Friday, May 01, 2009
On Trying to Find Meaning through Swine Flu
Why did our country go crazy over this recent out break of the dreaded swine/H1N1/Mexican/resort flu? Yes, the 24 hour news cycle contributed, but why would ordinary people run out and spend good money on fac masks they neither needed nor will likely ever use?
Why Are We Afraid of the Swine Flu?
Well, as the calendar turns to May from April, it seems that the Swine Flu (or Mexican Flu, or the Robot Flu, or whatever it is called today) is no longer a great threat to the world. Was it ever? And why do people panic so?
I live in the Rockrimmon neighbourhood in Colorado Springs, and this is an upper-middle class, educated neighbourhood. These are not irrational loonies. And yet on a recent trip to our neighbourhood Walgreens and Safeway both were completely out of face masks (I own a box already because of a family member with a reduced immune system). They had big signs in both places advising that they would not have any in within the forseeable future. So, our normal non-reactionary neighbourhood had gone on a face-mask binge because of the porcine influenza.
As a historian as well as a theologian I am well aware of the Spanish Influenza of 1918 that killed more people than World War I and especially the young. And of course there is the legend of the Black Death that played a huge role in changing Western civilization during the end of the Middle Ages (and probably contributed to the eventual downfall of the Byzantine Empire). So, I recognize that there is the potential for a population thinning disease. I still think that Outbreak, the film featuring Rene Russo, Dustin Hoffman and a young Cuba Gooding Jr. is one of the scariest films ever (Hugh Hewitt’s 15th hour of the week broadcast, the movies with Emmett the Unblinking Eye had the “Best 10 Films on Epidemics” and they panned Outbreak, but in our family it is definitely #1). And of course there was the 2007 film I am Legend, which again is scary not because of the fast moving quasi humans but because it has a certain plausibility to it.
But this was essentially the flu. We panicked quickly and fully over…the flu. Now, it could return in the Fall and be terrible, but we knew fairly quickly that this was nothing to worry about this time around and yet people across the nation pankiced.
Here is my theory on it. In a world without any life-and-death challenges, people will create ones just to feel “alive.” Why do so many people in the post-modern, fully industrialized West play hours of World of Warcraft? Why are there so many partakers of “extreme” sports? Because our lives lack and great and challenging opposition. Especially people who are not married and do not have kids, their lives are devoid of those circumstances that push us to grow-up, to test us to become our best, and draw us out of ourselves…even to become heroes.
And so we turn seemingly ordinary things into the settings of great trauma, of our own small apocalypse. Having survived this “brush with death” it makes us feel “more alive” or at least we hope so. Our lives move between “fear” and “control,” and in the end just lack meaning. Dennis Prager mentioned recently a new book The Path to Purpose. For people without any purpose in life they have to move from event to event seeking to find things that make them feel alive. But of course, it doesn’t work. World of Warcraft may be a great way to blow off steam and maybe really coming close to death with give you a great story, but it does not give you life and purpose.
And so I eagerly await the next thing that will be magnified in the hope that it will create a scenario where we feel like we are living on the edge, facing danger, challenged to be alive. Maybe it will the 2009 version of World of Warcraft?