My article over at The Stream today outlines the good news we have about the coronavirus. Although there is a good bit of uncertainty, the predominant trend is that the virus is not the killer plague so many are worried about. The Center for Disease Control has issued a simple fact sheet here.
What we do know about the virus is that the vast majority of people who get the virus will suffer only minor symptoms. Furthermore, 98% of people who contract the virus will survive it. Most fatalities are among people with underlying health issues, and the authorities have had time to put containment and treatment programs in place. Countries with good infrastructure and health care systems will cope.
Despite the scary headlines, there is plenty of information out there to indicate that the coronavirus is not going to be the Black Death of our times. So why all the panic? One of my colleagues has a friend who works as an airline steward and she said the flight from New York to London had 60 people on a plane that normally seats 300. Stories circulate about panic buying of water, bleach, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, soap and there are stupid rumors going around that to prevent getting sick and dying you should gargle with bleach.
Now, this is what really interests me. Not so much the coronavirus, but our reaction to it. What we are witnessing is a huge global wake up call. All of us have been in our affluent little cocoons for so long with everything going our way that suddenly when we are faced with our mortality we get spooked. Big time.
Let’s face it, in the Western developed countries (and especially the USA) those who are moderately well off live a plastic little Disneyland existence. Everything is controlled by our cool technology. We have health care. We have iPhones. We have all the food we want. We have air conditioning. As someone has pointed out, the average middle class American takes for granted a life of luxury that would make a Roman emperor blush.
The result of this is that it feeds our conviction that things will continue on just the same. We shall not grow old. We shall continue our life of pleasure. We have plastic surgery and Viagra. We have Netflix and a large screen TV. We have it all.
Then a flu bug comes along and we get scared and dash about screaming like eighth graders in a spook house.
That’s because we have ignored the reality of death, and when the guy in the robe and scythe comes knocking our knees start knocking.
The coronavirus has therefore sparked an apocalyptic panic, and you know what? I think everyone is enjoying it. Their boring lives suddenly have some drama. In the midst of their superficial materialism they are faced with the great beyond, the other country, the brief puff of smoke that is this life and the possibility of an afterlife for which they have not prepared.
And what’s with the panic buying of water, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and soap? Yes, they tell us to wash our hands, but washing our hands is not only good to prevent the illness, there’s something significant about it. Think Lady Macbeth. “Out, out damned spot!” Think of the poor sad people who suffer from some obsession and spend all day washing their hands until they are raw and bleeding.
It is all a vain and panicked attempt by a huge chunk of the population to cleanse themselves.Not even conscious of their guilt, they dwell in a miasma of guilt all the time. Usually that guilt is deadened by drugs or alcohol or deflect by denial and blaming others or they distract themselves through mindless entertainment–day by day never thinking about their guilt and never facing their unclean ness.
But the coronavirus has not only awakened them to the reality of death. Once being awakened to the reality of death they are also immediately made aware of their unclean ness–their lack of preparation for death and a judgment that they feel must surely follow.
Not conscious of their spiritual condition because their souls are so dull and deadened, they respond instinctively to the deep awareness of their uncleanness and rush out to the stores–in a moment of materialistic madness–to buy cleansing agents: water, toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer, bleach and soap. The materialistic solution has always seemed to work before: “when you are unhappy go buy something.” It should work again for this inner anxiety no?
What we are witnessing therefore in this moment of apocalyptic panic is a symptom of Western man’s spiritual malaise. Poor lost souls with no direction, no faith, no wisdom, no place to turn in a crisis.
People of faith, on the other hand, do not panic. We can sing “He’s got the whole world in his hands…so I know he’s watching me.” People of faith read the psalms with their constant refrain of trusting in God through the plagues and problems of life. People of faith have a fear of hell and a hope of heaven and have lived that way for a long time. People of faith have faced death squarely and quote the poem with a jaunty air…
Death, be not proud, though some have called theeMighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrowDie not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,And soonest our best men with thee do go,Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,And poppy or charms can make us sleep as wellAnd better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?One short sleep past, we wake eternallyAnd death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
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