H.P. Lovecraft got the scale wrong. The basis for his horror stories was the cosmic insignificance of humanity; he depicted beings from beyond our world not as friendly equals, or even hostile equals, but as looming monstrosities beyond our comprehension, whose indifference to humanity could be as deadly as their malevolence. Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors from beyond the stars are scary, but right now we fear the microscopic realm—At the Microbes of Madness or The Call of WuFlu.
Indeed, the microbial monsters killing us are a better example of the universe’s indifference to humanity than the alien terrors Lovecraft conjured up. His creations were usually conscious beings, albeit often in ways beyond human ken. In contrast, this coronavirus is as heedless of us as an erupting volcano or an asteroid hurled at our planet by the implacable laws of gravitation.
We inhabit an universe that, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, is full of hazards for humanity. Disaster, famine, and pestilence persist, despite our best efforts, and even as those best efforts have gotten better. Our technological prowess has enabled us to restrain and withstand some of the dangers of an uncaring cosmos, but this plague is a reminder of how little control we have, both individually and collectively.
That we are in for hard times no matter what we do has been difficult for some to accept. After all, the aim of the modern project has been to subdue nature in order to provide freedom and plenty. Its successes have dissolved the traditional sources of order and belonging that provided stability, meaning, and comfort amidst tribulation. The restraints of family, church, and community may seem unnecessary and even oppressive as technical mastery makes life less of a vale of tears.
This pandemic is a reminder that, for all our scientific capability, we are still finite, mortal beings buffeted by circumstances beyond our control. We are acting agents, but it is not given to us to control the cosmos, or even control very much on this ball of rock whose surface we inhabit. Our luxuries, comforts, and security can suddenly be taken from us, and so can our health and even our lives.
This is disquieting, and cuts against the sense of security we have come to view as our birthright. Thus, we are tempted to cling to exaggerated illusions of our own agency, which may motivate some of the more strident denunciations of politicians and complaints about the economic costs of our response. Of course, it is reasonable to assess the performance of our leaders and officials in a time of crisis, and to consider the economic costs of the steps we are taking to contain the virus. Officials from the president on down made mistakes in responding to the pandemic, and millions are losing their jobs as the economy tanks and business close, often under government orders.
Hence, there is a plenitude of if-onlys—if only we had a different president, far fewer people would be dying; if only we weren’t locking so much down, the economy wouldn’t be crashing.
Perhaps. But once the virus was loosed on the world, it was coming for us, no matter who was in office, and it was bringing hard times, no matter how we responded. The nature of American culture and politics all but assured that this plague would spread among us, and once it did the economy was inevitably going to take a huge hit. We are doing a great deal to try to slow and then stop this pandemic, but it will nonetheless be very deadly and costly.
Some people prefer the illusion of control to the grim truth that informed Lovecraft’s tales of terror, which is that dreadful things can befall us, and there may be little or nothing we can do about them. His monsters are only fantastical projections of the real dangers that threaten us—in this case, the fear of death lurking in every cough or handshake.
It is delusional to claim that a different politician would have saved us from the plague, or that there was a way to keep the economy humming along despite it. Wiser politicians and better responses would have mitigated the damage, and worse ones would have exacerbated it, but there was no avoiding this catastrophe once the virus got loose. Fantasies about a dictator saving us are just another form of illusion, as were some of the more optimistic speculations regarding the disease.
These are false comforts. As we enter an Easter season that may still feel like Lent, we are forced to contemplate what real consolation there may be. What might allow us to defy Lovecraft’s depiction of humanity adrift and imperiled in an uncaring cosmos?
The modern preachers of material progress would say that human mastery of nature is increasing and thereby enabling us to better withstand the slings and arrows of an indifferent universe—this plague may be bad, but it would have been even worse in the past! That is true, but it is small consolation to the dying, which we all are, eventually.
In contrast, those of us who are Christians, know that though the universe may not care, its Creator does. We can confront the inevitable darkness and suffering of this world with hope, rather than denial or resignation, for God became one of us that he might suffer with and for us, so that we may be raised to new life. Monsters and microbes may make this life Lenten, but the promise of Easter is still waiting beyond them.
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