In my First Things column last week, I examined the “apocalyptic” character of the coronavirus epidemic. “Apocalypse” doesn’t mean “end of the world,” but “uncovering” or “unveiling.” In the column, I focused on how the epidemic can unveil our sins, our decadence, our distorted values and desires.
Plagues unveil what is on our hearts, and offer a chance to repent. Will we take it?
But the epidemic unveils other hidden things too. It brings us face-to-face with reality, exposing what is always the case about our condition as creatures.
It brings us face-to-face, for instance, with our ignorance. For all the models and commentary, we know very little about the spread and lethality of this virus. Day after day, we get reports that the number of cases has jumped 10% or 15%. That tells us nothing except the obvious – there’s been an increase in the number of positive tests. We don’t know if we’re measuring the spread of the disease, or simply the success of our testing efforts.
It reveals our lack of control. We’re taking drastic action to arrest the spread of the virus, but we don’t know what unintended consequences our actions might have. How many deaths will the shutdowns cause? How many people, hearing reports of overloaded hospitals and fearing infection, are avoiding a life-saving visit to the doctor? How many health care workers are currently underworked, and being laid off, because the patients aren’t coming anymore? How many deaths of despair will be added to the already appalling numbers?
We don’t know and we can’t control it. It may be drastic action is necessary, but we shouldn’t pretend we can control the effects, nor that our aggressive actions are morally unambiguous.
It reveals our vulnerability. Many are being laid off from work temporarily, some permanently. Hundreds of thousands have been added to the unemployment rolls, and many do not know where their next paycheck will come from.
I don’t minimize the human cost of the virus, or the uniqueness of the upheavals we’re suffering. Still, fundamentally, the virus has simply made obvious what is always the case.
We’re always ignorant, seeing through dark glass and trying to make our way in a world of mist. We’re never in control, but always trying to shepherd the wind, always building without knowing what future winds will tear it down. We’re always vulnerable, utterly reliant on our good Father who feeds the birds and glorifies the grass. We can never guarantee the next paycheck, or the pension, which is why we pray for daily bread.
Given our ignorance, weakness, and vulnerability, there are only two ways to live: Terror or trust. That’s the way the world’s built. Virus or no virus, those are the options. This apocalyptic epidemic only unveils the choice that's always before us.
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