There is no such thing as a pain-free life, pain is inevitable, and I believe once we understand this truth, either, we will begin to find meaning in this pain or lead a life of resentment, vengefulness and nihilism. The choice is ultimately left to our own will.
Before the Holocaust which killed over six million Jews, before The Great Leap Forward by the Communist Party of China which killed forty-five million people, and before the communist revolution in the Soviet Union which killed over a hundred million people, the German existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1882) made an infamous proclamation in his Parable of the Madman,
“Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Contemporary atheists tend to quote Nietzsche out of context and declare this to be a triumphant statement. I beg to differ. Maybe God doesn’t die alone. We may kill him, but his death is not arbitrary. Meaning, morality, and objective reasoning die along with him. If the author does not exist, would the story matter? The current times are evidential for the bases of this argument. It seems like during the unprecedented events of COVID-19, some of us are compelled to go beyond the realm of pragmatism to that of morality. The demands of the incoming patients have wreaked havoc on the Italian health care system. The doctors have been forced to prioritise the order of treatment to decide whom they will try to save, and whom they will let go. Who would have thought such drastic measures would have had to be applied to modern hospitals in Europe’s fourth-largest economy? But such is reality. How do we decide between who lives, and who dies? As Malcolm Muggeridge wrote,
“This life in us, . . . however low it flickers or fiercely burns, is still a divine flame which no man dare presume to put out, be his motives never so humane and enlightened. To suppose otherwise is to countenance a death-wish. Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other.”
The reason we find it deeply troubling to think about the doctors in Italy making those daunting decisions is that we know, that none of us has the right to violate the intrinsic sacredness of human life, even in the name pragmatism.
The unfolding events of the pandemic make me ponder on the utter vulnerability of human life and the difficult decisions we will be forced to make as a community. A tiny infectious agent which may, arguably, not even be organic life has brought down the entire global stock market, sent us into a recession, overwhelmed our health care system and ceased society as a whole. While just a few months ago, we were celebrating SpaceX, progress towards sustainability and yet another new iPhone release. Today, our leaders in business and politics struggle to keep the jobs that are vital for a functioning economy. Remarkable. Much like the Babylonians built their edifice to reach the heavens, our modern civilisation was building its own Tower of Babel. We were on a quest to become our own God through the use of captivating terms such as “Artificial Intelligence” or “Machine Learning”. Yet, we like the Babylonians, were humbled. We were shown the fragility of human life. We were shown that while science and technology have made marvellous strives towards human wellbeing, it will not answer the most important question in which all other questions lie upon:
What does it mean to be human?
Nothing else matters if we do not coherently and truthfully answer this question.
At times such as this, I believe there would be two extremes in how we respond. Hysteria, fear and anxiety, or complete indifference and carelessness. I think we should not fall into the trap of picking either. A stoic, rational and compassionate response towards ourselves and the greater community will ensure that radical changes will not harm our communities permanently. While we will see the unfortunate loss of life and be forced to confront unforeseeable appalling circumstances, eventually we will recover. We will heal. Humanity seems like a never-ending train, but then I do wonder, has this train got a final destination? I am reminded of what G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man,
“Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy.”
As I write this article, my heart hurts. It hurts especially for the elderly of our society that is most vulnerable to COVID-19. We are hurting as people and definitely live in times of weariness. But, we all know deep down in our souls, there lies that hope for the future. The hope that sustains us through the trials and tribulations of life. In times of suffering or even joy, hope may sustain us, but will it give us the answers to the most profound questions of life that we desire?
Self-isolation and quarantine is a time for us to think, read and write. I wrote this article not to give you hope during this crisis (there is enough hope for all of us already) but rather to make an audacious request in getting you to ask yourself this question.
What does it mean to be human?