Sir Thomas Browne wrote in “Urn Burial”: “The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying.” It’s an aphorism I love, because it’s applicable to so much more than life and death. The long habit of (so many things) indisposeth us for (being unable to keep doing them). We love our habitual ways of doing things, and we feel unhappy and even outraged when we can’t go on doing them.
We’ve been lucky in our slice of time to live in, in the sense that it hasn’t included terrorizers at the level of World War II or the 1918 flu. It hasn’t been all roses and lollipops, but compared to Holocausts and global pandemics, we’ve gotten off lightly. We’ve had a long habit of not experiencing a mass die-off, and it indisposeth us for experiencing it.
We don’t have a habit of expecting catastrophe, we’re not used to it, and what we’re not used to feels not just bad or scary but unfair. We haven’t had to live through mass-scale catastrophe—except those of us who have, people who survived horrors in Somalia, Guatemala, Iraq—people on whom Donald Trump would like to close the borders.
I find myself wanting to consult people who went through it in the past, from plagues and famines to massacres and wars. In particular I want diaries, because they are written as the catastrophe unfolds, without knowledge of how they will end. They are written as the catastrophe is lived, the way this one is being lived. Anne Frank’s diary is one obvious choice; a less obvious one is Frances Partridge’s A Pacifist’s War. Partridge was one of the Bloomsbury group, a friend of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey and the rest. She held a strong belief that it’s unjustifiable to force young men to be killed for the benefit of everyone else; she stuck to her belief even when the only alternative was Nazi rule. Her consistency, however, did not make the Nazis’ early successes any less terrifying to her.
On April 3, 1940, after several paragraphs about a weekend visitor, spring flowers, a phone call with a friend, and the arrival of a guest, she writes:
Shopping in Hungerford. Mr. Barnet, the greengrocer, was full of what sounded like wild rumours of Hitler having annexed Denmark and being now in Copenhagen. But it was quite true. We were jerked back into the war like fish that have forgotten for a bit that they are on the end of a hook. We drove home deeply disquieted, and for the rest of the day the wireless was dominant. For the second time the war is coming nearer, looming up large and threatening. Air-raids, invasion, refugees—one’s whole body reacts with a taut restlessness … .
I’ve read that passage before, more than once, but not with the shock of recognition I did this time. I don’t recall pausing to think about what it must have felt like and the implications of what it must have felt like.
I did this time. My parents lived their version of that being jerked back into the war. So did my aunts and uncles, and some of my cousins, and my friends’ parents and relatives, and all their friends and relatives. Everyone of the previous generation did. I don’t recall thinking about that much as a child, either. That was the past, it was before I was born, it was black-boxed. I had no real emotional access to it.
Now, though, I am thinking about it. Contemplating a narrowed, confined, frightening future with mass casualties, or being one of the mass casualties, I realize how insulated we’ve been, those of us in the relatively prosperous parts of the world. (People in Ukraine and China and Darfur could tell us a thing or two about mass casualties, were they alive to do so.) We’ve had decade after decade with no global wars or pandemics, only localized wars and epidemics we could register from a distance. That distance is over and it now seems strange to me how easy it was to feel secure.
Currently a vast swarm of locusts is invading East Africa, destroying the crops that millions of people depend on for survival, and since August 2018 an Ebola outbreak in northeastern Congo has infected more than 3,400 people and killed over 2,200. We in the luckier parts of the world were barely noticing; now we’re joining the lists of plague deaths.
It is a matter of luck what kind of long habit of living people get to have. Location and date of birth can shield or expose. From that point of view we could see Donald Trump as The Revenge of the War Generation—he is the ultimate spoiled lucky privileged Boomer. Okay, Boomers, you had your many decades of safety, so now you have to watch the ultimate profiteer spectacularly fail to maintain it.
But at least we don’t have to worry that he is distracted by such rarefied ethical reflections. On Sunday, March 29, the United States had 139,262 cases of coronavirus and deaths stood at 2,445. That day the president used his well-worn Twitter account to share a passage from the New York Times:
President Trump is a ratings hit. Since reviving the daily White House briefing Mr. Trump and his coronavirus updates have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable news, roughly the viewership of the season finale of “The Bachelor.” Numbers are continuing to rise. On Monday, nearly 12.2 million people watched Mr. Trump’s briefing on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, according to Nielsen—“Monday Night Football” numbers. Millions more are watching on ABC, CBS, NBC and online streaming sites, and the audience is expanding. On Monday, Fox News alone attracted 6.2 million viewers for the president’s briefing—an astounding number for a 6 p.m. cable broadcast, more akin to the viewership for a popular prime-time sitcom. The CBS News poll said 13 percent of Republicans trusted the news media for information about the virus.
Some people worry, others kick back and enjoy the excitement.