The Existentialism of Pandemia: Washing Our Hands Is Now A Matter Of Life And Death

For thousands of years, philosophers have argued over the answers to questions such as “what is the meaning of life” and “what is my purpose” and “why am I here?” These are questions that come up rarely under normal circumstances, and usually accompany some larger event in one’s life: the birth of a child, the end of a career, or the death of a loved one. But recently, the Coronavirus has forced these questions into every smaller event of our daily lives. We cannot even leave our homes without confronting death. As a result, it is safe to say that we are now, collectively, in the midst of a mass existential crisis. During times like this in the course of human history, when entire civilizations face the prospect of annihilation, when entire cities sit in the apprehension of a coming cataclysm, it is appropriate to reflect back on our lives and ask ourselves what to make of it all.

Formulated the way they are, questions about the meaning and purpose of life are too vague and personal to provide reasonable answers, but they do serve as good starting points for more focussed investigations into the philosophical underpinnings of human life. Unfortunately, the term “existential crisis” has become common parlance for the experience many people have when they encounter these questions, but these questions do not always arise out of negative events like a global pandemic. In many cases, we may be jolted out of our routines by sheer boredom. Existential crises are common at the DMV. Children who are young enough to be free of verbal filters we adults acquire in order to keep ourselves sane can sometimes ask these questions without understanding what they truly mean. The classic “why” phase of toddler-hood is dangerous territory for anyone with the temerity to follow the halflings down into the depths of the human soul. At their incessant prompting, we can discover the grand truths of philosophy with glee and innocence.

But, of course, the word “crisis” is part of the phrase for a reason. It is when we confront our own mortality that we fully realize the peculiarity of being what we are. We are strange organisms: hairless, bipedal apes, surviving in a thin layer of gas on the crust of a molten rock spinning through a frigid void. We can harness the nuclear powers of the Sun and probe the smallest particles in nature. We are spectacular, abhorrent, virtuous, terrible, brilliant, and hopelessly naive. And above all, we are transient. Heidegger's contention that the essence of human existence is time, that human life is essentially the experience of the passage of time, echoes the Buddha’s insight two and a half thousand years prior and Heraclitus’ similar observation around the same time half a world away: that nothing is permanent, that the only constant is change, that to be human is to be in a state of flux. But the Heideggerian temporality also naturally implies the Sartrian rebuttal that, if impermanence is our essential nature, then our essence too must be subject to change. But if that is true, then we are nothing in particular, and our essential quality is nothingness. Or to put it another way, all that we are is raw existence. In Sartre’s view, we come into existence first, and insofar as we have agency, we create our own essence by living as we do. It is by living our lives that we become what we are.

Sartre’s existentialism implies a sort of responsibility for ourselves that we confront daily while living through this pandemic. It is there when we wash our hands for 20 seconds or when we make sure to cough into our elbows. One misstep and it could all be over. This constant state of existential vigilance can be called pandemia. Pandemia is triggered by a microscopic threat to our corpus. The recognition of the threat creates a collective shift in our phenomenological awareness of ourselves as mortal beings, and the crisis comes from the inability to escape this circumstance. We are trapped in our bodies and our lives, but also empowered to confront ourselves with radical honesty. To lie to ourselves that, yes, we did wash our hands well enough, when deep down we know that the truth is we probably missed a spot, is to commit a potentially fatal error. The necessity of such radical honesty in our interactions with the physical world is typical of pandemia.

Sartre preferred the example of standing on the edge of a cliff because of the ease with which such a position can bring on an existential moment, but in a state of pandemia, when existential moments are frequent and inescapable, the edge of a sink is just as consequential. Both situations force us to choose to live. Either you will step away from the cliff or you will step over it. Either you will wash your hands well enough, or you will not. Sartre pointed to these moments when we confront our own mortality as opportunities for radical transformation. It is up to us to continue being what we are. It is our responsibility to be a being that washes its hands for 20 seconds and coughs into its elbows. And it is in the act of doing these things that we become what we are. It is by living with intention, by exerting our will to wash our hands, that we can become authentically who and what we are.

Kierkegaard famously noted that, in these situations, we can mistakenly conclude that our own will serves some larger purpose, that our choices are playing a minor role in some larger cosmic tale. In examining the biblical conundrum posed by the story of Abraham and the binding of his son Isaac, Kierkegaard discovered the falsity of believing small actions like washing our hands have significance in some grand teleology. Even larger actions are free from superhuman purposes. At the moment of execution, as Abraham stood over his son with the knife in his hand as God had commanded him to do, not a single doubt crossed his mind as to the purpose of what he was about to do due to his unquestioning faith. Thankfully, God stayed his hand. But Kierkegaard decided to ask the question Abraham had not: granting that Abraham would have followed through had God not intervened, what purpose could such an act serve in God’s plan? Why would God force Abraham to do such a thing? Kierkegaard’s answer to the puzzle was as follows: humans are free because we are not tethered to a larger purpose. True faith and freedom come from embracing this profound absurdity in life. Such purposelessness, which Kierkegaard called The Absurd, is all there is.

Finally, we come to Camus. No exploration of the existential nature of life under pandemic conditions would be complete without a discussion of his masterwork, The Plague. At last in Camus, we find the culmination of the above considerations in the form of a fine-grained depiction of a town suffering under plague conditions. So much of this story is relatable to our current precarious situation that it is surprising to realize that Camus wrote it over 70 years ago. It is perhaps the most relevant literary work to the current moment in the entire Western canon.

There are too many insights from the book to select one for analysis here, but perhaps a note about the warped scale of heroism during plagues can add to the understanding of our humanity as we stand before the sink, about to wash our hands. In wars, the heroes are those who act valiantly in battle and are awarded medals. In plagues, the medical professionals are heroes, yes, but so too are you your own hero. In the face of a silent, all-consuming exterminator, that you wash your hands can save the lives of thousands. Even if no one remembers your act of heroism, it is no less diminished in scale when compared to the sheer volume of the destructive force the action counteracts. As Camus writes, “The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilences, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous. In the memories of those who lived through them, the grim days of plague do not stand out like vivid flames, ravenous and inextinguishable, beaconing a troubled sky, but rather like the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path.” 

As we don our goofy face masks and awkwardly maintain precisely 6 feet between each other in public, the absurdity of pandemia is undeniable. But for many of us, the serious side of this absurdity will (or has already) become more pressing when we feel the first symptoms, and realize that all of our handwashing did not save us. What is the point of all of that handwashing if, despite our best efforts, we contract the disease anyway? Camus, Kierkegaard, and Sartre can tell us. The point is that there is no point. We wash our hands because that is what we are: we are ‘beings that wash our hands.’ When we get the virus anyway, we simply become beings who ‘got the virus anyway.’

This may sound unsatisfactory, but the existentialists meant to show us how to live authentically. There is a deeper dissatisfaction in trying to live meaningful lives with purpose when the reality is that such purposes and meanings are not really what brings us faith or freedom. To live authentically, the Existentialists claim, means to take responsibility for ourselves, to embrace the absurdity of life, and to become who we are through making choices intentionally. When considered for its ethical wisdom, existentialism can stray into quasi-self-help proselytizing. But as a treatment for our angst, the grounding in ontology keeps us moving through the existential crisis of our daily lives toward a full realization of our potential. No matter what happens, whether we survive this pandemic or not, the lives we have lived so far are our own, and we do not need to (nor can we) look to any higher purpose or deeper meaning for justification of our existence. Our actions and our experience, such as they are, constitute our being. All we can do in this time of pandemia is continue to wash our hands well, and in doing so, achieve self-actualization. 

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