Monday. I check my phone when I wake up. There’s a text from my wife’s cousin, a doctor who lives a few blocks away. His wife (also a doctor) has the virus, as does he and one of their daughters. All are doing reasonably well with mild symptoms. I write back: “Once you recover you’ll be coronavirus-immune super docs!” That’s no mean thing for him, as he’s head of infectious disease at one of the big east side hospitals.
Cloudy and cold. Sigh. I look out my bedroom window at the construction elevators sliding up and down the eighty-story apartment tower being constructed a block away. It’s striking how a structure that tall can make twenty-story buildings seem small.
Lucy looks at me with sad eyes of abandonment as I leave her tied by the doorway of a coffee shop. I order a morning cappuccino. We make our usual circuit. Con Ed trucks are parked in the middle of the street. The repair project continues under the torn-up patch of 1st Avenue.
A friend sends a link to Matthew Continetti’s speculations about the long-term political reverberations of the pandemic. Key quote: “For the time being, coronavirus has accelerated a generational and ideological transition within American conservatism toward the politics of social conservatism, foreign policy unilateralism, and economic solidarity.”
I edit a reflection on the European experience and the ironies it brings. A prominent irony: In February, the German government authorized doctor-assisted suicide; a month later, the West mobilizes to prevent the elderly from being swept away by a new and dangerous disease. Both are expressions of human agency seeking to fend off death’s power. The first does so (wrongly) by choosing the time and place. The second does so (rightly) by mobilizing resources to comfort and cure. But can we be confident that a culture that affirms suicide has the moral and spiritual foundations needed to respond properly to the current crisis?
I get an email from Dwight K. Blake, editor-in-chief of AmericaMarijuana.org. It begins “Dear R. R.” (An advantage of publishing as “R. R. Reno” is that I know when somebody doesn’t know me.) Mr. Blake has an important message: “I loved your article about marijuana legalization and wanted to reach out.” Apparently the shutdown has not slowed down the marijuana lobby, which is not surprising, since many states have deemed the growth, marketing, and sale of pot “essential services.”
Video conferences to schedule. Memos to write. Submissions to read. Gotta respond to a good friend’s warm note of concern. The pace of work draws me out of the present moment. People talk about being “lost” in their work. The image resonates. The “doing” of tasks, especially those that require close attention, has a kind of vitality, a life of its own. In the Garden of Eden, God assigns Adam and Eve the work of tilling and keeping paradise. But after our first parent’s sin, work takes on the character of bitter, wearying necessity.
For this hour I feel the blessing of work, its taking-us-outside-ourselves quality. But by noon, I’m tasting its bitterness, harried by the now growing to-do list and feeling as though I’m not going to catch up.
Break for lunch. I cook baked beans with diced hot dogs. My wife is bemused by this choice, noting that I have not made such a meal in ages. I reply, “Any meal that I can cook on a Svea camp stove is comfort food.” As I eat, I enjoy reveries that take me back to hiking on the Appalachian Trail with my cousins in the mid-1970s.
It’s 1 p.m. when I head to the office. Crabapple trees on the side streets are clothed in small white blossoms. The pear trees in the plaza at 56th Street and Third Avenue are splendid. Three days of chilly, cloudy weather have put spring on pause. The blossoms wait for a warm, sunny day. They’ll pulse to their fullest expanse and then fall gently to the sidewalks to make way for the green of ordinary time.
Alone at the First Things office, I read applications for our Junior Fellowship in preparation for a Zoom meeting with the editorial staff. We convene and discuss candidates, narrowing the list down to five finalists. A hard choice is ahead. I wish we had five positions, not one.
A friend sends a link to Jake Meador’s “Steel Manning First Things.” Meador offers a rebuttal of my judgments about what the present situation requires. He endorses present policies of suspended worship and shelter in place.
A friend sends a link to Jon D. Schaff’s meditation on similar questions, “With One Eye Squinted.” He exposits Flannery O’Connor to good effect, reminding us that the writer famously admonished “that tenderness, devoid of the source of tenderness, leads to the gas chambers.” What O’Connor meant is that eugenic policies find ready support in the sentimental claim that the alleviation of suffering is the highest good. Schaff finds unsentimental reasons to endorse shelter in place and other drastic measures, evoking a principle of “severe caution” in the face of grave threats.
Sober Christian thinking in a time of crisis. Perhaps Meador and Schaff (and many others) are correct about what Christian prudence requires. I thought otherwise one and two weeks ago, and still think my reasons sound. But events have overtaken my judgments, and now the time for persuading bishops and public authorities of a different course of action has largely passed. Decisions have been made. New York hospitals are straining. Churches are shuttered. Unemployment claims are setting records. We are being carried onward to we know not where.
It’s early evening. The office is cold. The landlord, like everyone else, no doubt wants to conserve cash in order to survive. I rub my hands together to warm them. My wife emails: “Leftovers.” Time to go home.
Sirens moan. The number of ambulances has increased. Midtown is more deserted than it was last week. Fewer homeless people wander the sidewalks. The city’s heart beats more slowly.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.