The Science of Enmity; or, The Terrors of the Invisible
My homiletics professor said it on the first day of class. “Every sermon must find a common enemy. It doesn’t matter what it is: sin, death, taxes, sex, politics. For a sermon to be effective, you need an enemy.”
A marketing guru I’ve recently unfollowed said the same really. “Find their pain — and poke it!”
It’s certainly a theme in the historical rendering of the behavior of the United States during World War II. A meme for WWII: “We had a common enemy that made us come together.”
The question I wish to ask today isn’t about our common enemy. A six year old could tell us it’s the coronavirus.
The question I have is: Do we need a common enemy in order to come together?
My answer is twofold. First, I sure as hell hope not. Second, I’m afraid that we do.
There is a hugely distinguished difference between what Americans knew as the enemy during the Second World War and the coronavirus.
But the alleged enemy of World War II had a face, and a name, and a laundry list of atrocities taller than I am. As enemies go, it was an easy one to have. It could be pointed at. It could be named in speech. There was plentiful, horrific evidence of its wrongdoing.
Today’s enemy is different from that by its very nature.
In Maureen Dowd’s usual brilliant coverage, she quotes New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s response to our common enemy, “ʻThis is going be a long day, and it’s going to be a hard day, and it’s going to be an ugly day, and it’s going to be a sad day,’ he told officers from the New York National Guard on Friday, charging them to fight this ‘invisible’ and ‘insidious’ beast and ‘kick coronavirus’s ass.’”
Coronavirus, Governor, doesn’t have an ass. Things that are invisible and insidious often don’t.
I don’t subscribe to the notion of enmity, as a rule. It’s counterproductive. There is, however, a principle in metaphysics that speaks to our time so aptly that it’s terrifying. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What you resist persists.”
I cite this often in speeches and sermons, and I announce with glee, “I have proof!” The room stirs.
“Whatever you do,” I caution, “don’t think about pink elephants!” The laughter begins in the front of the room. “Or green giraffes!” Rolling backward. “Or purple rhinoceri!” Now the whole room is a atwitter.
“How long?” I follow up. “How long before pink elephants, green giraffes, and purple rhinoceri were dancing through your mind? How long?”
Instants. Moments. Zeptoseconds.
Why? Because human beings can’t not do things. The basic model does not come with that skill set. And because what we resist persists.
Governor Cuomo’s Twitterfeed yielded this, “Facts are empowering. Even when the facts are discouraging, not knowing the facts is worse. I promise that I will continue to give New Yorkers all the facts, not selective facts.”
Facts are quite helpful creatures when it comes to enemies. During World War II, newsreels were produced by the thousands, a lot of them teeming with propaganda and masquerading as facts. They often pointed our attention to what the powers-that-were thought we needed to resist.
In 2020, we don’t have newsreels, but the current White House is using social media in exactly that same way. The contrast between what is coming out of Albany and what is coming out of Washington is chillingly telling.
Albany is fact-based. Washington is fear-based. Facts create plans. Fear creates enemies.
Bret Stephens, being a good Jewish son, went to bring his mother groceries recently. His column in today’s Times cited his insightful progenitrix, “For years she’s said that America could benefit from what she calls ‘a non-fatal catastrophe.’ She doesn’t mean this callously or altogether seriously. She just thinks America needs some blunt but bloodless lesson to help us distinguish between the things that matter and those that don’t — the sort of lesson she’d had long before I came around.”
Coronavirus could be that blunt, not bloodless but lethal, lesson if we don’t “enemize” it, if we don’t resist it, if we don’t deny it, and if we instead let it teach us to distinguish between the things that matter and those that don’t.
No one needs an enemy, Beloved. We just think we do.
Let’s consider a new idea. Let’s think that the coronavirus has arrived to, as Governor Cuomo says to Mx. Dowd, “ʻCall it psychological. Call it feelings. Call it emotions. But this is as much a social crisis as a health crisis.’”
The coronavirus is terrifying, of course it is. We are not prepared. We are not in control. We do not have all the facts, but we already know that this is a social crisis, a blunt message with an even blunter subtext.
We cannot resist what is happening. That will only prolong it.
We cannot resist what is happening. That will only make it worse.
We cannot resist what is happening. That will make more suffering.
I love that “In This Emergency, Mom Knows Best,” according to her son Bret Stephens. She tells him, “‘Don’t worry about me. I have a Ph.D. in loneliness.’” I’m sorry for that, and she’s not alone, but I see, so clearly, that you’re not resisting it Mx. Stephens. You’re embracing it, and holding out hope that we learn our lesson once and for all.
What we do with it, and what we let it do with us, is up to us. I know we’re awaiting what the press is calling “herd immunity.” Why can’t we start the immunity from the terrors of the invisible right now?
“Unlike Trump the fabulist, Cuomo the realist doesn’t shoot from the hip.” Thus penneth the redoubtable Maureen Dowd. No need to shoot from the hip, Beloved. The most magical things in the world all get their start in the dark, in the silence, in the stillness, in the wonder of creation. Let’s invite this experience in, and let it make us brand new.