It is not always easy. Your successes are unheralded, your failures are trumpeted. (I sometimes have that feeling about myself.) But I am sure you realize how important your work, how essential it is, and how in the long sweep of history how significant your efforts will be judged. So I do want to express my appreciation to you now, and I am confident that in the future you will continue to merit the appreciation of our country as you have in the past.
John F. Kennedy said these words just after Thanksgiving, 1961. He was awarding the National Security Medal to CIA Director Allen Dulles (brother of the D.C. Airport’s namesake, John Foster Dulles). But let’s pretend, just for the sake of argument, that JFK is talking directly to each of us.
JFK’s double trumpet imagery—“successes unheralded,” “failures trumpeted”—points to a broader language of heraldry, one of fanfare and of ancestry and lineage. Put another way, as Detective Freamon tells Jimmy McNulty, nobody’s lining up to throw us all a parade just for staying home when this is over. (Also, remember parades?) That doesn’t make it any less important that we do stay home whenever possible.
What I mean by this is that our successes in surviving this pandemic are literally beyond measure. That too, to borrow JFK’s phrase, is not easy. Our stakes are measured only by attrition—the flattening of the curve, the slow grinding down of the enemy—by casualties, and by those who recover and those who do not.
We are all too familiar with the two-tone, pink and red curve graphs, the lighter showing total number of cases, the darker showing fatalities. What these graphs do not, cannot show is the immeasurable: the unquantifiable number of lives saved by each of our efforts.
Staying at home is not something that everyone can manage right now, but the science clearly shows that those who can stay at home truly should. In staying home, we nip the causal chain in the bud. The pebble never reaches the pond. The butterfly never flaps it wings. It is still cocooned, on the couch, watching Netflix. It is literally impossible to overstate or even accurately imagine how many lives have been saved and will be saved by doing the important work of simply staying home. And, at the risk of sounding unnecessarily cryptic and invoking a Flannery O’Connor story simultaneously, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”
Last time, I wrote about the five stages of grief. In recent years, Kübler-Ross’s colleague David Kessler has, with the blessing of her family, proposed a sixth stage of grieving: Meaning. This quest for a deeply redemptive value in suffering is reminiscent of the story of renowned psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl.
During the Holocaust, Dr. Frankl narrowly survived four concentration camps. When he emerged on the other side of the war, he wrote about his experiences in a book called Man’s Search For Meaning. The first portion of the book relates his harrowing experiences in the death camps. The remainder of the book discusses the Third School of Viennese Psychotherapy which Frankl had gone on to found, after Freud and Adler. He called it logotherapy, from the Greek word logos meaning, well, “meaning.”
Dr. Frankl relates how in the camps, he quickly learned that so much of what he’d learned in medical school, be it the amount of sleep a human being requires or all manner of what was concerned survivable, was simply incorrect. We may account for this by way of a passage of Nietzsche which Dr. Frankl was oft fond of quoting: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
As an example of this principle at work, Dr. Frankl writes of an older colleague who was severely depressed over the loss of his wife. Rather than comfort the widower, Frankl confronted him, asking what would have happened had he passed first rather than his wife?
“Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
By seeking out the meaning in the man’s sacrifice, his suffering became redemptive. Or rather, its redemptive aspect, which was always there, became apparent to him, was disclosed, revealed.
Dr. Frankl tells us: “Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends.” Now, it would be of course decidedly off-base to draw a one-to-one comparison of these two moments in history. Still, this sentiment holds true in the case of our current situation as well, though with an added dimension, one which is invisible, even anonymous.
In 1960, C. S. Lewis wrote The Four Loves. They are: storge (affection), philia (friendship), eros (erotic love), and agape (unconditional or God love). The middle two are straightforward enough, but the first and last bear some consideration. Agape is the kind of universal love that binds us to a stranger half a world away. That impulse to feed a starving child in a village you’ll never visit: that’s agape love. (It is “agape love?” or is that redundant, like “ATM machine” or “PPE equipment?”)
Doing our part during this time, whether it’s wearing a mask or staying at home whenever possible, that too is agape. It is love for a stranger, for even a would-be passerby. However, back to the first love. Storge is not just love for one’s family. No, it is an empathy bond with all those bound and bonded by circumstance—which is a funny way to think of family, but nonetheless true, I suppose. It is both familial and familiar. If a global pandemic doesn’t provide precisely such a unifying set of circumstances for such a love to shine, I don’t know what does.
So, remember that one Simpsons episode? More specific, you ask?? It’s the one where Homer quits his job to work his dream job in a bowling alley but then finds out Marge is pregnant with Maggie and has to grovel and beg Mr. Burns for his old job back. To repay Homer’s disloyalty, Mr. Burns posts a sign above Homer’s work station that reads: “Don’t forget: you’re here forever.” By the end of the show, Bart and Lisa ask why there aren’t any photos of Maggie in the photo album. Homer explains that they’re all where he needs them the most: at work. The baby photos are arranged so that they partially cover up “Don’t forget: you’re here forever.” Instead, they now spell: “Do it for her.”
Right now there is someone out there whose life you are saving by staying home. She will not know to thank you because she will not know you saved her life. She will nonetheless be alive because you did the right thing by staying home. Do it for her. Take care, stay safe, and be well.