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A Matter of Life and Death, or: How Often Should I Wash My Hands

These past few days and weeks I have been thinking a lot about life and death. Most of us now spend a fair amount of time each day thinking about disease and how to prevent it. Whereas falling sick has always been part of life, we’ve never been told by Government to stay at home for a full four weeks. People transmit germs day in day out but never has this meant that we couldn’t go visit our whānau or friends. What on earth is happening? It made me wonder what our relationship to life, health, disease, and ultimately death is.

Life Is More Than Survival

At first glance, it seems very clear: The recently introduced measures are here to protect life and keep us safe. If we look a little closer this smooth facade starts showing a few cracks, though. What does it mean to be alive? Is it simply the surviving of the body or is there more to it? Hardly anyone believes that we can live without food, water, and shelter. Surely though, we want more from life than these bare necessities. We want a fulfilling job, thrilling movies, a holiday every now and then, and we want friends. Every person who’s ever been shivering with fear because during PE, as they were standing amongst an ever-decreasing number of kids waiting to be picked knows exactly what I’m talking about. So does anyone who’s ever looked at someone else’s social media profile and thought, why is everyone else except me having so much fun? We are social creatures and being alone, completely alone, would mean immediate death for most of us. How long could you fend for yourself in the bush? As humans, our strength lies in numbers. Life is more than survival. If we look to religion we find that life is eternal in the sense that it is equated with breath or spirit. It isn’t bound to the physical container but rather exists beyond the material. Life therefore is in everything and cannot be destroyed. Even from an atheist perspective the decay of a body isn’t the end of life. Other life forms feed on the remaining matter and carry on the fire of existence.

Living The Good Life

The French writer Michel Foucault described one of the more defining shifts of paradigm in recent history like this (in a tiny nutshell)1:

"The power of the rulers used to lie in the ability to let live and make die. This started to change in the 18th century. Power now governs by making life and letting people die."

In easier words: The ultimate demonstration of power used to be the death sentence. As long as people paid their taxes and obeyed the law the ones in charge weren’t too fussed about how their subjects led their day-to-day existence. In our modern Western world the death penalty is frowned upon – the US being the well-known exception – and, one might add, has become obsolete. Control is exerted in more subtle ways.

We aren’t so much afraid of being killed by the state anymore. We are afraid of not living the life we ought to.

Do I eat the right thing (think: gluten-free, sugar-free, raw, vegan desserts)? Do I use the right technology? Am I gay, straight, bisexual, or none of the above? What does that say about me? Do I wash my hands often enough? – All this while millions are left to starve. It almost seems like we’re obsessed with life – life narrowly defined as the space between birth and death. Have we lost the bigger picture? By saving individual lives at all cost (“Stay at Home!”) are we clinging to life not understanding that by doing so we strangle it until nothing but an empty shell remains? We are so concerned with not getting infected that we seem to forget that life without connection isn’t a life worth living. Loneliness kills.2 In fear we bring upon us what we seek to avoid: disease.

A Holistic Approach to Disease

Now, what’s disease? I suggest that part of the reason for how we’re dealing with this novel virus is that we see it (same as other diseases) as a unique phenomenon that’s separate from other factors like our economical or technological systems. We describe the virus as an antagonistic entity that threatens the health of the human population from the outside and needs to be brought under control if not eliminated. In this worldview health is defined as the absence of disease. Contrary to this, I offer you to accept disease as part of the human condition. By no means do I encourage you to neglect your health. I’m not saying that we should simply succumb to any illness that presents itself. Health and wellbeing are essential and I believe they are achieved when a person is able to live wholly, balanced. I wonder if isolating oneself is going to achieve that. To deal with the current situation we need a holistic approach that takes many processes and relationships into account. I believe this would prove much more helpful than the simple cause-effect explanation we’re offered now, and which goes somewhat like this:

The new flu strain known as COVID-19 is the single biggest threat to humanity since World War II; therefore it needs to be contained or eliminated by drastic measures. I wonder, isn’t COVID-19 just the tip of the iceberg? Don’t we all know that there are many other dangers lurking around the corner? That frightens me. But I also know that fear is only useful short-term to activate your inner superpowers. In the long run, keeping your calm will enable you to act with integrity and a light heart. That’s what we need now, especially when dealing with death.

Meeting Hine-nui-te-pō

As the virus is mostly deadly for older people who were the first ones to be asked to stay at home, I asked one of my friends over 75 why our elderlies seemed so scared of dying. He replied that he wasn’t scared of death but of being a burden for the health system. What a noble answer. I’m sure many feel like that. And yet, death isn’t talked about a great deal in our society. Another one of my friends over 70 reminded me that a few hundred years ago everyone had death sitting on their shoulder whereas now, we all expect to live until 80 at least. There isn’t anything wrong with that. I look forward to a few more decades myself. However, we don’t seem to be well prepared for what comes after or for what death means for our life. Considering our own mortality, what matters most in our life? One thing that I’ve become painfully aware of is that I already feel the shortage of hugs as a missing piece in my body. If we again take religion as a guide (not as gospel!) we might be able to feel that death isn’t the end but just another take on life. All we can do is to give it our best and everyone needs to know what that means for them. Let’s take these trying times as an opportunity to be humble in the face of the unknown and inevitable. I for my part want to meet Hine-nui-te-pō, the Goddess of Death, with a smile on my face.

Author: Nina Sobhani

View expressed in this blog are the views of the writer.

1 Michel Foucault: The History of Sexuality. The Will to Knowledge, 1976. 2

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