Everyone is waiting for the end of the pandemic. We all look forward to the day when we can leave home and not worry about catching coronavirus; when we can talk with friends in indoor public spaces without having our words and expressions obscured by face masks; when we can organize events without fear of cancellation; and when we can travel to see loved ones without worries about COVID-related delays.
While all of us hope for an end to the pandemic, this outcome has come to seem doubtful. Initially, many of us believed that science and the resources of public health could give us almost complete control over the crisis’s various health, economic, and social dimensions. Vaccines acquired a kind of eschatological significance: they were a beacon of hope on the horizon as we battled through the early stages of the pandemic. And though they’ve helped significantly, they’ve nonetheless been unable to conquer new variants. Meanwhile, supply chains have been strained, and worker shortages continue to cripple our economic capacities.
These ongoing challenges have led many people to doubt that the pandemic will end any time soon. A recent survey conducted by HealthCareInsider found that seven out of ten Americans doubt that we will return to the pre-pandemic “normal”—i.e., life as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the more than 1,180 U.S. adults polled, only 39 percent think regular life will return in the coming year, down from 61 percent in 2021.
Psychologists are beginning to talk of “caution fatigue” in the face of the constant stream of alarming public health announcements. “[People are] tired of hearing about imminent threats,” Deborah Serani, psychologist and professor at Adelphi University, said recently. “They become dulled by the inconsistent news stories and contradictory health recommendations. This is a form of desensitization, which can flatten a person’s ability to feel hopeful for the future.”
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Another term that has entered the psychological vocabulary is “languishing,” which is “characterized by ennui, apathy, listlessness, and loss of interest in life,” which feels like a loss of vitality or a sense of persisting with no reward or movement in sight. Sadly, it is not hard to believe that many people are languishing. In some countries, calls to mental health hotlines have reached record highs during the pandemic. So-called deaths of despair are higher than they have ever been in the United States. More people are quitting their jobs in the U.S. than at any other point in recorded history. And church attendance in the wake of COVID-19 has remained low even after churches have fully reopened.
Perhaps the solution for this endemic malaise is to shift our attention away from what we might call an epidemiological end to the pandemic (i.e., eliminating or thoroughly minimizing the threat of COVID-19) and toward an existential end to the pandemic (a change in the way that we as human beings respond to the presence of a viral threat in society). That is to say, the end of the pandemic is not a matter of eliminating COVID-19 but rather of coming to terms with our own mortality. We need to learn how to survive and thrive in the pandemic, even as we try to mitigate the effects of the virus. We have no choice but to seek to overcome this deep-seated anxiety given the apparent intractability of the current situation. Perhaps the end of the pandemic lies in our acceptance of it.
What does an existential end to the pandemic entail? Rather than accede to apathy, we ought to rethink our response to human vulnerability. We may be limited in our ability to change the realities of the pandemic, but we can change our way of perceiving these realities unfolding around us.
Consider, for example, Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The book tells the story of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia—Ivan Ilyich—and his suffering and death from a terminal illness. Ivan’s psychological response to illness is, for the most part, one of despair and frustration at the interruption that it has caused to his otherwise simple, successful, and comfortable life. Ivan becomes more morose and reclusive as he realizes he can do nothing to stop the progression of his terminal illness.
Ivan reaches a turning point just hours from death at the novella’s very end. As soon as Ivan stops fearing death, death’s pain disappears. The allusion to Paul’s rhetorical question “death, where is thy sting?” is unmistakable. Not only does death lose its venom, but Ivan’s newly freed attention is now able to occupy itself with others:
Just then Ivan Ilyich fell through, saw light, and it was revealed to him that his life had not been what it ought, but that it could still be rectified. He asked himself what was “Fight,” and grew still, listening. Here he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes and looked at his son. He felt sorry for him. His wife came over to him. He looked at her. She was gazing at him with a despairing expression, open-mouthed, and with unwiped tears on her nose and cheek. He felt sorry for her. . . .
And suddenly it became clear to him that what was tormenting him and would not be resolved was suddenly all resolved at once, on two sides, on ten sides, on all sides. He was sorry for them, he had to act so that it was not painful for them. To deliver them and deliver himself from these sufferings. “How good and how simple,” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What’s become of it? Where are you, pain?” . . .
He sought his old habitual fear of death and could not find it. Where was it? What death? There was no more fear because there was no more death. Instead of death there was light.
Ivan passes away as he repeats the words deep in his soul that “death is finished . . . it is no more.” His selfless concern for others and his release from worry about death ultimately delivered Ivan from his anxious and tormented bondage.
Perhaps as a society we need to undergo something like Ivan’s journey. It is true that we live in a new era of complexity, anxiety, and consternation. It is true that the old normal has gone, and in its place has come a world in which we must live in the presence of mortality in a manner that is deeply uncomfortable. But it is also true that we must choose how we respond to the specter of mortality that now inhabits our world. We can live like Ivan no. 1: in constant anxiety despair about the virus. Or we can live like Ivan no. 2: accepting, indeed, embracing our human condition and the presence of the virus—and living in a much richer way by virtue of this acceptance. There does not really seem to be another viable solution to the deep anxiety that has set in for many people.
Part of the challenge lies in acknowledging two apparent antinomies of our human condition: we are at once capable of amazing feats, but we are also frail and vulnerable. Thus Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play moves from an ode to the magnificence of humanity (“what a piece of work is man”) to despair at our mortality (“what is this quintessence of dust?”) in a matter of ten lines of his sublime soliloquy on the human condition. So we must acknowledge that while we can exert considerable control over something like a viral threat, we are always going to be fragile in some way and will eventually have to face the reality of death.
To live in the present, to appreciate the good things that life has to offer us now, despite our limited control over the future, is what we really ought to do. Indeed, T. S. Eliot went so far as to argue that there is something holy and vocational about this mode of living. “To apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time,” Eliot wrote in “The Dry Salvages,” referring to the present moment, “is an occupation for the saint—”
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
Eliot, I think, was referring to the same ardor, selflessness, and self-surrender that Ivan Ilyich showed in the final moments of his life.
The True Normal
An existential end to the pandemic relies on a different meaning of the word “end,” one that entails a new mode of living whereby the presence of risk and disorder in the natural world—in this case, the presence of a viral threat—is no longer a source of anxiety and despondency. Rather, the threat becomes a source of growth in character and self-transcendence. What matters is that we foster ardor, selflessness, and self-surrender amid the ubiquity of human vulnerability.
Ivan’s ability to see and empathize with others was his key to finding freedom. In our case, our ability to accept and embrace our personal and collective vulnerability to COVID-19 can prompt us to cultivate a love for the life that we have now, a love for our significant others, families, and friends, and an acceptance of our own mortality. Indeed, an awareness of our own mortality can help us rethink basic assumptions about the human condition: perhaps death is something that enables a truly humane mode of living. Pandemics are a legitimate threat to human societies and ought not be trivialized. This reflection is not intended to downplay the catastrophic loss of life that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought. Nor do I wish to downplay the other effects of the pandemic, be it on people’s livelihoods, on families, on churches, or on whole societies that have been crippled by the virus. For society to function, medical and policy efforts aimed at relieving pandemic disruptions have been vital.
But when it comes to our psychological malaise, we need an existential rather than medical or technical adjustment. Our pre-pandemic assumptions about the infallibility of medicine and bureaucratic expertise were abnormal and out of step with our natural condition. Coming to terms with our mortality is more important than mastering the virus. True “normal” requires that we acknowledge the reality of our human condition and learn to live not in spite of it but in bold acceptance of it.