Wednesday. Coffee in bed as I read the morning paper. Reports: Local leaders in counties north of New York City are urging residents to cancel Airbnb listings to prevent city dwellers from fleeing to their towns. The progress of infection. Economic turmoil. More than fifty percent of the content of the newspaper concerns the pandemic.
Gray skies and chilly. Over the last year or more, I have tried, every day, to think of my own death. The ancients called this practice memento mori, remembering that you will die. Thinking of death has helped me better discern what it is that God is calling me to do on this day, now, rather than putting it off. It has also given me the courage to do hard and painful things. I remind myself that tomorrow I may die, and therefore there is no reason to be anxious. I should say or do what needs to be said or done.
I have a 9 a.m. radio interview, then another at 11 a.m. In between I call the First Things financial officer, asking him whether nonprofits will qualify for small business loans in the bailout bill before Congress. He tells me to sit tight. The details are being worked out.
After lunch, I go for a walk, heading to the small pocket park in our neighborhood by the East River. The cold wind puts spring on hold. Aside from a homeless person on a bench, the park is empty.
I run into a friend out for a walk. He’s retired, though very active. Perhaps 75, maybe older. After briefly talking about the situation, he says, “My wife and I don’t want to get sick and die. But to be honest, we’d rather have that happen than wreck the future for our kids and grandkids.”
I walk uptown to the hospitals clumped ten blocks north of my apartment. The scene is busy. Many hurrying down the sidewalks are dressed in medical scrubs. I pass an elderly man with an attendant at his arm. He is heading into Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. Turning west on 70th Street, I stop at The Coffee Inn. The barista reports that business has been steady. The hospitals are running at full tilt. Outside, four white-coated medical staff are sipping coffee and talking. My cappuccino is excellent.
I descend the escalators at the 72nd Street and Second Avenue subway stop and take the Q train downtown. There are five people in the subway car; one is a homeless person slumped in his seat. The rest are blue-collar workers. I get off at Times Square. The streets are quiet as workmen on scaffolding prepare to replace a gigantic advertisement banner above 42nd Street.
On the way to the First Things office on 40th Street, I walk through Bryant Park. I smell the aromatic crocus in bloom. The smell reminds me of my childhood. Hundreds of pots of violets have been delivered and line the sidewalks. Workers are planting them, along with daffodil bulbs ready to bloom. The park is being dressed up for spring like a girl preparing to go on stage before an empty house.
My friend Damon Linker has posted a column that denounces me as a toady for Randian libertarianism. But Linker’s reasoning (which is widespread these days) fails to recognize the distinction between killing and letting die. A woman choosing an abortion and the doctor performing it directly intend the death of the child, and they adopt lethal means to realize that intention. The same is true for euthanasia, when the doctor intends and causes the death of the ill or suffering person. As the literature in medical ethics makes clear, killing is very different from refraining from heroic interventions to save a life.
In the Catholic tradition of medical ethics, heroic efforts to save lives must meet two tests. They must have a good probability of success, and they must not be excessively burdensome. In my estimation, we have embarked on a society-wide, heroic effort that fails not just the second test, but the first as well.
At the present moment, we are compelling millions of hourly wage earners to give up their livelihoods. And we are on a trajectory that may have unknown political, social, and spiritual costs. Where will our political system end up? I’m anguished by the fear that so many feel, most unnecessarily.
This is not an argument against the present “shelter in place” policies. Perhaps they are the wisest course of action. But it is not morally serious to suggest that our present policies are obligatory—and that if one dissents, one is a moral monster.
But enough arguing! Death’s undertow is strong. It inspires powerful emotions, amplified by the media and echoing in our souls. We’re fearful and on edge. This moment is not congenial to reason’s cool counsel.
I head home, detouring to pray at Our Savior on Park Avenue, where the magnolia and other flowering trees are in spectacular bloom. I ask God forgiveness for my ill-tempered words and actions over the past week, for my hasty judgments and sharp words. I ask for serenity. As the subway rumbles under the silent church, I contemplate the crucifix above the altar, a striking image against the background of a thirty-foot-tall painting of Christ, the Lord of All.
Today is press day, which means we’re wrapping up the May issue. By the time I get home, it will be on its way to the printer. I send an email to the staff thanking them for their professionalism. I’m very lucky to have such excellent and hardworking colleagues. Deo volente, readers will get the magazine in two or three weeks.
I stop at the grocery store. I decide to cook Chicken Milanese for dinner—my culinary expression of solidarity with the people of that great city, which, like my own, is under lockdown. I get the ingredients and head up to our apartment. In the elevator, I feel that some of the darkness has lifted from my soul. Is it the salve of work? Maybe prayer? Or am I just getting used to New York in this time of the virus?
Gotta walk the dog. Talk to you tomorrow.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.