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Rediscovering human mortality in an epidemic

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 02, 2022

Say this much for the past two wretched years: The epidemic has reawakened our understanding of human frailty. And that’s a very good thing.

By now we all realize that you can do all the right things to protect yourself, and still come down with a case of Covid. (For my purposes here, it doesn’t matter whether you think doing “the right things” means having the latest vaccine boosters and wearing a mask, or dosing yourself with ivermectin and zinc and vitamin D. Neither regime will make you invulnerable.) Try as we might, we can never be entirely free from the risk of disease.

That realization has implications that go beyond the current epidemic. Sooner or later each one of us will succumb to some injury or disease.

  • You might eat a healthy diet, exercise diligently, follow all your doctor’s orders—and still contract cancer.
  • You might drive defensively, wearing your seatbelt—and still be rammed head-on by a drunk driver.
  • You might equip your home with smoke-detectors and sprinklers and burglar alarms and bulletproof windows—and still be struck by lightning when you step outside to pick up the newspaper.

Unpredictable things happen. Prudent behavior can cut down on your risks, but never eliminate them.

And even if you avoid accidents and injuries and diseases, by the grace of God (since your own efforts will never be sufficient), eventually your own body will betray you. You will notice, as the years roll past, that various body parts are no longer functioning properly. They were not made to last forever.

The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or even by reason of strength fourscore;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Modern science and nutrition have extended our life expectancy a bit, but the Psalmist’s fundamental point remains. We are flawed beings, living in a flawed world.

Recently I have been reading Charles Taylor’s very important book, A Secular Age. Toward the end of the tome, Taylor analyzes some of the modern schools of secular thought that suggest human nature could be perfected, if only… And of course at that point the different theories diverge. But all of them will ultimately prove unsatisfactory, because human nature cannot be perfected—at least not in this life. The missing ingredient in all these theories is a recognition of Original Sin.

Marx may convince you that human misery is caused by the dialectical progression of economic forces and the exploitation of the working class by capitalists. But overthrow the capitalists and establish a new regime guided by Marxist theory, and the misery continues (in fact deepens). Freud may persuade you that your unhappiness is due to some childhood trauma, but if you were traumatized, you cannot eliminate that experience from your life story. More recent popular authors promise, in their myriad different ways, to unlock your full potential. But follow all their advice and you still feel unsatisfied. You do all “the right things,” according to the latest theories, and yet you remain conscious of your own weakness, your failures, your vulnerabilities.

And—I repeat—that’s a good thing. Because to recognize the weakness of human nature—more particularly, of your nature—is to take a crucial first step toward active religious faith. When we place our faith in ourselves, in the belief that we can somehow perfect our nature, and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, we are destined to fail; we are building on a cracked foundation. A clear recognition of human weakness disabuses us of the notion that we are the solution to all the world’s problems—even that we are the solution to our own personal problems. At that point we are ready to look for other solutions, for solutions outside the scope of human wisdom and experience: for faith.

You do all “the right things” and still you fail. That realization is depressing if you persist in thinking that you could eventually find an earthly solution to all earthly problems. Because you can’t.

Walker Percy, another acute observer of human nature, wrote of two personality types: the blue jay and the bluebird types. The blue-jay type is an activist; he believes that he can have everything he wants in life if he fights for it. Meanwhile the passive bluebird type is wishing and hoping and praying and waiting for the bluebird of happiness to bring him his heart’s desires. Both types are doomed to disappointment. True happiness cannot be gained by fighting for it or by wishing for it.

We are flawed creatures. But we are not hopeless creatures—unless we mistakenly pin all our hopes on our flawed selves. When we realize that our lives on earth will never be fully satisfactory, we are poised on the brink of the next realization: that human nature is not designed to be fully satisfied in this life—that “our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” When we recognize that we cannot perfect ourselves, we are ready to listen to the Word of the One who can bring us to perfection.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: chady - Feb. 07, 2022 12:47 PM ET USA

    I came across this quote of St Madeline Sophie Barat - "We don't live among angels! We have to put up with our human nature and forgive it" The ramifications of her observation are very broad and need some quiet reflection to realise the depths of its wisdom.

  • Posted by: RoseMore - Feb. 04, 2022 9:14 PM ET USA

    The Word of the One who can bring us to perfection said "Ask and you shall receive". I have found that He means even these weaknesses, traumas, vulnerabilities... We must pin our hopes on our faith in His word.

  • Posted by: Montserrat - Feb. 03, 2022 11:57 AM ET USA

    Charles Taylor is a bit challenging for many of us, but if his work inspired this essay - ipsum bonum! As St. Teresa of Avila and others have taught, self-knowledge or awareness of our human weakness and proneness to sin, is essential to growth in the spiritual life. May our prayer life, and acts of mortification that lead us away from dependency on self to surrender to God, bring us to the kind of perfection (union with God) noted at the end of this essay,