Thursday. Sunny day. Chilly, but the air is cheerful. I won’t bore the reader with my Lucy-cappuccino-dog walk routine, though I will say that I hope the coffee shop survives.
A musician friend reports that a few years ago a glam rock band, The Darkness, put out a song, “Easter is Cancelled.” Who could have imagined that life would imitate art in quite this way?
I drop off some clothes at the cleaner across the street. The young clerk says this is his last day. He has told his boss he won’t come into work. “I don’t want to put myself at risk anymore.”
I don’t correct his impression of risk by explaining that, as a guy in his twenties, he is probably more likely to die from testicular cancer than coronavirus. What’s the point? It’s impossible to fight the fearmongering. The media chant “death” around the clock. We’re in a public health frenzy, which means nearly everyone has his eye on the peril of illness to the exclusion of all else, including reason.
I also rue the poverty of our public life. Last weekend, the New York Times ran a long story about the working-class New Yorkers who are still taking the subway to work (“They Can’t Afford to Quarantine”). They are the nurses’ aides, the janitors who keep the boilers working, clerks in shops that provide take-out, delivery men, grocery clerks, and the many others who ensure that the locked-down city does not collapse.
Instead of seeing these people as heroes—people who do not flee from their responsibilities in trying times—the story portrays them as victims.
I walk to work. I no longer wonder at the city's novel emptiness. I’m lost in dark thoughts. Will 10 percent of the closed businesses I’m walking past fail? 20 percent?
Some friends have written. One reports that Florida governor DeSantis has deemed churches “essential services.” He wonders if the Catholic bishops in Florida will continue their “defensive crouch.” I write back, “Probably. The institutional Church has adopted a zero-risk mentality.”
Another friend writes. He’s an older man who was a street hustler for decades until he found the Church. These days he goes among the street people in Seattle to cheer them up and teach them basic measures to protect against infection. He uses the antics he learned when he panhandled to survive. “I just stay close to Our Lord. He walks beside me always, and, yes, he cracks jokes, too!”
Another friend sends a link to the 2015 conversation between Yuval Noah Harari and Daniel Kahneman, “Death is Optional.” In the old days we used to think death came whether we wanted it or not, observes Harari. Now we take the view that death arises because we haven’t yet solved technical problems. People don’t just die. They die from heart failure or kidney failure or cancer or some other pathology. “In principle, people always die due to technical reasons, not metaphysical reasons.” Every cause of death is “curable”—maybe not now, but eventually.
This creates a revolutionary thought: “If I’m rich enough, maybe I don’t have to die.” Although Harari does not spell it out, there is a cultural corollary: If our society is rich enough, then maybe nobody has to die.
I take my takeout to a chair in front of the New York Public Library. The sun reflects off the white marble walls of the Beaux Arts building, pleasantly warming me as I eat my lunch. I take a post-prandial walk around Bryant Park, which is thinly populated by idle homeless people. Some are watching videos on phones. Others are asleep, slumped in their chairs.
Zoom meetings. Emails to answer. The afternoon is gobbled up by tasks.
I take time to pray before heading home. Thank you, Lord, for the freedom that you give. I fail to heed your call. I am weak and stumble. But you are the power of life. I need not live in fear. Help me, Lord, to go in your peace.
Down the elevator and out onto the streets. The physical reality of the city and its monumental buildings, though empty, still speak of grandeur.
Errands. Home. Dusk and time to make dinner. I am living now in accord with routines. It is a human response. We consecrate even the worst of circumstances (and this is far from the worst) with patterns that give form to our days. The “time of exception” is becoming normal.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.