Sting Had It Right
By Fr. Robert Vallee
As is my nerdy wont, I have been thinking about etymologies of late. The word, pandemic, is derived from two Greek words: pan, meaning all; demos, meaning people. As of today (5/18/2020), over 90,000 Americans have died from, and over 1.5 million have been infected by, the corona virus. World-wide, nearly five million people have been infected and 300,000 people have lost their lives. This has been an unspeakable human tragedy and it will get worse before it gets better. Whatever lessons we might learn from this are not worth the price of a single life, needlessly lost. Yet, for all that, there are lessons to be learned, lessons that have nothing to do with science and less than nothing to do with politics. The lessons to be learned are fundamentally moral and spiritual in nature.
First, this is a pandemic, a threat that is no respecter of persons. It affects all people. Whether you are rich or poor, black or white, red or yellow, you are at risk. We are reminded that we are all just human, all but frail beasts doomed to die. If this virus does not get you, another virus or something else eventually will! There is no vaccine that inoculates you or me from death. We are all in the same boat. All that matters is what we choose to do with the few precious seconds we have before the iceberg hits and our own private universe goes dark and dead. As Heidegger, Jaspers and Marcel remind us, it is not necessarily morbid to think on death. The ineluctable fact that all life ends makes this day, this hour and this moment precious and interesting, significant and sacred. This pandemic goes after us all [all people], which is in a sense a good thing; it reminds us of how easily this all-too-frail flesh might melt and how very mortal even the most powerful of us are.
Second, as Sting intoned on Dream of Blue Turtles, “there is no monopoly of common sense on either side of the political fence.” Donald Trump says so many dumb and absurd things that I will not waste what little digital space I have decrying his idiocy, arrogance or lack of common decency. This pandemic, affects all people – liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican. Again, to paraphrase Dream of Blue Turtles, “what might save us, me and you, is if the Russians [Democrats or Republicans], love their children too!” To be sure, Trump is a selfish, shallow and sanctimonious idiot. But the problem with railing against idiots is that one tends to become idiotic oneself. There is a special place in hell for anyone who would use this pandemic to score political points. This pandemic should not be used for political gain but for spiritual and moral enrichment. Collectively and individually, we should come out of this as better human beings.
Third, as the rather trite slogan states with profundity, “we are all in this together.” First World politicos like to call this a war. But if it were a war, in any remotely traditional sense of the word, the US of A would have already won. We have more money, more devastating weapons and more resources than any country in the world. But we will not bomb, buy or bully our way out of this disaster. We will overcome this challenge and the greater ones to come if we come together as a human race. National boundaries, religious sectarianism, racial divisions and economic inequalities weaken us and render us vulnerable to the threats which threaten all people. These mega threats will only be met and overcome together as one people. Pandemic threats will only be overcome by pandemics of love, truth and justice.
This is not about winning in the sense of making America great at the expense or everyone else; this is about finding a way to grow up as a race – not a white or black race but as a human race. Because this is not the last “pan” challenge we will face. Eventually, even if we are careful and smart, we will have to get off the planet and head for the stars. Eventually, our sun will supernova and long before that our earth will be uninhabitable. Our culture, our art, our faith and our genetic legacy will only endure if we head for the stars. Make no mistake, we will only endure pan demos, with “all people.”
Maybe that is the true lesson of this disaster – we live in a perpetual state of pandemic – either we all survive and thrive or none of us do! Dis-aster, to be cut off from one’s star; we are stardust, we are golden and we’ve got to find our way back to that garden. We believe! We dream! We shall overcome! We work the black seam together! The first person, plural pronoun is all important.
We all know well the story of Pandora’s Box. Perhaps we, with our technologies and rapacious rape of the natural world, have unleashed monsters upon the world and upon ourselves. Whether this sickness was born in a lab or in a meat market matters little. The point is that, in one way or another, we have done this to ourselves. And we are not done soiling our own beds. Global warming, pollution, cancer from poor diet or exposure to radiation, economic and social injustice, sickness, pain and death – all of these horrors we have brought upon ourselves. Like Pandora, which by the way means all gifts, we have turned blessings into curses and unleashed demons upon the earth.
Yet, at the bottom of Pandora’s box, there was only one thing left and that was hope! We do well to hope that this pandemic might finally drive us out of the sand lots of racism, nationalism and materialism that keep us in spiritual, psychological and intellectual bondage. Sting had it quite right while dreaming of blue turtles. Here is the only basis for hope, not just with regard to this crisis but for all the crises to come:
How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer's deadly toy?
There is no monopoly of common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians (Democrats and Republicans) love their children too
[Sting, Dream of Blue Turtles]
*Fr. Robert Vallee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Chair, Philosophy Department St. John Vianney College Seminary.