The ancient poet Hafiz wrote: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.” This line of poetry would make a good motto during the COVID-19 pandemic. Imagine it on a T-shirt. Step back a minimum of 6 feet, and admire. Really, we don’t want to be afraid anymore. We’d like to move to a better room.
The virus threat has frightened us into all sorts of pretzel twists. You still can’t bring little bottles of shampoo or toothpaste on airplanes. But you can bring little bottles of hand sanitizer. It seems odd. Maybe fear makes us irrational. Maybe we’re just prioritizing our fears. It’s come to this: We’re more afraid of the virus on airplanes than we are afraid of the terrorist, who might be seated in row 16, seat B.
We cough into our elbows now. We avoid people we love. We enter savings banks and convenience stores as masked men/women. Don’t tell me it isn’t odd, funny, absurd, even!
The cat’s out of the bag. We say something is absurd when we don’t know what else to say. Ridiculous, irrational, crazy; absurdity’s a thing that comes to our ears as an utterly senseless thing. The word has a Latin root that means out of tune.
These days seem very much out of tune.
There once was a philosophy called Absurdism. Absurdism was born of the madness in Europe leading up to World War II. Albert Camus wrote about it. In his book “The Plague,” he actually used a pandemic to describe what happens to people during times like these. Camus said that we live lives of (mostly) dull, habitual practice until our habits are interrupted. Eventually, when the plague passes, all the surviving people drift back to what they were doing before. However, in the midst of the panic, the absurdity and terror, there is room for what Camus called “rhetoric.” We can wonder, even while a pandemic has knocked us off our pegs. We can struggle for meaning. We can laugh at ourselves. We can try to listen to one another. We can try to help one another. We can roar against all the absurdity, at least for a time.
I bought four liters of hand sanitizer from a distillery this week. I don’t know; I just felt like I needed to be doing something. I noticed the stores had toilet paper again, but they were short on cleaning supplies. I accepted the gift of a mask, made out of leftover fabric. We changed the light bulbs illuminating The Presbyterian Church to green in honor of lives lost. We had a pandemic parade in our vehicles, going around to wave and honk at church members. I prayed for God’s mercy. I worried about Warren County becoming a hot spot for the virus.
During the pandemic, some people are drinking too much. People are having frightening dreams. Gun sales are on the rise. Survivalist preppers are saying it’s the end of the world as we know it. The frustrations of isolation, the anxieties of not knowing what might happen next and the fears of infection have piled up. News reports about angry protests, political mendacity and the fracture of global economic markets don’t stop. Everything’s out of tune.
Our response is important. It might even be critical. If these times are absurd, are they also meaningless? That would be a sad conclusion. People often ask me, as their pastor, to explain “why this is happening” and “what it means.” It’s probably a losing game to try to make sense of the coronavirus. However, it is worthwhile to see potential meaning in our response to the threat.
Camus wrote that this is what we learn in times of pestilence: “that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Another philosopher, Alan Watts, wrote that “if the universe is meaningless, so is that statement that it is so. … The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”
We’d do well to leave the cheapest room in the house, the room called fear. This strange time in which we are now living is forcing us, as traumas do, to confront worn-out habits. We can learn to live in new ways. We can face the struggle in ways that reveal what is good and admirable about human life. We are resilient. We are flexible and adaptable. We are strong.
The absurdity of these days actually gives us something to push against. We don’t have to be dominated by doubt and confusion. We can assert ourselves against this thing. We can take up the cause of being generous and kind in the face of a mindless, careless evil. We can celebrate the days we are given, even knowing that our days are numbered. We can celebrate what we have, and not fear any loss.
Moving out of the cheap room and into better living conditions is an intriguing possibility these days.
– Matthew Covington is senior pastor of The Presbyterian Church in Bowling Green.