As a philosophy professor, I rarely shy from speaking about our mortality with my students. I regularly lecture on Existentialism, and next semester I will teach “The Philosophy of Death” for the second time. While discussing death has been par for the course, with the COVID-19 pandemic, our conversations have hit closer to home. In March, our deaths and those of loved ones seemed to loom further on the horizon. Having taught students who became ill or lost family members to the virus, I now realize that we live with a heightened sense of life’s fragility.
With the rollout of the vaccine, comes the hope that life will return to normalcy. Yet the wounds of suffering and death will linger beyond the end of the pandemic. I wonder, what lessons can we learn from the tragedy of 2020?
Before my university’s transition to online learning, we covered the canonical writings of Leo Tolstoy, William James, Albert Camus, and Victor Frankl on life’s meaning. More than anything, James helped me cope during this pandemic and promises a lesson to retain in the new year.
My last in-person lecture covered James’ 1895 address to the Harvard YMCA: “Is Life Worth Living?” A philosopher and psychologist, he tackles this question from a faith-based perspective. One of his central ideas is that beyond the visible world, there may lie an unseen order that would resolve the contradictions we behold in life: beauty and ugliness, good and evil, birth and death. According to him, we ought to embrace the possibility of a wider realm that would provide significance to our suffering. What proof do we have that such a realm exists? While we cannot have any hard evidence of its reality, he offers an image worth taking to heart. Faced with the necessity of leaping over a dangerous pass on a mountain, you are more likely to find your footing if you muster the confidence to leap, rather than waste time asking yourself whether you can land safely. Taking a leap of faith lends us the courage to persist despite life’s tragic aspects.
During the pandemic, I have leaned on James’ image of determination. Since I have been spared direct suffering, I have redoubled my commitments to the activities and people that give my life meaning. When I sit down to prepare my lecture notes, the anticipation of philosophical conversations with my students helps me go on. But, more than anything, their perseverance in the face of illness, lost jobs, and death has taught me what resilience looks like. Their resolve to pursue their education and come to terms with their suffering drives me as a teacher and as a person.
James also reminds us to honor those who have sacrificed themselves in pursuit of a better world:
“Are we not bound to take some suffering upon ourselves, to do some self-denying service with our lives, in return for all those lives upon which ours are built?”
He believes that anyone of “a normally constituted heart” will have the honor to carry on the struggles of their predecessors since their lives are built on them. For James, we are not isolated individuals, but rather embedded in a collective history that should motivate us to live. We have a duty, he would insist, to commemorate those who died in the pandemic.
James concludes his lecture with these words:
“Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
In the end, we are left with two choices: to believe or not to. The advantage of choosing to believe is pragmatic: we may never be sure that life is worth living, but believing that it is so will bolster our resolve to live. During the last face-to-face lecture, I joked that James leaves us with a “maybe” regarding life’s worthwhileness. Many students smiled and some laughed at this conclusion. Yet I emphasized that we should be inspired by his wisdom. It is up to us to create meaningful lives — especially in the face of adversity.
Tragic events — wars, famines, and pandemics — have ravaged humanity for ages. Yet we have always found reasons to live even in the worst of circumstances. We have said yes to life countless times: after massive natural disasters, after genocides, and even after setting off the atom bomb. The pandemic may not compare to the worst tragedies in human history, but many of us, especially from younger generations, have felt a sense of despair unlike any that we had experienced in our lifetimes.
How can we learn the crisis of meaning that the novel coronavirus triggered? James would enjoin us not to waste time deliberating about whether life is worth living, but strive to make it so. We should resist questioning life’s meaning in the midst of tragedy. Instead, we are questioned by life and must meet the challenges placed on us.
In 2020, we were summoned by the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic to fight for the survival of our communities, our livelihoods, and our democracies. With the relief the vaccine will bring, let us honor the tireless work of nurses, doctors, and first responders on the frontlines, as well as our homegrown contributions to provide those in need with masks, to donate our money to those who lost their jobs, and to buoy morale. Let us carry on these efforts. Let us remember those we lost and build on their legacies. I am not certain what the future holds for us, but I hope the humanity we embodied will shape us for years to come.