Memento Mori and Be Not Afraid

October is paradoxically both a favorite month for many and also a time typically associated with fear and death. Leaves turn orange, gold, and crimson before falling to the ground to shrivel and decay. The faint chill lacing the morning and evening air is a clear warning that summer, with all its easy lethargy, is over. We know in our bones what this means, despite modern technology’s insulating effects: life is about to get harder, days shorter, survival less certain.

And yet there is an undeniable beauty in the dying. The end of the month brings Halloween, a holiday based in part on the Celtic festival of Samhain – a disorienting, ambiguous time when the traditional boundaries between worlds could more easily be crossed. For Catholics, this became the night before All Saint’s Day, or “All Hallows Eve” – saints by definition being both deceased in body and spiritually present in heaven. The following day is All Souls Day, when we pray especially for dead loved ones. It is a time to memento mori (remember your mortality) and to ask “considering that I must die, how ought I to live?”

We may be the first culture in history to deny the basic fact of our mortality. The most cursory of glances at American life in 2020 reveals that we have forgotten how to live. Sooner or later, death comes for us all, no matter how wealthy or powerful. No one is immune from this most human of conditions. Illness and old age are but its precursors. We were recently reminded of this yet again when it was revealed that President Trump tested positive or COVID-19.

I feared for the president and the country when I heard President Trump was flying to Walter Reed, as he checks a lot of high-risk boxes. Like millions of others, I prayed for his good health. This Saturday, I was very happy to hear he was doing better, though he is clearly not out of the woods yet.

I was annoyed but not surprised by the media reaction. Many leftist individuals and outlets could not restrain their schadenfreude at the president’s diagnosis. This is what you get, they said, in more or less words. Serves you right for not “taking the virus seriously.” Now they are attempting to present Trump’s Rose Garden announcement of Judge Barrett as needlessly reckless, running tape of people talking and hugging and shaking hands (The horror! Pearl clutch! Gasp!). 

But I’d rather live in a world where people talk and hug and shake hands and even spread germs on occasion than a sterile, controlled, “safe” world… where people still spread germs (though perhaps more slowly), where they still get sick and still get old and ultimately, inevitably die.

The media did not cover the recent COVID diagnosis of Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam (a Democrat) with near the same level of scorn or hysteria. Millions of people have contracted this disease, many of whom followed all the recommended steps and precautions. You can wear a mask and maintain a “social distance” of six feet and avoid crowded areas, but unless you are prepared to live in a completely self-contained, total isolation bunker, you can still catch this virus and you can still get sick from it.

If you choose to stay home or take other steps to minimize risk, that is your freedom and your right. But with hospitals in no immediate danger of being overwhelmed, by what logic do you get to tell others to do the same? 

The “new normal” has never become normal for me. Every day begins a new struggle to adjust to a world that has forgotten such fundamental truths. It is not normal to blame people for getting sick. It is not normal to pretend we can do this forever, either maximal prevention (a short-term stalling tactic at best) or a vaccine (a long-term strategy, if it ever gets here).

It would be far better to focus on treatment and improved overall health. COVID-19 is here to stay. We could have done more to slow its spread in our country, but it would have gotten here eventually. Now it’s going to be similar to the common cold; we’re all likely to get it, eventually. Even so, CDC statistics show that it is no more deadly than seasonal influenza for younger Americans. For those under 49, survival rates are 99.997%. Those 50 to 69 have a 99.5 percent chance of surviving COVID, while for those over 70 – a long life by historical standards – it’s still 94.6%, and likely to increase with better treatments.

Considering these numbers, how ought we to respond to COVID?

To put it briefly, we should resume our normal lives. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, we implemented a few sensible (and some unnecessary) restrictions and regulations, and then more or less got back to work. To do less, our leaders cautioned, would be to “let the terrorists win.” During the Cold War, we faced the challenge of nuclear annihilation not with despair but with action – again, some sensible and some ill-advised, but all with a certain level of resolve. In World War II, we took the threat of Nazism and Japanese aggression incredibly seriously… so seriously that we sacrificed over 400,000 American lives to stop them.

The majority of us are called to live normal lives, lives as filled with kindness and compassion and purpose as possible. Our lives are not insignificant in their ordinariness, assuming we live them well.

But some of us are called to heroism. In the Revolutionary War, Nathan Hale’s only regret was that he had “but one life to lose” for his country. A hero is someone who shoulders the risks of others while refusing to hoard their rewards. Heroes display all the traditional virtues of temperance, prudence, justice, and courage, virtues our depraved culture has almost completely forgotten. In their place we have “niceness” and “safety,” which are really fake virtues that prevent the development of others.

In this extra spooky election-year October, many Americans are more afraid that their side will lose the upcoming election than they are of catching COVID. I put myself squarely in this former camp. But like fear of death, fear of political defeat can become paralyzing, depressing, and if we let it soul-destroying.

The ancients of every civilization knew better, be they Greek, Indian, and Chinese. So too did early Christians. Saint Augustine wrote City of God as the Roman Empire was crumbling around him. He didn’t know then that five centuries of darkness and destruction would follow. Still, he urged Christians to focus on building the City of God: certain, fulfilling, and everlasting, not the City of Man: uncertain, unfulfilling, and temporary. Every empire, every polity will in time prove itself just as mortal, just as fleeting, as every human life. Politics, while often necessary, is thus a poor focus of our concern. Even if America crumbles, our true home is in heaven and we will not be fully happy until we get there. 

In the meantime, memento mori, and Happy Fall.