"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 5, 2021

Casualties Of COVID–Life Upended By Irrational Fear

It was not surprising to those who knew him that Fred Mullens would sooner or later untie the bond that bound him to his recent past.  It was not that he and his family and friends did not share interests – birding, Shakespeare, French cuisine, art, history, and genetics were enough to keep all together for many rocky decades. 

The problem was not so much the fading of like interests but the resurgence of unlike ones.  Some had put aside 60s spontaneity and adventurous spirit but retained the very Middle American Puritan ethos which had qualified their temptations and which, after decades had passed, still defined them; but Fred had changed little – a young man of adventure and enterprise, fascinated by religious conundrums but never a believer, a searcher but never an over-the-edge hippy idealist, a come-what-may realist, more a product of his times than his traditional, Catholic upbringing; but his roots were far deeper.

Every family has a period where the fragments or peripheral pieces of their lives overlap, and Fred’s was no different, taking the best from the drug- and free-love counterculture, but reserving judgment on its general ethos.  Family members were destined by birth, upbringing, and culture to be very, very conservative; but they differed in their conservatism.  Some were politically moderate liberals – conservative in their belief in solid, proven economic values – but Fred was conservative in his belief in the rock-bedded foundation of Christian faith.

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After marriage and children, Fred returned to his Catholic roots.  While he and his family had merged philosophically in the marvelously indifferent Sixties and shared what came their way without much consideration, afterwards they each had become more responsible to the principles that had come before.

That meant for some a dutiful motherhood, a practical marriage, and a sound and respected professional career.  In Fred’s case, that meant discombobulation – an unsettling period of philosophical uncertainty.  He had left the Church as a young adult, dismissed organized religion as a stifling, bourgeois, artifact; but toyed and tinkered with religious experiences in Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.  

Religion was not a non-entity, something he had dismissed and consigned to irrelevance, but a possibility.  Every Christmas and Easter, as secular as these holidays had become (Christmas trees, presents, wreaths, lights, and chocolate bunnies), he never forgot their meaning.  He regretted that his children and his grandchildren thought of Easter only in secular terms and had never understood the miracles of Christ’s birth and resurrection.

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These widening differences in ethos were never issues as long as professional careers and child-rearing were front and center; but when children went off on their own and families were inescapably together, differences were unavoidable; and as advancing age approached and encroached on the ordinary, they became acute.  He was increasingly concerned with his imminent death and its spiritual consequences while others close to him were indifferent to such immaterialism and sought to ignore the inevitable by focusing on the evitable.

Then came COVID, the unwanted pandemic which put everything in relief.  One’s reactions to the virus were telling – some thought it the Armageddon that had been expected, the existential event that would finally punish Man for his sins; others, more philosophically accommodating, accepted it for what it was, neither punishment nor penalty, but a predictable bump in the existential road; still others saw it as the final call to human enterprise – we can defeat it if we all pull together, believe in each other, trust in ourselves and our leadership, and believe that God has more in store for us than an ignominious, breathless, choking death.

Still others were paralyzed by an inchoate fear.  If asked, these frightened people would not say that they feared death, or the horrors of disablement, but just…..And there they stopped.  These fearing, timorous Americans could not articulate the problem; and ipso facto could not articulate a response.  So they panicked and took every extreme protective measure possible.

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In one leafy, well-to-do, privileged, politically progressive enclave of a major metropolitan city, residents did not wait for CDC instructions and regulations.  Within a matter of months, they had self-quarantined and self-isolated in a protective, sanitary gulag.  They sprayed their mail, ate only food delivered and quarantined, installed air purifiers, sprayed and disinfected their children, wore double and triple masks covered by plastic shields and fire-retardant, asbestos, impermeable space suits.  They sanitized, scrubbed, and eliminated.  Their goal was to eliminate risk.

Families, fearing the worse and believing in their Middle American, neo-Puritan precepts, did everything they could to keep COVID from their doorstep while others, still accommodating and forgiving, went along.  This purgatory, this filing away of intimacy, community, and fun, could not last.  Yet it was unsettling to live in such a secular, spiritually purposeless community. Fred had but a few actuarial years left to live, so why live so penitentially?  If one had but such a short time left, why would anyone hunker down, isolate, imprison, and eat gruel, bread, and water?

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Fred, true to his religious upbringing, was no hedonist or epicurean and whose indifference to the draconian calls for lockdowns in the age of COVID was indeed Christian.  It was not so much God’s will to which one paid obeisance, but to the more important spiritual injunction against presumption – fearful, desperate, all-hands-on-deck measures to keep the virus at bay were no less than heresy.

It was COVID in fact which returned Fred to the Church.  There had to be something more to life and death than this pitiful, ungainful, trembling, hysterical fear of COVID – more indeed than any such secular worries.  He had passed St. Ann’s church every day on his morning walks, but had been prevented from stopping in because of pandemic rules; but the church had finally opted in favor of those who needed the physical presence of the Mass, the transubstantiation, and the community of Christ.  He observed the Stations of the Cross, went to Confession, worshipped at High Easter Mass, and received Holy Communion.

This neo-epiphany, this return to the Church and to belief, as important and existential as it was, was the death knell to community.  Now, finally, irretrievably, the match between committed practical secularists and a spiritual believer could not continue. 

His separation was of course difficult; but was anything so important not to break asunder?

At his age, nearing eighty, there was little room for accommodation and compromise.  Death, rebirth, finding meaning in the end of life were not incidental issues. 

COVID was less punitive and irreversible than that; and most people simply got along, went along, accommodated, and eventually prospered once again.  Fred was perhaps among the few who got caught in COVID’s existential web; but at least in his case, he was better off for it.

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