Nearly 60 million people die each year, 20 million from heart problems and 10 million from cancer. Another 10 million die from respiratory, digestive and childbirth problems. This year another 200,000 are expected to die from the pandemic.
Suddenly a stealthy infection has brought death remarkably close to us. Friends, relatives, colleagues and neighbors have been dying at short notice. We had read of plagues in novels and history books, plagues that ended families and emptied cities. It was a distant specter. Now it is close at hand. A murderous pestilence whose touch is toxin and breath is death.
The worst is that we know little about the disease. We know of people who take all precautions – as my daughter did – and still can’t avoid infection. Every day seems like a game of Russian roulette, entirely a matter of chance whether we fall a hapless victim. Hospitals have no medicine; doctors have no cure. It is a roll of the dice whether you recover – with all your organs intact.
Dying is an unpleasant prospect. But so is living under conditions that to many does not merit the name of living. That is why prisoners who are confined for life often get desperate and sometimes take their own life. Some countries are inhuman enough to confine prisoners in solitary cells for lengthy periods. People have a better chance to overcome such odds when they have the hope of eventual release.
Many of us have lived under the rigor of a painful discipline for nearly a year. The realistic hope for release – when we can go where we please, meet whomever we want to see – may take another six months. That is the hope that sustains us and keeps us going.
But there is the larger question of what waits for us when the release date finally comes. What kind of life awaits us when the misery of our present confinement ends? It seems attractive in comparison to the limited ambit we are now allowed. But how attractive is it really is?
How, for example, does it compare with the dreams we had when we were children? Remember the bright skies and wide horizons that seemed then to hold infinite possibilities, when we believed ourselves capable of achieving the impossible. Remember too the school days when the classrooms seemed like waiting rooms, whence we would venture out into the world and conquer it with our brio and bravado. And then remember the college days, when smarter and worldly-wise, we still dreamed of a winnable world, where our earnest enthusiasm and diligent devotion would earn both recognition and rewards. We had always looked forward to a life of many possibilities, of meaning and satisfaction.
Then how have we ended up in a life so very limited, when our only satisfaction is a word of condescending approval from the boss, a minor increment to our benefits, an invitation from a less congenial colleague or neighbor, a wayward daughter’s improved grades, bountiful likes on your vapid entry in social media, or your snobbish cousin’s patronizing comment on your new sofa. How did we, who once aimed so high, are now content to bend so low and accept the trifles that life, like a snooty monarch, deigns to throw at us? When did we, like Esau in that shabby Genesis story, sell our birthright for a mess of pottage?
We are not immortal, though we tend to overlook that eventuality, and a cruel virus has knocked on our doors to remind us of our unpredictable mortality. We want to live, but when the inexorable bell rings our departure time, like an insistent train conductor who wouldn’t leave without us, we want to be able to think that we have lived – even a tiny fraction of the life we dreamed to live – before we leave.
It would be a pity if an unseen virus, or any other of myriad causes, closes the book of our life before we have ever opened it.