During the outbreaks of Bubonic Plague, better known as the Black Death, many devout Christians believed that the prophecy inherent in the book of Revelation was about to be realized. The disease came after drought and famine, and as the bodies began to pile up, people desperately tried to find a rhyme or reason as to why some were infected and some avoided getting sick. Ships arrived in port with every sailor sick and dying, and in at least a few cases, the vessels ran aground because everyone on board was already dead. At night, people reported strange fires and mists that seemed to carry pestilence and immediate death. All day in the sweltering heat of summer, the pope kept huge fires burning in the papal apartments at Avignon, believing that aromatic wood would ward off infection. Those days of fire did nothing to keep Death at bay.
The plague took three forms: a lymph infection causing buboes, apple-sized swellings that became purple or black in the armpits and groin; a blood infection resulting in deep purple bruising and skin discolorations all over the body; and a pneumonic form causing the coughing up of blood and respiratory failure. All three forms were fatal, usually, and the last was most puzzling to people at the time. They had yet to understand airborne contagion. There were stories of people going to bed well and dying before they woke up the next morning. Others died within twenty-four hours of first symptoms. Whole households would perish, but others would be untouched, or have only a few family members die. Monasteries were obliterated, and priests disappeared. Doctors also fell victim, leaving a dearth of medical aid for those who remained. Husbands abandoned sick wives and children. Children left their parents, or were forced to fend for themselves when the parents died. The very structure of family and communal life was destroyed as the plague swept the cities, towns and villages.
But all of those people were wrong about Revelation prophecy. The Black Death did not visit their homes because of something written in an apocalyptic book of symbolism and metaphors dated to the first century of the common era. In their panic, they looked for signs and indications to understand what was happening. In the same way, the recent Ebola outbreak around the world must be understood and kept in perspective.
Over the weekend, President Obama appointed an “Ebola Czar” to oversee the United States’ continuing response to the health crisis. Many are criticizing his choice of Ron Klain, a former member of Joe Biden’s staff who is not a doctor or health care expert. In recent news reports, the president has been portrayed as impatient and angry with government agencies’ responses to the terrifying illness. When interviewed on CNN or any other news outlet, officials from the Centers for Disease Control say that there is little chance of an outbreak among civilians, and that some infection in doctors and nurses who treat the sick is to be expected. On the other end of the reactionary spectrum, people like Rick Perry demand that borders be closed and travel restricted. I’m waiting for someone to step up to a microphone and tell us this is God’s work, a punishment foisted upon us for our own deviant lifestyle.
A colleague of mine greets every mention of Ebola with, “So this is the end, right? This is the end of the world?” The world could end in many ways, and for sure will end when the sun collapses on itself sometime in the future. However, Ebola, although a threat to human existence, is not the end of the world or of us. It will cause deaths because it is a dangerous disease, but the stupid statements that it is a genetically engineered sickness designed to limit population growth, that’s just conspiracy hogwash. In history, there have been many extinct species, and each died off because of certain factors in the environment, in hunting practices, and in just basic bad luck. Until we find a vaccination or a reliable cure, Ebola will kill people, especially those poor folks who live in dire circumstances and cannot afford first world medical treatment. Even with that treatment, some may die. But life is like that; it is dangerous. Ebola is just one more thing that can kill us.
When did we come to believe that we are invincible? That is not natural. No threats, no terrifying diseases, or vicious, wild animals, or bad guys, that’s not realistic in the life equation. We have always been chased and threatened and forced to fight or run away. People are born, they live, they die. That is what is. Ebola, and every other dangerous thing in the world, should make us think about what is important: the people we love, the art we create, our commonalities, the beauty and symmetry of our differences.
Last night, I was in a restaurant having dinner when an African-American family arrived at the next table. They were dressed in their Sunday best—a son in his 30s, a wife, a teenager, and an elderly man who had to be helped to his seat, and his wife who was confined to a wheelchair and could not speak. As the son tucked the napkin into his father’s collar, the old man said: “This is so great! We didn’t know what we were going to eat at home before you all called to take us out.” His voice had the gravelly richness of Louis Armstrong, and was full of pleasure and gratitude. His words stabbed at me. The joy of good food and family obviously meant something to him, namely a richer life. I leaned over to my wife and told her the old man’s voice reminded me of Armstrong singing the song, “What a Wonderful World.” Watching the family enjoy their time together on a Sunday evening before starting the crush of a new week, I felt strangely exhilarated and renewed. I felt hope that even with the pain and suffering in this life, there would always be the simple joys and pleasures of family dinners, time with friends, and a moment of relaxation ahead of a hectic work week.
Ebola reminds us how to live. It takes from us, it threatens us, it instills fear. In the poetry of Psalms, we know that we are forever walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but we should not fear because we are not alone. Ebola just might bring us a gift. As with all things in life that remind us of the fragility of existence, we must see the world and recognize its terrors, but we must not be afraid to live.