Another insight we may eventually discover from our experience of the pandemic will come from the incomprehensible numbers of deaths, staggering figures of lives lost despite the care many of us took to follow safety guidelines, to wear masks and wash hands and stay distant and not touch those we loved. Even with those efforts made day in and day out for months on end, many, too many, died.
A popular art trend in the Middle Ages involved tucking into a painting or sketch the image of a skull. Called memento mori, “remember you will die,” the trend was intended to provide a kind of wakeup call for those contemplating the painting. Remembering that death was always present and could strike at any time, a person was likely to make better choices and avoid the foolish choices we seem prone to make when we mistakenly believe we have all the time in the world.
The pandemic has perhaps been another version of the memento moritheme, a reminder we needed as we have increasingly gone our merry way living with the assumption that we might, just might, avoid death if we played our cards right. Our culture encourages this assumption by dangling before us images of unlimited wealth and health, by hiding the elderly and dismissing them as useless, by offering options that make us look and feel young.
As the pandemic settled in, many shifted from easy, even carefree ways of being in the world to the opposite position of being intensely risk-averse and hypercautious. Everything became unsafe; no precautions were ever quite enough. Seeing someone else engaged in behavior that might expose or transmit the virus often prompted outrage, the level of outrage that greets well-known risks like leaving guns lying around or drinking and driving. My neighbor was transformed into a threat to avoid, not a fellow human to care about and connect with. Only online interactions seemed truly safe.
Now, as more are vaccinated and restrictions relaxed, we appear split between those who continue to be cautious and those throwing caution to the winds. Yet our memento moriexperience is still unfolding, as deaths from the coronavirus continue. Whether we will ultimately have learned that we actually are mortal, that we are not unlimited creatures who will go on forever, and then use that perspective to make wiser choices, remains to be seen. Individuals who have some sort of near-death experience often drastically change their lives, using that encounter with death to love more fully and live more mindfully. I am hoping that we might collectively, after our pandemic near-death experience, do likewise.