COVID and the Desperate Avoidance of Suffering
Our nation's obsession with avoiding any hint of suffering related to COVID-19 reveals how modern man sees himself as standing against the cosmic order instead of submitting to it — a deviation from the rest of human history that accepted suffering as part of life, even the good life.
If you were to ask people today what it means to live the good life, most would say something along the lines of "to have enough money, to be recognized and accepted for who I am, to be loved, and not to suffer." This last point undergirds all the rest and is now an essential maxim to the dignity of the self. With the advance of technology and modernity's rejection of man's place in a larger order of existence that holds him to account for his actions — that makes his suffering meaningful and justified — people today want to avoid suffering at all costs. And they feel entitled to that avoidance.
Human beings used to see themselves as part of a larger framework — the community, the polis, the sacred order in relationship to God. Man's duty and meaning were derived from his relationship with others, whether as a citizen, a member of a tribe or family, or a child of God obediently and respectfully living out his vocation within his created order.
Now individuals are focused on themselves, their own inner psychologies and feelings, their own sense of well-being, their right to be respected for who they are as they express themselves, and their entitlement not to suffer. Because modern man believes he is born uncorrupted with a clear trajectory to the good life, any disruption of this goal is the result of not some inner failing, some cause of sacred justice, or the inevitable effects of living in a fallen world, but the neglect or active interference of other people.
If the modern individual suffers, it's always someone else's fault. In like manner, if he's going to avoid suffering — which in his mind he's entitled to — it is up to others to make sure that happens. We see this mindset playing out in the unhinged COVID response. Modern man thinks he can control everything because he has set himself up as god over everything, and one of the most important aspects of life to control is suffering — even if that "suffering" is fear related to a virus with a less than 1 percent death toll.
Technology has helped nurture this delusion of human omnipotence. People used to live at the mercy of the elements. Crops withered, storms destroyed, diseases killed, the young died. With our advances in technology, we have made ourselves into gods, and technology has remained by our side feeding our delusion that we can create a world without suffering.
This has become not just a pragmatic goal, but an existential one born of a new understanding of the human self — that we are self-created gods entitled to the good life simply because we have declared it so. We believe we have a right to be protected from all trials and tribulations because we think there is no dignity in suffering.
This mindset is new and destructive because it is a lie. Mankind is not a blank slate, born in a neutral state, or even in a good state. Mankind is born in sin, under condemnation. Everything that happens to us is deserved, and we are not entitled to the "good life" just because we demand it. While it is an act of love and kindness to help one another in the midst of suffering, we are not entitled to that kindness. When we receive it, our response should be not smug privilege, but gratefulness.
Our entire attitude needs to change about who we are in relationship to nature's order and what role suffering plays in our lives. Suffering is not always an injustice. It can be a means to the good life; it can even be part of the good life, because it shapes us, molds us, and refines us into something better. The joy we find in suffering comes from the realization that it is deserved — thereby renewing our confidence in a sacred order of justice — and it can be a means to improve our lives, maybe not outwardly, but certainly in our souls.
This doesn't mean we should always allow suffering to continue so virtue can abound. Out of love, we want to improve the lives of others, heal them from sickness, free them from hunger, pain, and poverty. But this grace is not a right. You have a right not to be hurt by others, but you do not have a right to be healed by others or protected from any hurt unleashed by nature.
The only way you could come to the conclusion that you have a right to avoid suffering is to think human beings are not personally responsible for anything, that we are entirely passive in what happens to us, that we are perfect as individuals, and therefore, anything negative that happens to us is caused by someone else — that our suffering is always a social injustice.
This is simply not the case. While sometimes suffering is caused by another person and an act of injustice, most often, it is not. It is merely the result of living in a world where we are not gods, where nature still dominates us despite our technology, where natural inequalities flourish, where people get sick and die, and where we are still under judgment in the sacred order and subject to the turbulence of this broken world.
What this practically means regarding COVID is that while we should take reasonable measures to protect one another from sickness, the attitude that we can control nature — and that in desperately trying to control nature, we can and should control other people — is misguided, destructive, and tyrannical. We have been blessed by modern technology, but it does not save us from the state of our own souls or from the need we have to suffer in this life as a matter of justice and as a means to spiritual redemption.
Living a dignified life, a respected life, a good life requires not something of others, but something of yourself. It requires that you see yourself as a sinful creature within the framework of God's created order under his control and his judgment, that you bend your own will to his ways and control yourself, not others. This will foster within you humility and acceptance as you realize that there are worse things in life than suffering — like making a god of yourself and demanding that others bow to your will.
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