One night just last week, I was getting some fresh air (I recommend it) and thinking for the umpteenth time just how utterly surreal and uncanny this whole coronavirus situation feels. I recognize that it is real and that a multitude of lives have been impacted and even lost because of it, just as I realize that it is a position of good fortune and privilege to be merely inconvenienced for the time being by this scourge. That does not make it any less surreal.
There was a large part of me that got it, that grasped the true severity of the moment. There was nonetheless still a small part that fully expected Ashton Kutcher from MTV’s Punk’d to rear his head from around the corner any minute now and reveal this all to have been a cruel and horrendous practical joke.
I may as well double down on the narcissism here and make the all too obvious next comparison to The Truman Show. Last week, I mentioned HBO’s Westworld, in which Ed Harris wants to get to the deeper layer of the cosplay theme park he enjoys so well. In The Truman Show, he plays the black beret-shod director of an elaborately staged pageant, which the star (Jim Carrey) mistakes as reality. (Or maybe it’s a Kangol hat. No matter.)
Again, this is a truly madly deeply narcissistic premise for a belief almost too far-flung to be uttered. To believe this would be to believe in a massive global conspiracy and for what? Just to keep us all home for a while? Moreover, it would be enormously insulting to those who are actually infected by and struggling with this virus and have lost loved ones to it. I mean no offense. This is not The Truman Show or Candid Camera or even that movie The Game. You know how in Waiting for Godot, Godot never shows? Well, Ashton Kutcher isn’t coming either. We are not being “Punk’d.” This is happening.
(And to be clear, this is no knock against the man Ashton Kutcher himself or any of his wonderful humanitarian work, for which we can all be grateful. This is just a bit involving a host on a gotcha-style TV show. That’s it.)
This notion of narcissism ties in with another concept that is baked into many of us from an early age, indeed into our very ethos and national identity: the idea of American Exceptionalism. For anyone who has disparaged our younger generations as “snowflakes,” the original speech from Fight Club is worth recalling: “You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” Likewise are we all, at bottom and despite our truly impressive individuality, the same 98.6-degree flesh-and-blood being that can play host to this virus as easily as the next one. That is why we must stay home and, in doing so, take our bodies effectively out of circulation. It’s nothing personal. Just stay home.
As I write, there are myriad medical professionals for whom this is all too real. They are doctors and nurses and volunteers all of whom would’ve likely wanted to grab me by the lapels and shake some sense into me last week. It’s true, I did have my initial moment of doubt and questioned the scope and severity when this all started. I have since seen the light. And, since all those medical professionals have their hands full dealing with an actual catastrophe, saving lives while the president with a straight face actually questions their dying patients’ need for ventilators, surely I can type a bit and do some lapel-shaking of my own on their behalf. I will begin with a man called Thomas.
“I will not believe except I shall see.” Those are words spoken by Thomas, or as he has since and ever after shall be known: Doubting Thomas. Not Doubtful Thomas or Dubious Thomas. Those make adjective describers out of the word. No, what is essential here is the active verb, here in its progressive form. He is not doubtful; he is Thomas Who Doubts. You get the point. Like “Tricky Dick,” these nicknames stick, and legacies are born.
He is also not called Healthy Skeptic Thomas or Let’s-Not-Rush-to-Judgment Thomas. There is no virtuous upside to his Doubting that may be misconstrued as sensible conservatism, let alone wisdom. And to be clear: the thing Thomas was doubting was that a man had risen from the dead. Seems reasonable enough, given the situation.
So I have to ask those doubters among us: Are the news reports not enough? Do you honestly think the daily footage is all faked? Makeshift morgue tents in Manhattan for the first time since 9/11, and you think Well let’s just wait ’til all the facts are in? Enough. Listen to me. This is happening. What is it going to take for you to believe that this is happening?
And do you think the other apostles ever let poor Thomas live this down? Like, Thomas says, “Hey Peter, would you please pass the salt,” and Peter’s all, “I don’t know, Thomas. Would I?” No, I’m sure the other apostles treated Thomas like a social pariah for all time. But it doesn’t have to be that way for us.
This, unfortunately, is not my first rodeo in this regard. A decade or so ago, my best friend died in a bar robbery here in Atlanta. Now, this friend was a known practical joker, and so I naturally was in denial of his death at first. It wasn’t until the following morning, when I saw his body in the crematorium, that I truly believed and understood what had happened. Never did I grasp Saint Thomas’s incredulity more fully. There was no joke. There was only death.
When Thomas first sees Jesus after the resurrection, the first thing Jesus has Thomas do is to “behold my hands; and reach thither thy hand and thrust it into my side.” (Rather overkill and a bit rubbing his nose in it, but then no one asked me.) “And be not faithless but believing,” Jesus says to him. Thomas then acknowledges Jesus as “My Lord and my God,” and all’s well that ends well. But not before Jesus gets in this parting final thought: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed.”
I want to focus on that idea of believing in something without seeing it. (And no, I am not equating the coronavirus with Jesus Christ here, so just don’t.) I recently discussed the idea of invisibility as it relates to hope and specifically to faith as “evidence of things not seen.” The language of Saint Thomas is likewise invested in the visible: “I will not believe except I shall see.” We can and should actively hope and have faith that we will all get through this pandemic, but first we all need to believe that it is in fact occurring. As ever, the first step is acknowledgement of the problem. Everything else comes after that.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to point out is that they did still make poor Doubting Thomas a saint after all. So maybe there’s still hope for all of us yet. Take care, stay safe, and be well.