Making Life Worth Living in a Pandemic | Opinion

This past Sunday, as we do every Hanukkah, my family went on a little trip to a zoo. The kids were especially excited about going; we had to cancel our last planned excursion when one of them—and then my wife—came down with COVID, confining us to our home.

The last time I had driven those roads was back in April. As an early COVID survivor, I was part of the effort to provide convalescent plasma for people still ill. Back then, I drove empty highways, passed barren parking lots of shuttered shopping malls, and stopped in deserted rest stops. Nobody else was out.

The contrast between how the roads looked then and how they look now could not have been starker. Streets have volume and traffic, shopping malls are full, and rest stops buzzed with activity.

When we got to the zoo, the same held true. It was filled with people taking advantage of the beautiful weather before a forecasted storm.

I would venture to say that none of these people were unaware of the current COVID situation, whether in their town, state or across the country. With every passing day, we are inundated with stories of increasing cases, filled hospitals and death counts that seem to set new records with every report. Some cable news channels refuse to let people stop thinking about the pandemic for even a second, insisting on keeping every horrible number in a frame on the screen—as though their actual programming was only secondary to the rising body count.

Nobody can ignore it.

And yet, for the most part, people keep on keeping on. Their lives need to be lived, and if people have learned anything from this experience, it is that they will need to carry on with normal life as best they can.

And that, I think, is the critical point here. In all these places, I did not see people acting "irresponsibly" beyond carrying on with their lives. Everyone I saw, whether in the zoo, at the rest stops or in the shopping mall we stopped at on the way, was doing their best to adhere to whatever guidelines the public health experts have given us.

What they are not willing to do anymore, it seems, is continue the open-ended put-your-lives-on-pause routine until their betters—who can afford to do so—tell them it is okay to resume their lives.

These are not the actions of COVID denialists, as much as the loudest and shrillest voices on cable news and Twitter want to insist they are. These are the actions of realists. Whether after careful deliberation or even intuitively, these people know there is more to life than just staying alive and that living life means assuming some risk.

These are the actions of Americans.

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People wearing masks walk in Central Park as the sky clears following a snow storm on December 17, 2020 in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty

They bring to mind the words one highly regarded 39-year-old lawyer spoke when he rose to address the Second Virginia Convention. The atmosphere was charged, as the delegates had gathered to debate and discuss what approach to take when dealing with the "Mother Country."

Doing anything would carry risks. People would inevitably die when the British reacted to whatever the convention decided to do. I am sure they made passionate arguments about the sacrifices necessary to maintain peace and save lives. Many, I suspect, aimed to ensure the British would not kill anyone if the convention did something which seemed to invite war.

But we do not remember those arguments. We remember the words of Patrick Henry—one of our Founding Fathers—when he proposed several resolutions to establish a militia and adopt a "posture of Defence."

"I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided," Henry passionately declared, "and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past." And then, after clearly laying out the lessons of their recent past, he wrapped up with the words that would ultimately carry the day and remain with us as one of America's defining mantras:

What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

I can only imagine how that era's version of lockdown obsessives might have reacted. I am sure they existed—after all, Henry's resolutions only passed by a narrow margin. He continually and ardently refers to their hesitancy to adopt his approach throughout the speech.

But the Founders ultimately recognized that it is not enough to just stay alive. For life to have meaning, it needs to be worth living. And what that means—by definition—is that we must take some risks and make some sacrifices. Think about it—if your life as lived is not worth any chance of dying for, is it worth living for?

Are we just running out the clock? What sort of existence is that? No wonder the projections for deaths of despair due to COVID keep rising, well beyond 150,000.

While this risk-averse approach has come to typify the way we first approached COVID, it is the spirit of America that will ultimately pull us out of it. Operation Warp Speed invested billions of dollars in R&D and scaled up vaccine production before knowing whether any would be approved (more than 90 percent of vaccine candidates typically fail). It also implemented the simultaneous review of different phase trials data—condensing the process considerably. That is one example of just what America is about. Bold risk-taking and the acknowledgement of inevitable cost made it possible to get to a vaccine so quickly from a point when many experts derided it as an impossibility. And it is what drives people in how they are acting even today.

That is what America is about. Lecturing them about cost won't get them to stop. They know that living their lives is not without cost. They are as guided by the lamp of experience as Patrick Henry was before them.

And like him, they are making a choice. They choose to put it all on the line for a life worth living—even with the chance of dying.

Eli Steinberg lives in New Jersey with his wife and five children. They are not responsible for his opinions, which he has been putting into words over the last decade, and which have been published across Jewish and general media. You can tweet the hottest of your takes at him @HaMeturgeman.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.