well in a crisis.

Until a crisis hits, and stores are emptied of toilet paper, cleansers, masks, and grocery staples. Some stockpile to make money, like war profiteers. Others hoard in selfish fear. Still others simply put themselves and their families ahead of everyone else. Too bad if you don’t have…toilet paper. Or cleansers or masks. Or basic food items.

Too bad, indeed.

We’re all in this together. We all watch the same news, we all tell each other how much we appreciate our first responders and emergency workers, and we all observe social distancing and self-isolation.

Except that death is stalking those we have shut away in nursing homes, a dreadful coda to our society’s willful blindness to their suffering.

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What Will We Remember from COVID-19?

Housebound, and enjoying a brief respite from the cancer that is killing him, the New Yorker’s longtime art critic Peter Schjeldahl has been pondering Big Questions.

Given his profession, his Big Questions might seem rather different than yours or mine. Among them, this one: “Why does the art of what we term the Old Masters have so much more soulful heft than that of most moderns and nearly all of our contemporaries?”

His answer is simple and profound: “a routine consciousness of mortality.”

Until very recently, as human history goes, life expectancy averages were low—not because adults were routinely keeling over at forty or fifty, but because terrible infant mortality rates were so high. If you got to age five, that is, you might well live to sixty or seventy—even in the middle ages. But families everywhere were marked by death: death of children, death of mothers. Lots of death.

If you did get past your fifth birthday, moreover, life for most would be largely as Thomas Hobbes described it in the state of nature: “poor, nasty, and brutish.” Even kings and queens until well into the modern era lived without hot and cold running water, indoor sanitation, refrigeration, central heating, and air conditioning.

And everyone did without the very basics of effective medicine—analgesics, anaesthesia, antibiotics, and sterile procedures until just yesterday, historically speaking.

Memento mori—“Remember that you must die”—doesn’t have to be intoned much these days, does it? But how grateful are we for the lives we do live?

Many of us are suffering badly right now for lack of employment and lack of funds. Can we all of us nonetheless give thanks for what is still ours: law and order, compassionate friends and family, a measure of social support, and the promise of recovery in months, rather than years—or never?

Schjeldahl’s peculiar take on things leads him to say that “when we are again free to wander museums[,]…everything in them will be other than what we remember. The objects won’t have altered, but we will have.” We won’t look at a sunset or a still life, let alone a pietà, the same way again.

[For the rest, please click HERE.]

Can We Thank God Here and Now?

“In everything, give thanks,” commands the Apostle Paul (I Thessalonians 5:18). And, impressively, Paul wrote that sort of thing all the time to the churches under his care, even while he himself was in prison (Philippians 4:6).

But seriously: in everything?

Martin Rinkart was one who took the Apostle at his word, even in a time of epidemic.

Trained as both a musician and a pastor, Rinkart (b. 1586) was raised and schooled in the region of Leipzig, Germany. Working first as a church musician, he was not given his own pastorate until his later twenties—near Eisleben (birthplace of Martin Luther).

Soon he moved to his hometown, Eilenburg, and at thirty-one began pastoring the church. That first year Rinkart wrote a cy­cle of se­ven dra­mas, sug­gest­ed by the cen­ten­a­ry of the Re­for­ma­tion (1617). Alas, however, normal life was over for him quickly, as he had taken his pastoral charge just in time for the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). During this on-again, off-again conflict, which over three decades involved virtually every major power in Europe marching its armies back and forth over central Europe, Winkart pastored faithfully under terrific strain.

How faithfully? As Peter Marty relates recently in The Christian Century, the Swedish army repeatedly invaded the area, and because Eilenburg was a walled city, refugees from the countryside poured into the crowded town. Nowadays we tourists love prowling the narrow lanes of Europe’s “Old Cities,” but imagine life therein with only seventeenth-century hygiene and hordes of desperate people scrounging a living on every street.

Rinkart had to endure soldiers quartered in his home and the army regularly confiscating his family’s food and other goods. But these were small matters compared to the inevitable arrival of plague.

In 1637, a single year in the midst of the war, 8000 people died, including the clergy of the neighbouring parish, all but three of the town council, and Rinkart’s own wife. Rinkart pastored on, sometimes preaching burial services for as many as 200 people in a single week and eventually he buried more than 4000 persons. Somehow he himself remained perfectly well.

[For the rest, please click HERE.]