I remember, quite clearly, the day my mother showed me her cancer. There it was, a curious, nondescript region within the scan, a zone of irregularity to be sure, visibly distinct from the cells surrounding it, its shape and shading setting it apart. And yet, it looked of a piece too with its ‘environment’; in one sense, it looked like it belonged, ‘fitting in’ and making room for itself. That was it, the thing that was killing my mother, slowly, but surely. It seemed remote and distant but most of all it seemed impervious: it just didn’t care. It didn’t care for my grief and sorrow, the horror I felt at the impending catastrophe; it didn’t care for my mother’s pain, both psychic and physical. It merely did its thing, working toward its cellular and molecular teleology, doing what it had to do to stay alive and flourish. At its level, in its world, my mother and I did not intrude. We were irrelevant to the cancer’s considerations; we did not enter into its various calculi for survival and expansion and reproduction. But it couldn’t care about us; it did not know we existed. If only I could have reached into its membranes and given it a good shake, or perhaps written it a strongly worded letter. Maybe it would have listened, persuaded by my eloquence and my visible pain, my need for my mother to survive, my terror at the thought of a life thrown off course by this trauma; perhaps, it would have taken pity on me. But it wouldn’t because it couldn’t.
The virus that stalks us now, across closed and open borders, from sea to shining sea, that hunts down the old, the poor, the infirm, the weakened, with particular intention and direction, seems particularly malevolent. But it isn’t. It’s merely indifferent. It knows nothing of us, of our dreams and hopes and plans and loves. It does what it does according to its telos. At its level, matters are considerably simpler: here is the cell to be reproduced, there is that molecular cluster to be colonized next. The economy of intention is stark: simplicity reigns at the level of execution. We don’t factor into this calculus; we have not been discarded; we were never in the picture.
There is something terrifying about this, and yet something deeply reassuring and beautiful too. Something we’ve always known whenever we’ve seen death come visiting and noticed the world carry on regardless: there are many worlds about us and in us, many besides the visible human one, the one that is the repository of our dreams and fears. This one might end but the others persist; we’ve always lived among and alongside them. As the virus moves on, setting up home, laying claim, conquering and colonizing, laying waste, it builds a new world all its own. One in which we may co-exist or not. Previously negotiated terms of co-existence are of no use; negotiations must begin anew.
We have been reminded, all over again, of our transience, our embedding in the world around us, our connection to everything else; time to stop everything and listen.