One of my favorite lines in literature comes from Pete Dexter’s novel, Train, when the shop-worn boxer Plural comments, “The world is a hungry place, man. And whatever kind of thing you is, there’s something out there that likes to eat it. It’s natural. That’s how the world keeps tidy.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Plural’s philosophy recently, with COVID-19 here trying to tidy our mess up a bit. Situations like these are humbling moments, confronted with how powerful and frightening our universe can be. We use our religions and medical science to battle that power and to help calm the fears, but when we occasionally come across adversaries like this, for which we have no personal defense other than a waiting game of hiding and retreat, which even then will still stalk us from directions we cannot anticipate, scientific knowledge and material comfort only provide so much support.
Ten or twelve years ago we had another flu pandemic, one that took my cousin, Tony. He was in his young fifties, and his hobbies were cycling and playing the guitar. Tony was healthy except for having been injured in a biking accident that led to knee surgery. There were complications with how the knee was healing that might have compromised his immune system that allowed the virus a foothold into his body. But this is only a medical, scientific, explanation, which does not answer the larger, more painful existential questions about why Tony had to go. The kind of questions that lead to answers we don’t like to think about much until we are forced to at times like these, the kind of answers that tell us the world is often looking for a way to shorten the time we hope to have been granted in this world.
Tony was the first of the people I grew up with to die. I realize how fortunate I have been to live for fifty years before those I love start dying, but that doesn’t make the moment of the death any easier to bear. One day Tony is waiting for his knee to heal so he can begin riding his bike again, and five days later he is no longer breathing. Life can turn on a dime.
My wife has asthma and COPD, and in recent years has had Whooping Cough and multiple bouts of pneumonia. COVID-19 attacks the respiratory system, and if she were to contract this virus she would be in a bad way. My wife doesn’t leave the house, and has been apprehensive about me “bringing something home” from work or the gym.
I am healthier than her and even though I am in my 60s, the chances of me being affected adversely are probably small. Less unlikely, though, is the chance I could contract the virus and not know it, but pass it along to her. I’ve been thinking about an analogy, realizing the chances of an ocean swimmer being attacked by a shark are very remote, but that once you have been bitten, it doesn’t matter anymore what the odds were against it happening in the first place.
If my wife were to become sick, that would most certainly be on me, which would be even more difficult to live with than just living without her. So, I am now hunkered down in the house, too, waiting for this assault to end.
Once death begins visiting your world, your attitude towards life changes. You understand how transitory our existence is, and how unimportant we are, really. This humbles us in ways that are not only necessary to continue living, but are beneficial, as well. Triage, when practiced in the emergency room, is a forced form of culling. A terrible thing to think about, and I hope it doesn’t come to that. But, in situations like this, we will also engage in a little triage of the heart. We come to understand who and what is most precious to us, and even why. We should all be thankful for this understanding, maybe even more so for the price at which it comes.
Being here is not our right. Life is a gift we are given. And the threat of that gift being taken away, not necessarily from us but more importantly from those we love and then would have to live without, puts us in our place.
I am not a religious man, but if there is a purpose to life, moments like this provide a hint to what that purpose might be.
PUBLISHER NOTE: I heartily recommend that you buy this book, written by Sharp, “Punching from the Shadows.”
Need more Sharp? Check out this episode of the Everlast “Talkbox” podcast, featuring Sharp talking about this book, and life as a whole.