When I read history, I’m always just a little stunned with the sheer amount of death. I always wonder: how did the average person think about death when it could come so swiftly, so suddenly, and without warning? What was it like with no antibiotics, no vaccines, or living in times where there was more or less a constant state of war or lawlessness?
Almost as far back as we can track, a child had roughly a 4 in 10 chance of dying before the age of five, a state which only really began to change about a hundred years ago. If you were a parent through most of human history, the chances of your kids living to be your age were little better than a coin flip.
I spent my morning today digging around the internet for the statistics and the stories, and one piece I came across was this account of early colonial America:
Death reached into all corners of life, striking people of all ages, not just the old. In the healthiest regions, one child in ten died during the first year of life. In less healthy areas, like Boston, the figure was three in ten. Cotton Mather, the famous Boston minister, had 14 children. Seven died in infancy and just one lived to the age of thirty.
With all this death, surely people must have had greater comfort with it than we do in modern times. But it’s not clear that’s the case.
In the account of colonial America, the author explains the usual Puritan view, regarding death as God’s punishment for human sinfulness. Puritan ministers apparently “terrorized young children with graphic descriptions of Hell and the horrors of eternal damnation,” and told them that their parents would testify against them at the Last Judgement. As if scaring the kids could somehow prevent them from catching influenza, measles, or scarlet fever.
In another account, from David McCullough’s newest book, The Pioneers, I read about the grief of an Ohio settler after their own child’s death. I thought, how common must this have been? Everywhere you turned, people were dying, many of them kids, usually from a virus or an infection. The Spanish Flu in 1918-1919 killed 50 million people.
A few weeks ago I rewatched Lincoln with the kids, a wonderful movie that is mostly about politics. But this time I was struck by the profound grief on display. Lincoln lost his 11-year-old son Willie to typhoid while Lincoln was in office. Lincoln’s wife, Mary, shut herself in her room for three weeks, unable to attend the funeral or look after their other son. “Mrs. Lincoln’s grief is inconsolable,” wrote Mary’s seamstress, a former slave who became her confidant. Lincoln himself was also reportedly overcome: “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth… It is hard, hard to have him die!” Lincoln said.
It wasn’t even the first child they had lost. Twelve years earlier, just a few months after Willie had been born, the Lincolns had lost their son Edward to what was likely thyroid cancer. He was three years old.
I have one son. I can’t even begin to comprehend the pain of losing two.
Perhaps it’s not that people had a greater comfort with death than we do now, but rather they were more used to grief, if that is something one can ever get used to.
Comfort with life
A few years ago I read an op-ed by some French writer - I can’t remember his name or where I saw it - in which he wrote that the goal of modern Western societies was zero deaths.
This observation struck me as both true and deeply misplaced. The goal of societies should be something like the enablement of a good life. The piece reminded me of Atul Gawande’s extraordinary book Being Mortal, about end of life care. Gawande wrote that we are so concerned with preventing death, we have all but stopped asking people how they wish to live. End of life care is profoundly broken in this country for a number of reasons, but perhaps the chief one is that we are simply uncomfortable discussing those kinds of things. We don’t want to admit that a person may be dying, so we do everything in our power to keep them alive.
What we must do, Gawande writes, is ask the elderly, or anyone who is terminally ill or dying, what a meaningful life means to them. Perhaps it’s being able to eat chocolate, or watch football, or play with their kids, or read a book. If we take any kind of responsibility for our loved ones, we need to know these things about them before we can decide under what circumstances it’s worth it to extend life.
The same principle really applies to everyone, not just to the sick and dying. We say that each individual life is sacred, precious, and worthy. But we spend little time working through what a meaningful life really is. It’s the old moral problem: would you let one person die to save ten? What if that person was Lincoln? Or Maurice Hilleman, who invented the MMR vaccine? Or Norman Borlaug, “father of the Green Revolution,” who averted the starvation of hundreds of millions.
Any answer that treats all lives as exactly, equally precious is ignoring some pretty knotty moral problems.
In the modern era, we’ve simply done a shitty job of answering the question, what makes for a meaningful life? In the U.S., we mainly worship money and wealth, and we have economists whose life work consists mainly of arguing for the moral good of pursuing profit at all costs.
Jim Harrison, one of my favorite authors, wrote: “The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.”
And right he is.
So, here is another explanation for how those people in earlier times coped with so much death: perhaps they were not pissing away their life on nonsense. Perhaps they were engaged in meaningful work — not bullshit jobs — and so they knew what they were living for. They were settling the West, or fighting a war, or exploring the world, or spreading the Gospel. Whatever it was, their purpose was clear (granted, the grand projects of human history almost always cause suffering to others, but self-delusion about individual, collective, or national virtue is a post for another day).
As several writers before me have noted, one of the major problems with the coronavirus pandemic is that it exhorts us to stay home, do nothing, watch Netflix, and separate from each other. History shows that societies often come together around collective traumas, but it’s not clear this particular trauma will have that same effect.
The analogies we keep reaching for are World War II or, increasingly, The Great Depression. At Dunkirk, the goal of the British army was survival so that they could go on to defeat evil. But it’s not clear to me what the goal of survival is now beyond the extension of life for its own sake.
Like those in Gawande’s book, we should be asking more questions about what it means to live, rather than how we can not die.
Rather than look forward to the day when we can all get back to being good consumers and capitalists, we should be taking this time in lockdown to ask ourselves a different question: how can we make sure we are living a meaningful life, so that the next time death comes knocking, for one of us or for many, we can meet it with some degree of confidence that we have actually lived well.