Death we care about and death we don’t

Sunday, 10th May 2020

I’m thinking a lot about death these days. I guess being a philosopher it comes with the territory. Not my own death, particularly, although these days I suspect that that question has crossed anyone’s mind who is even halfway self-reflective.

What I’ve been thinking about is how we put together two incommensurable things – the deep meaningfulness of death, and its meaninglessness. We hear stories about famous people who have died, of the virus and of other causes. Many people know close family members who have died. The loss is quantifiable and palpable. It’s the stuff we write profound and touching stories about. It really matters, maybe more than anything.

And then there are the coffins and bodies being buried en masse in graves because there are just too many dying to be able to do justice to them all. The people dying alone, at home, in hospitals, elsewhere. It’s impossible for any of us to care about each and every one, but the fact that we can’t means that each of them is diminished. I keep hearing these stats – more dead of COVID-19 than Americans who died in the Vietnam war. Many multiple times the deaths of 9/11. So many deaths, so many more to come. Impossible to comprehend.

We look back on the great pandemics of the past – the Black Death, the 1918 Flu Epidemic, many others – and imagine it was a grim time when everyone was aware of just how virulent the disease was, how many were killed, and what the tragic loss of life meant at a personal level. But were they? Or did they do the same thing we have to do now – grieve those we know, and those we’ve heard of, and relegate the rest to faceless statistics?

I know everyone knows all this. Maybe it’s all banal truisms. But it seems to me like two things I have to hold in my hands at the same time – the value and nobility of each life, and the fact that many of these lives could slip away totally unnoticed by pretty much anyone. And we have to be ok with that, somehow, or at least, it seems like we have no choice but to find a way to rank deaths in our emotional lives.

Yeah I know, just get on with it. Care about who you care about, the rest are background. But really? I get the feeling that that’s the logic of the people who crowd into stores and onto beaches – it hasn’t affected them directly, so it’s not real. And once it does affect them – and it will – there will be another story, another way of blaming someone else, of turning grief into anger and resentment and blame, directed blindly at whoever or whatever is the object of the latest persuasive story handed out by the Orange Man and his enablers. We already know this happens racially and based on medical history. The dead are ranked – if they’re black, they don’t matter as much. If they’re fat, if they’re old, if they have diabetes or something else, and I don’t know them personally, well they must deserve it. Some story that allows me to rank death, to keep some of the deluge of death at bay so it doesn’t affect me.

In our saner moment, I’d like to think that we all realize that human worth is not dependent on those factors we use to rank death. But that puts us back in the quandary – how do we take seriously what is happening? Put another way, can we find a way to be really human ourselves, recognizing others as human, or does this render us necessarily as people who have to rank-order human significance and human death, because otherwise we couldn’t get through the day?

See, this is what philosophers think about at a time like this, at least the ones who have read enough existentialism. Anyway, here’s the NYT page with the latest updates on the virus. It’s worth watching how we talk about the deaths – even journalists can’t do much other than highlight the “important” people, whatever that means, highlight trends and groups of dead, and sigh at the sheer scale of it all. I’m not sure what to suggest that would be any better than that, but I’m not happy with the options we currently have to think about all this.

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