The following has been written by Donald Lanctot for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2020.
As I think of the various voices we could be listening to this morning, I can’t identify anyone less
qualified to speak at this moment of crisis than me (okay, fine, maybe Donald Trump). I have no medical expertise, no theological credentials, I am not on the front lines of caring for people in hospitals, nursing homes, doctor’s offices. Heck, as you know, I’m retired; I am not even trying to do a job from home. In other words, I have no authority to speak. Others (like Doctor Fauci) do, and I hope all of us avail ourselves of their voices and their expertise in this trying time. As for my own voice here in this talk, I can only ask for a degree of tolerance. I think that I eventually do take us somewhere, perhaps.
Like all of you, I have felt the limitations of being cooped up these last months, of living in quarantine, exiled from our normal lives. It’s been a time of “not being able to.” I/we have not been able to worship in the same physical space. To sit down and have meals with friends and family. To visit people in need. I, like you, miss those parts of our lives that we too often took for granted. For me, it’s Henry climbing up on my lap and turning to me, saying, “Papa, let’s talk.” Or Lily styling my hair with a glass of water and a comb. Or Jack shooting hoops on our driveway. I miss eating breakfast with Tim at greasy restaurants. Hearing Dan Petry’s voice rise up from the midst of the congregation. Holding Oliver and watching him “read” a book on whales. I miss being able to swing by and say hello to Henry Miller. I, like you, feel shut out and shut in. Shut out of helping my son and his family move from Chicago to southern Illinois. Shut out from fixing leaky faucets in his new home. And, of course, I miss sports: the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the French Open, Major League baseball. The list of things I miss, of course, just goes on. As does yours. At times, it feels as if life is on hold, on pause.
During this time I have also felt something that is not so much a loss or absence as it is an unwanted presence, a certain dread and fear, an embarrassing preoccupation to self-protect, a flinching in the face of an outside world that has suddenly taken on the shape of a threat, not an invitation. The pandemic has surfaced a raw vulnerability in me, and, along with that vulnerability, an animal instinct toward survival. I guess one could call this a loss, a loss of an assumed safety, a loss of invincibility, a loss of some kind of innocence, One could even suggest it is the loss of comfort that comes with privilege although I find that idea, though important to name, takes me into territory that I don’t think is finally what, in this talk, I want to say. It seems to me that the language of loss, though successful in naming some aspects of living in this time also fails to capture something that is related to that loss but possesses its own peculiar reality. To speak only of our losses deflects, I think, attention away from the reality of what has taken the place of the things we have lost. In other words, the language of loss–the framing of our experience of this quarantine in terms of loss and limitation–is, I think, an avoidance of facing into something frightening, something that I prefer not to name, something I’d rather remain hidden behind a catalog of my losses. For me, that thing is associated with a fundamental dis-ease. A discomfort that I am most familiar with from nightmares that have visited me in my sleep. There are moments in this pandemic when I feel strangely dislocated, in a world that suddenly, out of nowhere it seems, feels oddly surreal. I move (if I move at all) in a landscape that, at times, feels utterly unfamiliar. In these moments, I can feel as if I have fallen into a bad movie, a film that lacks telltale conventions that would tell me where the plot is going and when or how the film will end. Whatever metaphor I might use to help me name this thing, one thing is clear. I want this thing to go away and for things to return to normal as soon as possible. Fear does that to me; it makes me think and talk like a child.
It is not often that I have experienced the world as a threat to my existence. I have never been a very fearful person. Even as a boy I would go alone at night to the park and sit in stands to watch softball games late into the night, games played by young men I did not know and watched by young wives and girlfriends that were strangers to me. I felt safe under the bright lights of the baseball diamond. Sometimes my solitude was broken by one of the women offering me a paper cup of hot chocolate and a napkin full of cookies.
As an adult I have often lived in what are called “crime infested” neighborhoods–where drug deals, prostitution and gun violence openly defined life on the streets. Living there didn’t effect much of my movement nor my sense of safety. I didn’t hesitate to stay late into the evening at the homes of neighborhood friends and walk, long after midnight, down darkened alleys, to my house. It was, I always thought, my neighborhood too. I lived there, played there, talked with neighbors on porches, drank beer on driveways, and tended gardens.
When I encounter people stranded in their cars along the highway or hitchhikers seeking a ride, I often stop to help. I have been rewarded with countless lively conversations and good will.
In other words, throughout much of my life whenever I have stepped out into “dangerous” places I have found myself continually landing on my feet, not because I am resourceful or brave, but because the world so often showed itself to be friendly, kind, and trusting in those moments. I have felt beholden to teach my grandchildren that the dark of night is not something to fear, but a place full of comforting silence and glorious stars. In much of life, I, when walking out my front door into the larger world, have been welcomed; at worst I have been tolerated. Violence and its threat has apparently found me an unattractive prey, or I have just been lucky. Or male and white.
And then the pandemic came.
Two and a half weeks ago, I stood in my front yard talking to a young man named Nick whom I had
called about taking down a dead ash tree on my property. The tall tree has heavy branches hanging over an electric line. It was cold and raining. Neither of us were wearing masks. When I felt the wind pick up and sweep the downpour horizontal, I found myself positioning my body upwind from Nick. Then feeling guilty about my act of self-protection at Nick’s expense, I repositioned myself so that neither of us were downwind from the other. I did all this without explaining my behavior. It was all awkward, tedious, and embarrassing. I hoped Nick didn’t notice.
By the end of that week, I dropped all pretense; I now wear my mask everywhere I encounter people other than Nina. When I go to lawn and garden shops to pick up replacement chains for my saw, I wear my mask. When I go to pick up our medical prescriptions, I wear a mask; when I go to Kroger to buy Cheerios, bananas, orange juice, I wear a mask. I was too lazy to learn how to make a mask for myself, so I use a wonderfully crafted pleated mask made by Jordan’s mother.
Most of the time, however, I don’t have to wear a mask, for most of the time, I just stay at home. In
I read Camus’ The Plague this week. I have had the novel on my reading list since my freshman year of college. When the coronavirus started to spread out of control across the globe, I was surprised by how often online articles highlighted a list of films that dealt with viral outbreaks: Things to Watch during “Shelter in Place.” My first reaction was to recoil from these suggestions. I was living with a hypersensitivity to anything that smacked of threat or fear. Why would I want to willingly subject myself to narratives that triggered feelings of danger that uninvited had become part of my everyday routine? Plus, I should confess, I am hopelessly squeamish. For me, watching or reading descriptions of medical illnesses is akin to someone forcing my hand to touch a dead rat. Neither realistically pose much actual threat, but the calm logic of that assessment fails to soothe my fear and anxiety. A few years ago, I ran across a book at the public library entitled Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. It had received countless accolades. It was, apparently, smart, well written, engaging. One reviewer wrote, “One of those wonderful books that offers enlightenment in the guise of entertainment.” I wanted to want to read the book. However, holding the book in my hands just gave me the creeps. I returned it to the stack of new books, leaving it free to find a more fitting soul upon whom it could bestow its light.
Eventually, as I noted, I picked up Camus’ book. I didn’t commit to read it. I just picked at it for a few days, I think partly as an act of desensitization–to test my ability to pause and look at the ugly details of an epidemic. And then, one day, I read it all.
The novel, which is set in the 1940’s, chronicles a plague descending upon a city (Oran) in Algeria. The novel opens with rats surfacing from the sewers and dying in the streets. Soon humans follow suit, showing signs of high fever and dying. The city goes under quarantine, and the everyday lives of its citizens are turned upside down. No one is allowed out or into the city. Early in the story, the narrator remarks that “the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow citizens was exile.”
The novel focuses on a small group of people, doctors and volunteers, who work together, treating sick townspeople and safely discarding the bodies of the dead. These workers don’t perceive themselves as heroes or saints. Rather, in the words of the main character, Doctor Rieux, “This whole thing is not about heroism. It is about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” When a character asks Rieux what decency is, the doctor’s response is as clipped as eloquent, “In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”
The first official response of the town’s priest to the pestilence is a stinging sermon that declares the plague God’s judgment on the lax morals of the townspeople. The priest goes on to suggest that the plague is an opportunity for the congregants to repurpose their lives, to make religious devotion something more than a perfunctory Sunday ritual of attending mass. In this first sermon, the priest speaks with unbridled confidence, preaching that, through the plague, God “will thresh out his harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff.” The priest’s tone is severe as is his vision of the plague’s purpose. For the priest, the sermon is the word of God come straight from heaven, unmitigated by human contingencies.
Perhaps it is to be expected that we humans try to find some meaning in a devastating outbreak of
pestilence. If the priest in Camus’ book attempts to find some purpose or intention in the outbreak of the plague in Oran, so too do we with the coronavirus. Some writers, for example, have suggested that Covid-19, along with numerous other recent viral outbreaks, can be understood as the earth’s attempt to destroy an imminent threat brought upon it by humans. The irony is that the earth, according to these thinkers, creates viruses to kill off a species, homo sapiens, that is itself viewed as a virus. In his book The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, James Lovelock says humanity is “Earth’s infection.” Lovelock’s view of humans calls to mind Agent Smith’s cynical dismissal of the human species in the popular film The Matrix: Smith, the computer simulated antagonist of the film, tells the leader of a group of humans rebelling against a world run by machines, “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human
beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague.”
This same thought is expressed in Richard Preston’s 1994 bestseller The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus. In that book, Preston writes, “The earth is attempting to rid itself of an infection by human parasite.”
Camus, of course, rejects an effort to see some larger meaning or purpose in the plague. The priest and his interpretation of the pestilence is a foil for Camus’ belief that disease, separation, and exile are conditions that come upon us unexpectedly and unbidden. They are an illustration of what Camus meant by the “absurdity” of the human condition and the seemingly chance nature of human undertakings.
By the middle of Camus’ novel, after months of rising death rates, and confronted with the stubborn fact that the plague acts without discrimination (small children die alongside town drunks), the priest comes to Doctor Rieux with a request to work alongside the brigade of citizens engaged in the daily tasks of caring for the sick. The priest then spends countless hours each day doing the most menial of tasks, tasks that though lacking in showy display are critical to the work of resisting the plague. The priest also givesa second sermon. In this talk Father Paneloux refuses to take back his earlier words but adds a plea for all to throw themselves into the work of fighting the plague. The words he uses to advance this cause are strikingly different from those he used in his earlier sermon. Here, in this second sermon, Paneloux stands before his congregation and declares that “We should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power.” There is a striking shift in point of view here, evidenced in the shift in pronouns used to name the target audience of the sermon. The use of “you” (the object of God’s wrath and the priest’s rebuke) from the first sermon is replacedwith the inclusive “we.” The priest has become one with his folk; he shares in the congregation’s humanity. Furthermore, the words of certainty from the first sermon have been replaced by words that present the priest (along with his fellow pilgrims) as “groping” his way through darkness, “stumbling,” “try[ing]” to do the good.
Obviously, something within Paneloux has shifted, has changed. Earlier in the book, Doctor Rieux had said of the priest, “Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn’t come in contact with death; that’s why he can speak with such assurance of the truth–with a capital T. But,” continues Rieux, “every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its goodness.” Paneloux, by novel’s end, has, to use the doctor’s words, left “the world of abstractions” and “become human.”
In these days, I too, I think, become most human by avoiding “the world of abstractions.” On my best days, I spend mornings pulling up endless expanses of garlic mustard in hopes of giving other, noninvasive plants in my woods space to grow and thrive. I trim back honeysuckle to expose the beauty of a cluster of young red bud trees. I build a platform that my grandchildren will one day use to mount the zip line in the back of my property. And, like I have for years, I go out in the hull of my Minifish sailboat and scoop up algae from my pond, all in hopes of finally making the pond swimmable, perhaps this summer–if summer, with its shouts of children in my yard, ever really comes.
And there are moments during the pandemic when I attempt to recognize both the losses (large and small) we all experience in this time of exile and that threat to health and life itself the virus carries with it wherever it makes its way across the globe. I think both acknowledgments are acts of faithfulness of some kind, perhaps best understood as being faithful to one’s humanity, in its complex vitality and its fragility, its mortality.
Finally, I am reminded of a scene that occurs toward the end of Camus’ book. It is November, seven months into the plague. Doctor Rieux and others have established a volunteer brigade to fight the pestilence, and in the midst of a scourge that seems to have no end, Rieux and a fellow exile, Tarrou, a man who has become Rieux’s closest companion, end their exhausting day of work by deciding to break the quarantine and go to the shore. Tarrou tells Rieux, “With our passes, we can get out on the pier. Really,” he continues, “it’s too damn silly living only in and for the plague. Of course, a man should fight for the victims, but if he ceases to live for anything outside that, what’s the use of fighting.” Camus goes on to describe the two men’s actions, “Once they were on the pier they saw the sea spread out before them, a gently heaving expanse of deep-piled velvet, supple and sleek as a creature of the wild. They sat down on a boulder facing the open. Slowly the waters rose and sank, and with their tranquil breathing sudden oily glints formed and flickered over the surface in a haze of broken lights. Before them the darkness stretched out into infinity. Rieux could feel under his hand the gnarled, weather-worn visage of the rocks, and a strange happiness possessed him. Turning to Tarrou, he caught a glimpse on his friend’s face of the same happiness, a happiness that forgot nothing.” The two undress and dive into the water and swim steadily out to sea. Camus writes, “For some minutes they swam side by side, with the same zest, in the same rhythm, isolated from the world, at last free of the town and of the plague.” When they
finish swimming, they dress and start back to town, neither of them saying a word. The chapter ends with the narrator’s words, “When they [Rieux and Tarrou] caught sight of the plague watchman, Rieux guessed that Tarrou, like himself, was thinking the disease had given them a respite, and this was good, but now they must set their shoulders to the wheel again.”