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Fintan O’Toole: We can’t help giving meaning to this absurd virus

Covid-19 is cruelly capricious but human beings need to attach significance to suffering

On Saturday, out for my one permitted walk, I saw something I don’t think I have ever seen before. Stopped at the traffic lights, there was a hearse. In the back was a coffin. And that was it – nothing else. A word came to mind, one of those words we only ever use in a single context: cortège. It meant, originally, the train of attendants on an important person. We use it to mean the procession of cars that follows in the wake of the hearse, signalling by their presence that this, too, was an important person.

But there was no cortège. The lights changed and the hearse moved off unaccompanied, in bleak solitude, in the direction of Glasnevin Cemetery. I found myself trying to stand to attention as it passed, to signal somehow to the person in the coffin that he or she was important. But the hearse slid quickly away on the empty road and the gesture seemed pitiful. I walked on.

Why should I be untouched while you suffer? Why does a spiv survive while a young doctor dies? No reason, no justice, no meaning

This is happening now, quietly but commonly, because of Covid-19. Why does it matter? Whoever that person in the coffin may have been, he or she was beyond caring about the propriety of their obsequies. But it matters to the living. We accompany the dead, not because they need us to do so, but because we need to do it. We need to give a meaning to suffering and death. Victor Frankl, who emerged from the hell of Auschwitz, wrote that "To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is purpose in life at all there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying."

In the world of Covid-19, this search for meaning is fictional. The virus doesn’t really mean anything. It is somehow comforting to think of it as a judgement on the way we live now, but plagues have been spreading over vast distances for thousands of years. If anything, what we are experiencing now is a blurring of temporal distinctions – we have suddenly become much more like our ancestors. And at an individual level, the virus is especially capricious and absurd. Many people who get it experience nothing at all, not even the mundane miseries of the usual winter sniffles. But some people die terribly. Why? Why should I be untouched while you suffer? Why does a spiv survive while a young doctor dies? No reason, no justice, no meaning.

But we can’t afford to leave it like that. The fiction is a necessary one. “To survive is to find meaning in the suffering”. When this is over, what will be left is a species of survivors. Human beings will attach meaning to what has happened, because that is what we do in order to carry on. Frankl wrote that in Auschwitz, where every shred of meaning was stripped away from the prisoners, the one way to survive was to insist on it: “No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden. For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive.”

One way Frankl survived was by talking in his mind to his wife. He did not know she was dead. But, he reflected, it would not have made any difference if he had known: “I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out . . . but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying.”

Perhaps, too, there is meaning in mourning, even for people we do not know

We endure, in other words, not just because of practical, concrete things like food and shelter, but because of our wilful, irrational, wonderful ability to give meaning to what happens – even to the arbitrary cruelty of a virus. What matters now is how we do that. There are phoney meanings that can be attached to Covid-19. That people die because they somehow deserve it, or because they are old and therefore dispensable. That it is all a conspiracy created by “them”; that we need strongman leaders to save us.

But there are better meanings. Frankl suggested from his terrible experiences that there are three places in which we can find meaning: in work, in love and care for others, and in the conscious choice to remain “brave, dignified and unselfish” even in the worst conditions. We see those qualities embodied around us every day now. Perhaps, too, there is meaning in mourning, even for people we do not know. We can in our imaginations at least fall in behind the hearses and form in the spirit of solidarity the missing cortège.