Thursday, April 16, 2020

Our Borrowed Lives

For every human crisis, there is someone ready to declare it as their god's punishment for the wickedness of the world. And while I'm sure the world is plenty wicked, if the gods are behind it, they certainly seem to mete out their justice with a nonjudgemental hand. The pastor's house is flooded. The rabbi gets the illness. Babies die in earthquakes.

As I've mentioned before, the way I'm staying sane during these trying times is to take long, solitary walks around my city. I've lived here in Seattle off and on since the early 1980s and there is no doubt that we are currently experiencing the most glorious springtime of my life. City people everywhere have taken note of the clean air that has resulted from businesses being shut down. I've never seen bluer skies or clearer water. The birds are cacophonous. The newly leafing trees have never been greener. The flowers have never been brighter. It's as if the entire world has been Photoshopped.

But what I've mostly noticed is the breathing; breathing is a joy almost beyond measure.

It's against this stunning backdrop that our current tragedy is playing out, this war we are waging as a species against a virus, a strange entity that exists at the border between chemistry and life. As virologists Marc H. V. van Regenmortel and Brian W.J. Mahy once said of viruses, they are not alive nor are they mere chemicals, but rather they lead "a kind of borrowed life." Viruses depend on host cells to make them lifelike by inducing them to reproduce the intruder's DNA or RNA, making "offspring" viruses that then infect other host cells. I heard a biologist once describe viruses as "biomachines."

As I walked and breathed, I found myself overwhelmed by the undeniable joy around me: the people may be glum and grim, but there is no doubt that the trees are happy. All the plants are happy, the birds are happy, my dog has never been happier. If this is a punishment, it is a very specific punishment, one directed only at Homo sapiens. Life is busting out with a kind of wild, unbridledness like nothing I've ever experienced in my adult life. It's tempting to think the world was like this in my youth, the the spring of my life, but I expect that's only nostalgia. This is unprecedented.

I hardly noticed the signs of human withdrawal from this celebration: the empty parking lots, the darkened doorways, the boarded over windows. We weren't invited to this party. Indeed, it's a springtime celebration of our withdrawal, almost as if the world itself has finally won a reprieve from an intruder that has been living a kind of borrowed life for far too long. While spring is robustly bursting, it is leaving humans behind in winter, as if the gods have sent us all to our rooms to think about what we have done.

I'm not going to call this a blessing, there is too much suffering and death for that, but we would be fools to not heed the message from the planet. In a metaphorical sense (and humans can hardly think without resorting to metaphor) winter is the time to hunker down, to pare life back to its essentials, and to dwell on who and what is most important. We can look on this extended wintertime as a punishment, but when I look around, when I hear the natural world proclaiming that it would be more than delighted to go on without us, it strikes me that we would be fools to waste what might be our last best chance, both as individuals and as a species, to reflect on our borrowed lives.


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