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COVID-19 is a cruel reminder of the human condition

By Monte Bute | 05/12/2020

“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, “because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” Welcome to the United States.

first principle of the American creed is that world is redeemable. We
believe that we are exempt from the constraints of the human condition. I
disagree. As Albert Camus suggests: We are Sisyphus.

their faith, ideology or party, most Americans are utopians. Since the Puritans
washed ashore and John Winthrop foresaw “a city upon a hill,” the American
experiment has been a perfectionist project, an exceptional escape from nature
and history. No matter if you believe in free markets, a welfare state,
democratic socialism or anarchism, your agenda is grounded upon an unshakable
faith in human perfectibility and the inevitability of creating a heaven on

Awash in cognitive dissonance

so often, a calamity of such magnitude occurs that it shakes the foundations of
our taken-for-granted reality. COVID-19 is such a moment. The United States is
awash in cognitive dissonance: Our illusion is that America is redeemable, that
the Promised Land is just around the corner; the truth is that we are embedded
in nature and history, tossed about by their unpredictable vicissitudes.

Monte Bute

Monte Bute

“The world is a hellish place,” said singer-songwriter Tom

In all
societies, power struggles between groups are ubiquitous and perennial. The
powerful are predators who prey upon the vulnerable — they always have, and
they always will. In all environments, natural and human-made calamities are
ubiquitous and perennial. No amount of Shangri-La prophylactics will shield us
from injustice and cruelty, from death and destruction.

acknowledge this is not a brief for quietism; by no means does unblinkered
realism absolve us from acting against suffering, cruelty, and injustice.
Nevertheless, we are Sisyphus, forever condemned to push the rock of
righteousness up the mountain, only to see it roll back down, perpetually. The
world is not redeemable.

what if we have it all wrong? What if redemption is not a “forever after”
thing? Perhaps it is more like extended epiphanies, interludes in which we
transcend our mundane lives.

Redemptive moments

sure, communities do not experience forever-after redemptions; nevertheless,
they do have redemptive episodes. Throughout history, exemplary communities
have stood up against pestilences, disasters, and social catastrophes like war,
human slavery, ethnic cleansing, and climate change. Regrettably, too often
these redemptive communities have faced unresponsive dominant communities and
nation states. In this time of COVID-19, our essential workers are redemptive
communities, inspiring the rest of us to listen to our better angels, ignoring
the shrill voices of our demons.

During this plague, the selfless acts of courage rise to a heroic level when speaking of health care workers, first responders, transit workers, and workers in essential industries. At a more prosaic level, we must not overlook a contagion of kindness, the millions of small acts of care and compassion that emerge like blades of spring grass. Amidst all the death and destruction, this too is a redemptive moment in American history.

Still, Camus closes “The Plague” with a cautionary note:

the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final
victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done, and what would
assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror
and relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who,
while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their
utmost to be healers.”

world remains a hellish place. It cries out for our attention. We must create
what Martin Luther King Jr. called “beloved communities” who answer those pleas
by pushing the rock of righteousness toward the peak, acting against suffering,
cruelty, and injustice. I am one with Camus: “The struggle itself toward the
heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must
imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Bute teaches sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University in
St. Paul.