Something insidious has been happening in the West.
At the beginning it was hidden and unexpressed. But it soon came out in full force.
In its most generalized and simple form, it goes as follows:
“The coronavirus mainly kills old people, who are going to die anyway. Let some of them die, and let us save the economy.”
This is shocking, unprecedented, abominable.
And it marks the lowest point in Western civilization.
The idea first appeared stealthily with the policy of herd immunity in the UK on March 12: allow the virus to spread unencumbered in the general population and let a number thereof die so the rest of us, and especially our precious economy, can live.
Then it reappeared with US president Donald Trump’s statement on March 22 that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” The understanding of this statement was that the lockdown of the economy is worse than losing lives. That same evening, Scott McMillan, a fifty-six-year-old lawyer from California, had the audacity to express the president’s inner thoughts in a tweet that went viral: “The fundamental problem is whether we are going to tank the entire economy to save 2.5% of the population which is (1) generally expensive to maintain, and (2) not productive.” Blatantly suggesting nothing less than senicide, this has been the most boldly articulated statement of this view in all its glory.
The next day, Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick said in a Fox interview with Tucker Carlson that old people, i.e., those most at risk, should volunteer to die to save the economy and the future generation (his six grandchildren), and that he was offering his life first. What a TV hero!
And then there was Sweden. Their government followed the UK’s philosophy all the way (even after the UK had abandoned it): let the old die in the thousands to save the economy. Well, they haven’t saved their economy, but as of today, May 8, they have had 3,175 deaths: more than twenty times that of Greece (with the same population), which went into a strict lockdown. Yes, the Swedes are actually doing it, in broad daylight for the whole world to see!
I do not even know where to begin addressing the superficiality and irrationality of some of these arguments and actions, before moving on to expose their utter moral bankruptcy.
I suppose I will begin by addressing Scott McMillan’s tweet: Dear Scott, for eighteen years or so, your parents “maintained” you, although you too “were expensive” and completely unproductive, and probably a big nuisance too! Had your parents followed your logic, you would not be alive today to unashamedly promote their own demise.
To Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick: Speak for yourself! You may love the US economy more than your own life, but other people do not. You also do not represent your entire generation and cannot in their name “volunteer them to death.” As for your grandchildren, I’m sure if you ask them to choose between having more material comforts or saving their beloved grandpa’s life, they would most likely choose the latter. Did you ask what they prefer, rather than speaking on their behalf? You might be surprised.
There is no need to comment on President Trump’s statement, as he has since reversed course, probably realizing at some stage that he too belongs to the elderly!
As it turns out, behind all these arguments lies a covert materialistic presupposition: that human life is “a thing” that can be measured … in dollars. Believe it or not, the otherwise serious NPR, influenced by such thinking and trying to smartly contribute to the conversation, set out to do exactly this: find the monetary value of a human life! In one of their programs, they explained the process of how government agencies calculate a human life, and they came up with a value for the American human life (I guess the price of a life, following their own train of thought, must be different in other countries): it is $10,000,000. The main calculation, which need not be explained in full, was based on the statistical averages of the amount employers are willing to pay extra to people who do risky jobs. Yet the whole argument was based on three wrong initial assumptions: First, that a human life is an object to which a price can be assigned. It is not. Life is incommensurable with the world of objects. It is non-material. Just as love is immaterial. And beauty, and virtue, and courage. Second, that human life, this some-thing to which a value can be assigned, is one thing, i.e, it is a mathematical constant. It is not. The life of a Plato or a Bach cannot possibly be of equal value to society as that of a serial murderer! Third, that the value of a human life can be disconnected from the totality of its activities — its various expressions in society, its creations, its contributions in all nonfinancial aspects of the world. It cannot. Such thinking strips man of everything human and considers life only as it pertains to its role in the economy. This is preposterous! For whatever a human creates may have a lasting value that may be worth trillions and quadrillions. To give an economic example, Einstein’s formula E = mc2 made possible the creation of nuclear reactors whose energy production, in the centuries if not millennia to come, is almost infinite in value.
But all these arguments need not even have been directly addressed, for they all miss the most important reality of human society. What is most shocking is that this reality, or rather perennial truth, has never entered into these conversations. It is time to state it:
The dilemma of whether to save the elderly or to save the economy is a self-contradiction.
For it is the elderly that are, and always have been, the true wealth of a nation!
The elderly have always been the most precious part of society. They have been considered the living depository of the collected wisdom, knowledge, and experience of every culture.
If you think that gold bars in bank safety deposit boxes, or stock portfolios, or big mansions, or skyscrapers, or any other material object is the expression of our wealth, think again. Our most valuable “possessions,” what makes us truly human, is not our material wealth but our immaterial knowledge, experience, wisdom, our ability to love and be loved, our ethical conduct and laws, our traditions and our efforts to pass them on to the next generation. Throughout our lives, we struggle to improve upon and acquire all these, and it is usually towards the end of our lives that we achieve it. But our parents, and especially our grandparents, are the bearers of these qualities we aspire to. The elderly are our wealth, not because we can assign a price to them but because we cannot imagine ourselves without their background presence that made us who we have become, sustains who we are, and points to where we aspire to go. They are the supporting columns and beams that hold our societies together. Remove them, and the whole edifice will crumble.
Throughout the millennia, in all cultures around the world, the elderly have been revered. Old age has always been associated with wisdom. A subgroup of the elderly, the best of them, the “elders” as they were usually referred to, were those who actually governed societies. Maybe not all the elderly would end up becoming “elders.” But all the elders were elderly! In most indigenous cultures today, where one can peek into humanity’s past, we can see what was the case for tens of thousands of years (going back all the way into remote prehistoric times): all the important decisions in the family, clan, town, or region are made by these elders. In Western civilization too, the Roman Senate that ruled the Empire started as a gathering of the elders of each of the many Roman communities. “Senate” is actually derived from senex, which means “old man.”
The “wise old man” is such a central concept in all societies that the great psychologist Carl Jung came to the conclusion that it is one of the most important and ubiquitous archetypes to be found in the collective unconscious of humanity. After discovering and studying it in his youth, he connected with it at the deepest level and allowed the “wise old man” archetype within him to guide him for the rest of his life. But for Jung, old age had another, even more profound significance: he considered it the most important stage in one’s life. It was in old age that a person became complete by harmoniously bringing together all the threads of his life. Old age was not the end but the beginning of a new life, in which man could connect with the greatest mystery of his own life as well as with that of the universe or God. As he put it in Modern Man in Search of a Soul:
“A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.”
I would add that many great men have created their major works in old age, exactly because they had brought together the immense wealth of their accumulated experience. Jung himself wrote some of his greatest works after the age of seventy-five, while in our times, we still have among us many great spirits who are creating masterpieces well into their nineties. Two exemplars come to mind: Sir David Attenborough and Brother David Steindl-Rast, both as active as ever at ninety-four, and both creating works of infinite value.
Unfortunately, this simple truth of the major role of the elderly in our society has frayed in the last few decades in the West. The rapid onslaught of the Information Age, which has alienated our grandparents, as well as the expansion of a new middle class that has had everything it needed at its fingertips, seems to have created the illusion that the elderly are useless in the modern world. With the complete breakdown of the extended family in the West (where once upon a time, parents and grandparents lived together and grew old in the same house), as well as the exiling of the elderly into impersonal nursing homes, we have stripped our elderly of their once exalted role. Even our modern Senates and Houses of Lords that once reigned supreme have become old relics that many have even contemplated abolishing.
But while such uncomfortable and never-before-seen discussions are happening in the West, we have a completely different reality in the East. Not only did such discussions in the public sphere never arise during this pandemic, but they never can arise. In the East, the importance of the elderly in society is deeply ingrained in the traditions, philosophy, and the everyday life of families.
This is so because in all three main traditions of the East — Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism — respecting one’s elders is considered one of the highest virtues. It even has a special name: Xiao, filial piety. Filial piety means taking good care of one’s elders, obeying them, and showing them more love and respect than all other members of the family, including of course, oneself. This reverence extends beyond one’s household to all the elderly in society at large. The responsibility continues even after the elderly pass away: “When the father is alive, observe his son’s intentions,” wrote Confucius, before continuing, “When the father is dead, watch his son’s actions. If after three years he has not deviated from his father’s path, then he may be called a filial son.” A filial son, then, is an honorary title that can only be attained three years after one’s parents pass away! For the totality of a person’s true character is only measured by how he has behaved after his parents’ death — has he honored them through his deeds or has he disgraced them? For the Chinese, and also for many other cultures, our parents watch our actions from another plane after death and continue to pass judgment upon them. The ancestors may have left home, but they keep a permanent residence in the souls of their descendants.
Furthermore, Confucius did not consider filial piety a choice, but rather an unconditional obligation of the child. It is for this reason that a law passed in China in 2013 makes it compulsory that children regularly visit their parents in elderly homes and cater not only to their material but also to their spiritual needs. Such things may sound strange to our Western ears, but most Chinese actually welcomed the new law.
This is so because the Chinese grow up in an environment where what the law enforces has always been taught as the normal and proper behavior. The first book most Chinese children learn to read is The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, a collection of short stories written in the fourteenth century, which gives flesh and bones to the older and more abstract teachings of Confucius. The stories are supposedly about real people in real locations in China who, through their model behaviour towards their parents, have become the paragons of filial piety. One story, for example, tells of Wu Meng, an eight-year-old boy from a poor family, who could not afford a mosquito net. Every night the boy stripped naked and sat at the edge of his parents’ bed, attracting the mosquitoes to his own body, so that they would suck his blood rather than that of his parents. In order that his parents wouldn’t know about his sacrifice and demand that he stop, the boy would wake up earlier than they, wear his shirt over his swollen torso, and return to his own bed. Another story is about Yu Qianlou whose father had fallen ill. The doctor told the son that the best way to tell if his father’s health was improving was to check his father’s feces: if they tasted bitter he would get better, if they tasted sweet it meant he was still ill. When the son sampled the feces, they tasted sweet, and he stayed up all night asking the gods to take his own life rather than his father’s. All these stories, that are popular throughout East Asia, are quite moving and easily become carved in childrens’ psyche for the rest of their lives.
Last, the Chinese character for filial piety is illustrated by the combination of the character lao (old) above the character zi(son); that is, an elder being carried by a son. What a beautiful image.
It is time for the West to emulate the attitude of the East, if for no other reason than that this was its own attitude too for millennia. There is no dilemma between saving the economy or saving lives, because our wealth is the elderly. If we cannot save our elderly, if we cannot prioritize saving them, if we do not place everything else lower on the list of what we value during this war against the virus, then we may save our gold bars and a few pubs and salons here and there, but we will have lost not only our humanity, but our very soul.
Just as there are people protesting that the lockdowns be terminated prematurely to save the economy, let swarms of others also go into the streets and proclaim that as long as our elderly are still in danger, we have no problem sitting a bit longer in our homes until the danger subsides.
Let’s forget the economy for a few more weeks — we’ll have years to rebuild it and make it better and stronger — and let our new anthem be none other than the last stanza of Dylan Thomas’s immortal poem, written to both honor and resist within him the death of his father, thereby becoming the exemplar of the Western filial son:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
If you liked this essay, read my previous essay Coronavirus I — The Arrogance of the West and my latest essay Coronavirus III — The Resistance to Change. You may also subscribe to my monthly Tuesday Letter and check out my award-winning book, “Destination Earth — A New Philosophy of Travel by a World-Traveler,” published by Bamboo Leaf Press.