In some ways, our imaginations make it worse. The animal who gave the virus to its first human host only knew it felt sick. It wasn’t worried about its children, unemployment or a breakdown in the food supply chain. We can imagine all the possibilities, good and bad.
The good possibilities include human medicine, which exists because a number of imaginative humans started looking through microscopes to find reasons for human illness beyond the anger of the gods. The good possibilities also include our ability to feel empathy for each other, to communicate with each other and to work together for the common good.
The bad possibilities include getting too close to the wrong person in the supermarket, a massive economic depression and, worst of all, that this thing just won’t stop no matter what we do and, even if it tapers off, will be back next year and the year after to keep killing us.
I think and write a lot about the human need for meaning and the various ways it expresses itself. In many ways, it’s our best way of keeping our heads when general chaos starts gaining on us. In fact, it’s our only way. But this time there’s no room for armchair philosophy. Reality is using real bullets. We need to as well. The pen may be mightier than the sword but you don’t go to a gunfight with a pen. You go with a song.
God didn’t do this to us and God can’t fix it. He’s off the hook for this one. It’s our own success as a species that has done this to us. We’ve been fruitful and multiplied beyond anything they could have imagined in Eden and our skill with inventing machines that drive, float and fly has eliminated the protection that mountains and water used to give one tribe from another tribe’s troubles. We’re one big tribe this time. We’ll all get through this or none of us will get through this.
The thing we have in common, the thing that makes us different from all the other fragile creatures scurrying around the planet, is, once again, imagination - our ability to make pictures in our heads and impose them on the raw stuff rolling around us. A sunset is beautiful only because we say it’s beautiful. And the virus is ugly only because we say it’s ugly. God didn’t make the sunset, we did. And God didn’t make the virus, we did. In fifth century B.C. China, this would have been a local problem. We made it, with cities full of people and international travel. And we can fix it. With faith. And that song I was talking about a few lines up.
There are two kinds of faith. There’s external faith, where you believe in a system someone else has constructed for you as your way of dealing with the unsolvable. Then there’s internal faith, the faith every one of us needs to get up in the morning. You need to have faith you’ll make it through the day alive. You have no way of proving or guaranteeing it, but if you can’t make that act of faith you won’t be able to take your first step. Whether you’re a soldier going into battle, or just a person pulling into Philadelphia traffic on the way to work, there are plenty of things waiting out there to kill you, some of them maybe already inside your body. The virus simply reminds us of that, and brings the commuter’s real odds of getting killed uncomfortably closer to the soldier’s.
External faith is in over it’s head with this one - going to church can literally get you killed. It’s up to our internal faith, individually and together, to get us through this. We’re bluffing. We know it, just like we do every morning we get out of bed. But we get up anyway – we breathe, we move, we act – and that’s our song.
We’re counting on the same imaginations that get us into this mess to get us out of this. The odds are good that it will, for the species, and hopefully the survivors will learn something from it. But no one of us knows for sure we’ll make it, far less our kids, parents, friends, jobs or security. But our only way through is to keep up that bluff and that song, to keep up that faith.
More to come (an act of faith if there ever was one).