The Radical Uncertainty of Now: Love in the Time of Pandemic

by on April 6, 2020 · 0 comments

in Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

When everything is disrupted and normal routine falls apart, sometimes we are able to see things more clearly.  In the midst of this pandemic, what I am reminded of is the fundamentally transitory nature of everything that is.  Of course, at base, what a plague rudely brings to the forefront of one’s consciousness is that death is our final appointment.  No matter what we do, however much money we make or recognition we receive, in the end, we are just dust.

Ancient wisdom traditions have known this for a long time.  As one Buddhist formulation puts it:

I am subject to aging. There is no way to avoid aging.

I am subject to ill health. There is no way to avoid illness.

I am going to die. There is no way to avoid death.

Everyone and everything that I love will change, and I will be separated from them.

My only true possessions are my actions, and I cannot escape their consequences.

Anguttara Nikaya translated from Pali by Thich Nhat Hanh

Or, as one of my favorite rock and roll bands, Wilco, sings in “Hold Me Anyway” on their latest album Ode to Joy, “time is nothing I can keep”–but nevertheless, we persist:

No! I think it’s all poetry and magic

Something too big to have a name

And when you get it right it’s still tragic

And when you die who’s to blame?

Did you think everything

Would be okay?

In recent years, in the face of various challenges and losses, I’ve joked with friends that I really don’t need to be confronted with the death and radical uncertainty of life because I’ve taught literature for my entire career and am already well-armed with a tragic sense of life.

But life continues to remind me, nonetheless.

Thus, as I do much of my work virtually right now — everything from teaching to academic, community, and political meetings — I am again reminded of how little of what we do in our daily routines actually matters in the big picture, and, simultaneously, how precious that which does matter is.

I am moved by the thought that there may be some of my older loved ones I will never see face to face again.  I am touched by the everyday heroism of my students who go from virtual classes to grocery stores or other service jobs because their families need the money they earn, stoically facing peril that many of us can avoid.

Then there are the firefighters and paramedics down the street from my house, nurses, and friends who are doctors on the front line.  I am grateful for their sacrifices and their sense of duty to their fellow humans. Thankfully, there are lots of people who are still willing to show up for those they don’t even know out of a sense of love of and obligation to a greater self.  They are the real leaders in the midst of this crisis.

The hard truth is that a lot of very bad things are going to keep happening for a long while in a way that many of us have yet to fully grok.  On the other side of this pandemic, there will be lives damaged no matter what we do. Did we think everything was going to be okay?

It won’t.

In the face of all this, we will deny and worry and rage and rationalize and grieve and persevere and not persevere.  But there will still be beauty, joy, and the simple things like the taste of morning coffee, a lover’s touch, the song of the birds outside your window, and whatever it is that you adore about this moment–until it’s gone.

So cherish it.

Note: Thanks to my friend Jonathan Mello for sharing the Anguttara Nikaya passage.

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