Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Death, Taxes, and Coronavirus

 “I am inevitable.”


Thus spake Thanos, near the end of Avengers: Endgame.


“And I am Iron Man,” replied Tony Stark, in a fitting phrase pregnant with many movie meanings.


For the record, I’m with Iron Man—both in general, and in confronting Covid-19.


That is, I think we should each continue to use the best of our wit, wisdom, innovation, and technology to push back against the virus, with a major goal being the saving of as many lives as we can, even if it means great sacrifices for ourselves as individuals.


And yet.


And yet, to do what I think we should, we have to reckon with…inevitability.  


Or rather, many particular inevitabilities.


But which ones? And how?


Well, two standard so-called inevitabilities are death and taxes. 


And coronavirus has not eliminated them, but it has reminded us how inevitable they are, and how deeply people disagree with one another about how to deal with them.


Still, my post here is not a “the sky is falling!” piece, but a “take a deep breath since there is common ground here” piece.


Reckoning with inevitabilities typically involves two steps: 


Step 1, identify the inevitabilities. 


Step 2, deal with them.


Easier said than done, of course.  Even Doctor Strange, who eventually reckoned with inevitability when confronting possible futures (“…there was no other way”), began with utter cluelessness (when warned “Thanos is coming!” Strange asked “…who?”).  


But I mention the steps because I think them distinct, but inter-related.


And  I think we constantly engage in both of these steps with any number of so-called “inevitabilities” at any given moment, whether deliberating individually or with others.


And this partly explains some of our tension, and even angst, as individuals and groups: we do not know which step we should be working on at a given moment on a given issue.


For example (to take just one example dealing with death): you may know exactly how you want to “deal with” the upcoming death of a beloved relative in a certain way (namely “be sure you try to see them and hug them one last time, or at least talk to them virtually!”) but you may not know whether it’s inevitable that they are going to die this month. Step 2 is in place, but Step 1 is not.


For another example (to take just one example dealing with taxes): you may know that it’s inevitable that the tax revenues this year are going to be far less than they were expected to be, but you may not know how you are going to “deal with it”. Step 1 is in place, but Step 2 is not.


I suppose each of us can pick plenty of examples with this coronavirus, depending on what month (or day) it is, and depending on what role (or roles) we are focusing on—here is just one picked from a headline I saw back in June:


Fauci says second wave is 'not inevitable' as coronavirus cases climb in some states


At this point some of you may be asking, why again is this not a “the sky is falling” piece?


Here’s why: forget about coronavirus for a second, and assume step 1 identifies the inevitabilities of death and taxes from the title of this post. 


Maybe death and taxes are inevitable in simple ways: everyone dies, and everyone pays taxes; or at least death and taxes will always be with us as a species.


Still, step 2 asks us to “deal with” these.  How?


I think we all can agree that an awful, callous way to deal with these as inevitabilities is the way of King Herod’s tax collectors in the script for The Nativity Story:

[Collector]: Take this man's animal...

and one-third of his land

to be seized...

for the continued good

of Herod's kingdom.

[Villager]: Please, if I don't have enough land, my...

[Collector:] What? What,

you and your family will die?

All of us must die.

Some sooner than others. Move.


Here we have a fictional portrayal of an all-too-factual way that we humans have treated each other, and, sadly, are tempted to treat each other still today.


As readers of this blog may recall, I’m not a big fan of Herod. But you don’t have to be named Herod to be tempted towards a callous attitude towards others, as 2020 has reminded us once or twice.


Fortunately, there are also ways of remaining decent, and even virtuous, towards one another, even in difficult situations--like Joseph and Mary were in the rest of The Nativity Story.  


Again, it’s a fictional portrayal, but it reflects a fact that, to echo Stephen Pinker, we are capable of responding to the better angels of our nature.


As readers of this blog may remember, I’m a pretty big fan of Mary and Joseph. But you don’t have to be named Mary or Joe in order to (here echoing Bill and Ted) be excellent to each other.


So, then: a common ground approach we have here, whether with death, taxes, or Covid-19, is that it remains possible—indeed, inevitable—that individuals still have some degree of choice in whether we will be excellent to each other.


Sure, death is inevitable. But each of us can be like Iron Man.

Russell DiSilvestro

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State