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Illustration by Celia Jacobs

Essay

And God Laughs

Amaud Jamaul Johnson explores the loneliness and fear that arise in the wake of inexplicable tragedy where personal losses highlight histories of suffering and the deep uncertainties of our time.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.

—James Baldwin1

 

Our neighbors, Robin and Beth, were murdered. They lived across the street and a few doors down from us. We had been under “Safer at Home” orders in Wisconsin for just two weeks, still cycling through stages of grief over canceled plane tickets, hotel reservations, and sporting events, trying to figure out how to homeschool our kids while also working online. I was obsessed with cable news and staring at my checking account. I think I wanted to believe the pandemic was a hoax, or I was waiting for an “all clear,” the opposite of a tornado siren. I kept telling myself: You’re from Compton. What can this world throw at you that wasn’t already waiting at your doorstep to terrify you as a child? Of course, this was an eternity ago, before two weeks became two months, when researchers were just beginning to question the summer, and there was complete silence about the fall. I was moving through the world in a fog. Every chart predicting the spread of the virus was a kick in the stomach. This was the end of March, early spring, which for the upper Midwest can mean the dead of winter. A jogger found Robin’s and Beth’s bodies in a ditch in the UW Arboretum less than five minutes from their home.

Robin was barefoot. He was still in his underwear. Beth was wearing socks and she was in her nightclothes. They were taken from their home in the middle of the night, marched through the cold early spring air, and shot in the back of their heads. It’s all unspeakable. This ranks pretty high on the list of our worst fears. Someone might say they were shot like dogs, but I can’t imagine an animal being put down like that. Something won’t allow me to picture their final moments. They were regular fixtures on our block, not that they did anything to draw attention to themselves. They had three children. Robin was a youth soccer coach. He was quiet, a little awkward socially, but friendly. Beth was outgoing. She was a runner. She often got out early and was done with her jog before the school day began. Beth was a physician and worked in family medicine. She was energetic and had an infectious smile. Who could have imagined this? I know the truth of living is dying, but the nature of our deaths is kept from us. What we are left with is faith and our fears.

I felt a tightness in my chest. I didn’t want to mention this to my wife, but then she started complaining about a similar feeling. Everyone we talked to in the neighborhood had the same sensation, like it was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe. Shock isn’t the right word to describe our reaction to the murders. I still don’t believe it. This feels like a prank. All of it. It’s as if we’ve slipped into an alternate universe. The hardest part of our quarantine is the waiting, the silence. Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I felt desperate, and this quiet consumed me. I know the best advice is to assume you are ill, that you should see yourself as an asymptomatic carrier. But I wonder if the virus is a symptom, that we’ve actually been ill for decades and are only now struggling to name the cause of this plague. Of course, politicians argue over what’s most profitable: prevention or the cure. We were contemplating the ripple effects of the virus: who might slip into poverty, what it would mean to lose our loved ones and not be able to publicly mourn them. The run on toilet paper and bottled water, on meat and guns, tells you everything you need to know about our national character.

While this response to fear is particular, our anxieties are like small tributaries feeding into something very old and much larger than COVID-19. Maybe you are not religious, aren’t concerned about global warming; maybe you have to google the term “food insecurity,” believe terrorism is the product of people who “hate freedom.” Even within our perfectly manicured bubbles, or the echo chambers of our online communities, it’s hard to not feel vulnerable. Stress is relative and few of us escape this world without our share of concerns. Fear of the apocalypse is a fear of losing control; it’s about powerlessness. While I wouldn’t equate this anxiety with vanity, loss is personal. I’m not sure if people weep for others or if they are afraid that what happens down the street or around the corner will eventually arrive at their front door. People don’t want to be inconvenienced. If the barbershops, beauty shops, and nail salons are closed—the golf courses, our favorite brunch spots, the dive bars, our churches, temples, mosques—how do we define ourselves? Who are we without our routines? How do we shape our days? What becomes our new ritual? Our new identity? Who are we when our choices and opinions are snatched from our hands? This becomes our hour of desperation. What is an apocalypse if not the lack of control, and a limited ability to adapt to a changing world?

Rome is 2,273 years old. People have lived in Damascus for 11,000 years. If history has taught us anything it’s that the world doesn’t end, but our bubbles become unstable and empires fall. Our lives can change in an instant. Perhaps living is trying to cheat death? Perhaps the way we imagine success is tied up in how we imagine our legacies. Our pursuit of property or awards, the impulse to chisel one’s name on the entrance of a building, our attempts to reach back from the grave. We dream of fame or amassing so much wealth that our descendants will become future Anderson Coopers and Julia Louis-Dreyfuses, heirs who want to be defined by their career, not their family name.

One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, “Time Enough at Last,” stars Burgess Meredith. Meredith plays Henry Bemis, a bookish and severely farsighted bank teller stuck in a bad marriage. Early in the episode, his wife asks him to read from a collection of modern poetry. This initially appears to be a romantic gesture. He opens the book and discovers she’s blacked out all the words, highlighting her contempt. Reading is more than a guilty pleasure for Bemis. He’s an outlier in an anti-intellectual world, where he’s subjected to constant ridicule. He’s stealing a few moments on his lunch break to read in the only quiet place he can find, the bank vault, and almost as soon as he settles there’s a great explosion. When he emerges, the world he knew is gone; he’s become the lone survivor of an atomic war. Bemis was trapped among the living. Books provided more than an escape from his responsibilities; the aggression and cruelty surrounding him made Bemis appear almost childlike or alien.

Like many Twilight Zone episodes, the genius of “Time Enough at Last” is simple: Be careful what you wish for. Dreams blur into nightmares. On the verge of suicide, Bemis finds the ruins of the public library, and he’s overwhelmed with joy. Finally, he has the time to read undisturbed. He’s organized stacks of books, planning out his months and years. In the final scene, Bemis is distracted, stumbles, and breaks his glasses. His world has become a blur. He literally can’t see past the end of his nose. The scene fades with him repeating: “It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair at all.” The episode closes with Rod Serling’s voice, echoing John Steinbeck and Robert Burns: “The best-laid plans of mice and men…”

I’m not afraid of solitude, but like Bemis, I think Hell is loneliness. And the loneliness I’m referring to here is when we believe we are alone in our suffering, that our pain is unique, and therefore, unjust. Because I’m an introvert, in the earliest stages of the pandemic I had so much energy. I exercised. I slept well. My wife joked that I was like Kirsten Dunst’s character in the 2011 film Melancholia, a person who feels the most at peace when the sky is falling. I was anxious, but I believed I was uniquely equipped to handle self-quarantine. I had my books and pounds of coffee. Of course, this was a form of hubris. It’s easy to turn your back on a crowd when there is a crowd, but it’s difficult to excuse yourself from an empty room.

I wonder if the virus is a symptom, that we’ve actually been ill for decades and are only now struggling to name the cause of this plague.

Why do we think we can escape the struggles of our ancestors?

Why are our only functional metaphors during this crisis, the only way we communicate value and meaning, the language of business or war? The President called the virus, among other names, our “invisible enemy.” Other officials said this was our 9/11 moment, our Pearl Harbor, our Vietnam. Only a small percentage of our citizens have military experience, which doesn’t include three of our last four presidents. As a child and grandchild of veterans, I’m not diminishing the sacrifices members of our armed forces have made. But what does this rhetoric suggest about our national imagination, about our limited understanding of courage, about other forms of bravery? Economists and politicians began to calculate the number of possible deaths and the ages of those most vulnerable compared to dips in the stock market, literally placing value on a pound of flesh. I get that some people lack empathy. The concept of “social responsibility” is a political football that’s been punted back and forth across generations. From its founding, this nation built its economy from the bones of the dead. From the transatlantic slave trade to the construction of the transcontinental railroad, acceptable losses were always a part of the equation. In its most vulgar form, capitalism doesn’t blush at the sight of blood.

Naturally, we want to believe that as people we progress, that each generation learns from the past. So often we’re shaken into realizing that we experience time as a pendulum rather than a ladder to climb. Why do we think we can escape the struggles of our ancestors? What inoculates us from the emotional and psychological pitfalls they faced? There isn’t anything obscure about the history of plagues. The influenza pandemic of 1918 and the Red Summer of 1919 are recent and relevant. Real acts of power are language-based; they are housed in metaphors, as politicians attempt to rename and redirect the narratives of our individual lives. While these battles between political parties, debates on preserving our individualism and recognizing the value of collective struggle, exhaust me, it’s these waves of cruelty, these performances of ignorance, that knock me off-balance.

Our myths and proverbs scream from the shadows: “Make plans and God laughs.” We fear we’ll be judged indiscriminately, being swept up as if none of our life decisions mattered. The old texts are our collective subconscious. We’re afraid of an Old Testament God, who looks into us or through us, who weighs the spirit and finds us wanting. If our fears are inherited, then so is our understanding of nostalgia. Maybe we’re nostalgic for other people’s nostalgia. Whenever I feel overwhelmed or hopeless, I consider my grandparents’ life in the 1940s, migrating from Texas to Los Angeles. History helps me to feel less alone in the world. And the past only makes sense if I can make it personal. I’m our family historian, so I have a wealth of stories: places and names, birthdates and obituaries. When I’m trying to make sense of the past, I think: Who in my family was born during the Great Depression? How old was my great-grandmother when the Titanic sank? My family’s stories provide me with an anchor in the past; time gets small. As much as these echoes can provide strength, sometimes we’re plagued by the same old demons. Waves of bigotry or self-delusion we thought we outlasted return in our children. Live long enough and you learn the dead won’t stay buried. As much as we’d like to draw strength from our collective past, the contradictions nostalgia attempts to sanitize return to make us ill. Just as we equate health with the language of business and courage with war, we tend to weaponize definitions of freedom. As Hannah Arendt questions the distinctions between the freedom to act and liberty from persecution, we are often at odds with the responsibilities of individuals within a community.

What one might call an apocalypse is most likely our failure of vision, the edge of imagination. Struggling to see a way forward, we lament our childhoods while pitying our children for being born too late. Maybe there’s a narcissism barring us from picturing a world beyond us. Hasn’t it been true of the last century that every generation believes it’s living in “the last days?” An apocalypse is a product of history, not the end of history. How might the descendants of slaves or the survivors of the Holocaust think of the apocalypse? In the first few paragraphs of “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin describes the experience of burying his father on the day of a race riot in Harlem: “here is something that will certainly pass for an apocalypse until the real thing comes along.” Personal loss frames broader political struggle. This sentence is a preamble to the prophetic sentiments expressed in his best-known work, The Fire Next Time.

Through luck, love, or misfortune, our lives take shape. What we can’t shake is the fear of judgment. Whether you think the planet is fighting back or God is balancing accounts, faith, like forms of justice, relies on accountability. If this isn’t true, then maybe we will be survived by our self-righteousness and our guilt.

The two boys accused of Beth and Robin’s murders are just a year older than my oldest son, and were students at his high school. They are teenagers, grown-children. Their possible motives are still a subject of speculation, which is the source of another conversation and is at best cliché. Whatever drives a person to commit such a violent act is tragic for everyone involved. The words we often gravitate toward—senseless, unspeakable—highlight our inability to comprehend certain behaviors.

The pandemic caught everyone off guard. We burrowed deeper into our silos. We stare out our windows. On my street the silence is so loud; the stillness is full of agitation. This stillness is a form of chaos. We’ve been playing out different scenarios. Will we get sick? What about our parents? How long will our children stay out of school? What will happen to small businesses? Will we end up unemployed? How long before we run out of money? What will people do during desperate times? Robin and Beth’s fate was a fear we were afraid to voice. And we couldn’t mourn them, not publicly. It’s too soon to understand what’s happening, or to measure the toll of this pandemic. I’m afraid of optimism. It’s easier to anticipate violent storms and flooding. What frightens me now is how each week a new wave blindsides us: police brutality, protests, rioting. When all is said and done, when COVID-19 becomes something academic, when our culture willfully abandons memory of the plague, and this story is reduced to the property of archives, how will our neighbors be remembered? The magnitude of this moment consumes the individual. Like so many swept up in this sadness, they had plans. We had plans. It’s not fair. And I’m having the hardest time figuring out how to let go.

Footnotes
  1. 1

    “The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are,” Life Magazine, May 24, 1963, 89.