The Coronavirus and the Pony
Article by Paul D. Miller, Professor, Georgetown University
There’s something antiquated about our enforced #coronacation. Like peasants in the 14th century warding off the plague-ridden and the unclean, we have abandoned human contact. Handshakes are out; elbow bumps are in. Our cities are empty, our marketplaces abandoned, our festivals depopulated. My family has survived 9/11, the anthrax attacks, war in Afghanistan, the Beltway Sniper, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Snowmaggedon, and two earthquakes.
Yet none of those events accomplished what the COVID-19 global pandemic has: civilization has ground to a halt.
I believe there’s a blessing here, much like the little girl who, given a large pile of manure on Christmas, celebrates because a pony must be around somewhere. We’ve been given a pile of manure in the form of a global pandemic. Thousands are dead, thousands more will die, and the living will be poorer and more frightened for years to come.
Where’s the pony?
Our Idolatrous Age
I grew up around computers, with access to health care, and never far from a TV, a refrigerator, a supermarket, a car, and a phone. My kids are even more saturated with tech, convenience, and the trappings of post-industrial civilization. The tools of civilization exist to empower us, to make survival a given and convenience affordable. These are good things, and I’m glad we have them.
But tools give us power, and power holds danger. When we have enormously powerful tools constantly at our disposal, that power starts to feel natural. The proximity and ubiquity of tech and convenience breeds a certain attitude: an assumed near-invincibility, a quasi-omniscience. Every problem is solvable, every question answerable.
The proximity and ubiquity of tech and convenience breeds a certain attitude: an assumed near-invincibility, a quasi-omniscience.
Out of toilet paper? Amazon can bring us more. Not feeling well? There’s a doctor down the road and a health-insurance plan to pay for it. “Dad, can you help with my homework?” Ask Siri and Google.
Ancient Greeks would’ve looked at citizens of postmodernity and called us gods.
Civilization breeds hubris. This feeling of near-invincibility infects how we look at ourselves, at others, at the natural world and, ultimately, at God. Sickened with affluenza, we need one another less, we look at nature as either a problem to solve or a resource to exploit, and we think of God hardly at all. Jesus warned that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Simply living inside the bubble of our tech-powered civilization is a form of fabulous, God-blinding wealth.
To be clear, civilization is better than its alternative. I don’t mean to suggest that we should indulge in a luddite rejection of science, technology, and modern convenience. Without science, the pandemic would be several orders of magnitude worse, and I wouldn’t have a laptop on which to type these thoughts.
This feeling of near-invincibility infects how we look at ourselves, at others, at the natural world and, ultimately, at God.
But all good things can become idols. There’s a reason that ultimate idolatry in the Bible is portrayed as a wealthy and powerful city. Great civilizations always involve great concentrations of power and wealth. They are, like Babel, Rome, and Washington, wondrous to behold. They testify to the creativity and ingenuity of their human creators and, however dimly, to the Creator. And like Babel in Genesis and Babylon in Revelation, they too often become the focus of our idolatrous admiration, particularly when we deceive ourselves into believing we are its architects.
Gift of COVID-19
When these great city falls, do we despair among the ruins? Italians under quarantine are singing and playing instruments from their balconies to cheer one another up, to recreate human community. Quarantine helped them need one another. These simple impromptu concerts, these little neighborhood symphonies, are a snapshot of what is possible when civilization deserts us. Instead of despairing among the ruins, we sing, go for a walk, roast marshmallows with the neighbors.
It’s the feeling of perfect security which is aberrant, disordered, and dangerous, not its opposite.
As C. S. Lewis wrote about living with the atomic bomb, “the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together.” If we’re going to die from the bomb or, in our case, be quarantined or sickened, let us pass the time “praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children . . . not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs,” or germs.
The COVID-19 pandemic can return to us a realization that was normal throughout human history but has become oddly rare: the feeling that life is tenuous; that a simple act of neighbor love is the first, and often last, duty we owe; that civilization is a fragile achievement; and—here is the key—that these feelings are, in fact, normal and good. It’s the feeling of perfect security that is aberrant, disordered, and dangerous, not its opposite.
If you’ve felt these truths as you read the headlines in recent days—that mix of discomfort, fear, gratitude, and a little bit of exhilaration—there’s your pony. Care for it well.
Paul D. Miller is a professor in the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.