Nobody likes to think about death or acknowledge that one day they will be claimed by it. But we live in a culture where people are especially determined to avoid such thoughts, and especially equipped to avoid them successfully. There is a never-ending supply of distraction, a million ways to stave off and sublimate death thoughts. There are whole industries dedicated to making us look and feel younger. And pop culture is constantly rehashing the stories of our childhood, allowing us to relive our youth, or at least pretend that we are. Add to that the pharmaceutical industry, with its cornucopia of pills to numb our pain, extend our lives, and even chase despair away from our minds. If ever anyone does have the audacity to die, in spite of all of these efforts, they will perform the unsightly act away from view, out of sight, in facilities designed for such purposes.
It is not that all of these things are bad in and of themselves. I much prefer to have hospitals and hospices for the dying, and I am grateful that many of the drugs at the pharmacy are available should I need them. But the combination of modern medicine, modern technology, modern entertainment — coupled with the decline of religion and the rise of secularity — has created a great psychological and emotional barrier, and on the “safe” side of the protective shield, we are able to carry on as if we are immortal, as if the Reaper only comes for those who look at its face.
This all seems like not so bad a way to live — until the barriers are broken, our methods of avoidance no longer work, and we are face to face with a reality that we are not prepared to confront. This is a moment that was always destined to happen to everyone. The doctor calls with the MRI results. You feel a lump in a place where there shouldn’t be one. A close family member is taken from you suddenly, by car accident or suicide. Everyone, at some point, has their wake up call, when death knocks on a door that you have no choice but to answer.
But what happens when an entire society of death-thought avoiders have their barriers broken all at once? What happens when there is knock on everyone’s door at the same time? That might have been an interesting thought experiment a year ago, but now we know the answer.
The coronavirus has forced us to acknowledge our mortality, and the response from many of us was, first, to panic, emptying grocery store shelves for no reason and causing shortages of supplies that have nothing to do with the virus. Then we erected new barriers, physical ones, retreating behind masks and into our homes, where a great many Americans have shown an incredible willingness to remain for as long as the Powers That Be deem necessary. It is not as though the risk that most of us face is very high. For anyone who is not already sick, or advanced in age, the chance of being hospitalized from the virus is low. The chance of dying from it is extremely low. But the psychological threat is a different matter. We have felt our false sense of security evaporate and illusions of immortality evaporate. This has left many Americans paralyzed in an almost literal sense.
This I think is the great dividing line between those on the one hand who have responded to the pandemic by retreating entirely from their normal lives, hiding in their homes, wearing masks even to walk down the street, and who even now still have no desire to go back to normal, and those on the other hand who have basically continued living their lives almost as they did before, taking reasonable precautions but not allowing themselves to be overcome by fear.
The people in the former group accuse the latter group of being deniers — denying science, denying reality, etc. But the opposite seems to be the case. Those who have maintained a mostly normal life, or tried to, are doing so precisely because they are not in denial. They already knew they were mortal. They already knew they would die one day. They don’t want to die now, and have no plans to, but they understand that their time is limited, their lives are finite, and they intend to make the most of it. The pandemic didn’t throw them for a loop the way it did to the other group. It didn’t cause anywhere near the same amount of fear. They knew that these kinds of dangers are part of life. They had already factored it into their calculus.
The truly in-denial group are those who would stay locked down for as long as they are told, and happily so. Those you see wearing masks as they drive in their cars by themselves. Those who raise no objection to government measures that are decimating entire industries and putting millions out of work. They are in denial about many things — science certainly among them — but the thing they most wish to deny is their mortality, and the inevitably of their own demise. They cannot deal with risk, or assess it rationally, because that would require them to accept realities that they refuse to accept. And so they will hide away for as long as it takes. But when they emerge from hiding, if ever they do, they will find that they are just as mortal as they ever were.
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