By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s a pious axiom that doesn’t always hold up. Sometimes the bad time comes and we don’t learn anything. Hopefully this present bad time, COVID-19, will teach us something and make us stronger. My hope is that COVID-19 will teach us something that previous generations didn’t need to be taught but already knew through their lived experience; namely, that we’re not invulnerable, that we aren’t exempt from the threat of sickness, debilitation and death. In short, all that our contemporary world can offer us in terms of technology, medicine, nutrition and insurance of every kind, doesn’t exempt us from fragility and vulnerability. COVID-19 has taught us that. Just like everyone else who has ever walked this earth, we’re vulnerable.
I’m old enough to have known a previous generation when most people lived with a lot of fear, not all of it healthy, but all of it real. Life was fragile. Giving birth to a child could mean your death. A flu or virus could kill you and you had little defense against it. You could die young from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, bad sanitation, and dozens of other things. And nature itself could pose a threat. Storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, pestilence, lightening, these were all to be feared because we were mostly helpless against them. People lived with a sense that life and health were fragile, not to be taken for granted.
But then along came vaccinations, penicillin, better hospitals, better medicines, safer childbirth, better nutrition, better housing, better sanitation, better roads, better cars and better insurance against everything from loss of work, to drought, to storms, to pestilence, to disasters of any kind. And along with that came an ever-increasing sense that we’re safe, protected, secure, different than previous generations, able to take care of ourselves, no longer as vulnerable as were the generations before us.
And to a large extent that’s true, at least in terms of our physical health and safety. In many ways, we’re far less vulnerable than previous generations. But, as COVID-19 has made evident, this is not a fully safe harbor. Despite much denial and protest, we’ve had to accept that we now live as did everyone before us, that is, as unable to guarantee own health and safety. For all the dreadful things COVID-19 has done to us, it has helped dispel an illusion, the illusion of our own invulnerability. We’re fragile, vulnerable, mortal.
At first glance, this seems like a bad thing; it’s not. Disillusionment is the dispelling of an illusion and we have for too long (and too glibly) been living an illusion, that is, living under a pall of false enchantment which has us believing that the threats of old no longer have power to touch us. And how wrong we are! As of the time of this writing there are 70.1 million COVID-19 cases reported worldwide and there have been more than 1.6 million reported deaths from this virus. Moreover the highest rates of infection and death have been in those countries we would think most invulnerable, countries that have the best hospitals and highest standards of medicine to protect us. That should be a wake-up call. For all the good things our modern and post-modern world can give us, in the end it can’t protect us from everything, even as it gives us the sense that it can.
COVID-19 has been a game-changer; it has dispelled an illusion, that of our own invulnerability. What’s to be learned? In short, that our generation must take its place with all other generations, recognizing that we cannot take life, health, family, work, community, travel, recreation, freedom to gather, and freedom to go to church, for granted. COVID-19 has taught us that we’re not the Lord of life and that fragility is still the lot of everyone, even in a modern and post-modern world.
Classical Christian theology and philosophy have always taught that as humans we are not self-sufficient. Only God is. Only God is “Self-sufficient Being” (Ipsum Esse Subsistens, in classical philosophy). The rest of us are contingent, dependent, interdependent … and mortal enough to fear the next appointment with our doctor. Former generations, because they lacked our medical knowledge, our doctors, our hospitals, our standards of hygiene, our medicines, our vaccines, and our antibiotics, existentially felt their contingency. They knew they weren’t self-sufficient and that life and health could not be taken for granted. I don’t envy them some of the false fear that came with that, but I do envy them not living under a pall of false security.
Our contemporary world, for all the good things it gives us, has lulled us asleep in terms of our fragility, vulnerability, and mortality. COVID-19 is a wake-up call, not just to the fact that we’re vulnerable, but especially to the fact that we may not take for granted the precious gifts of health, family, work, community, travel, recreation, freedom to gather, and (yes) even of going to church.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.)