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The Perpetual Motion Machine and the Pandemic

March 31st, 2020 | 7 min read

By Brandon McGinley

My grandmother is eighty-five years old. She will die someday. I want her to die well and, in the meantime, to live well.

She lives with my aunt about ten minutes from where I live with my wife and four young children, and about five minutes from where I grew up. My sister and I had weekly sleepovers with them throughout our childhood. Now my children, two at a time, do the same.

The visits are on hold. My wife and I are well, and I work from home, so the chance the virus is in our household is slim. But the idea of our children unwittingly bringing death to their great-grandmother is intolerable.

At the same time, we know that our children also bring her life. She is strong. She recently took a face-first plunge and walked away with hardly a scratch. I have almost no memories of her being sick, ever. And I know that much of this vitality is due to the energy she gets from and spends on our children.

This is life and death in our age of pandemic. What do we fear more: bringing death or withholding life?

There is always a trade-off between living fully and living safely, for individuals and for societies. One of the defining achievements of our society has been apparently overcoming this trade-off. Due to our prosperity and technology, with minimal risk we can indulge our appetites, noble and ignoble, more than any previous generation. Those who still struggle to live properly sanitized lives are dismissed as reckless or eccentric. Mortal misfortunes—car accidents, rogue bacteria, violent crime—are uncommon enough that most people don’t much worry about them.

We all know on some level that it’s the economy that makes this possible. The perpetual motion machine keeps churning out innovations and goods and dollars, all while keeping us interminably busy. Thus we can have liberty and safety. Life can, seemingly, be full and sterile.

But what if it’s unsanitary to be busy? What if it’s unsafe to run the perpetual motion machine? Then everything goes haywire. Then the trade-off reemerges.

This is why the pandemic is not just frightening but destabilizing. The virus itself unsettles our feeling of sanitary security, but the effect is magnified by its jamming the economic engine. We are forced to confront questions we thought were behind us: What, really, makes life worthwhile? What about our way of living are we willing to risk? Where are safety, prosperity, and mortal life in the hierarchy of goods?

The moral and intellectual muscles we need to contemplate these questions have atrophied. We assume that a safe sterility is the only humane way to live. This is a side effect of our reliance on the perpetual motion machine. With the means of sustaining life seemingly effortlessly secure, we could focus on the details of their distribution and enjoyment. By becoming the source of our psychological security, the machine, like a cargo cult deity, has become the source of the meaning of life itself.

Thus we have public figures offering to sacrifice themselves, and a goodly proportion of the aged and weakened, to placate this god. Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, said enthusiastically that most seniors would “take a chance on [their] survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for [their] children and grandchildren. If that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” This is ostensibly about embracing mortality for the common good, but it’s really a pagan martyrdom. It’s about restoring the order of the cosmos so that the liberty-safety trade-off will recede and the survivors can feel easily secure again.

If the “America that all America loves” is nothing more than the efficient running of the perpetual motion machine, then to hell with it. There must be something worth dying for—that line of Lennon’s “Imagine” may be the most inhuman of them all—but it cannot be the economy.

Then we’re forced to ask another uncomfortable question: What, then, is the point of death? Our entire perpetual motion civilization is designed to keep death at bay. This, too, is not right. It’s a rebellion against reality and against Providence, a reenactment of any number of Scriptural warnings against man-made godliness. My son, four years old, is either morbid or anxious (time will tell): He often asks when we will die. I answer: Only God knows. No amount of charts and tables can change that.

It seemed like we had achieved a stable, if very imperfect, equilibrium with death. It came for the old, as it always has, and there was little to be done about that. It sometimes came for the young, too, and that was grossly unfair, but we’d built a medical infrastructure to minimize it. Life kept going, as it must—though sometimes too blithely, as when a mourner was forced back to work to keep the machine humming.

Now there is a new bringer of death, and the equilibrium is lost. I won’t pass judgment on any particular lockdown policy. It’s clear to me that a severe but temporary stoppage of normal life is necessary, else we devalue life itself in favor of some contingent idea of normalcy. It’s not a denial of our humanity to take a break, even from one another, for a higher good. I think we should see quarantine as an opportunity to sacrifice for the weak—and to regard and reform the absurdity of the perpetual motion economy.

The point, however, isn’t to stop death or even to save every possible life, as if the new virus is an assailant who can be costlessly neutralized. We have no rights against the coronavirus; its virulence is neither an injustice nor an assault. It is, and that’s what matters. The point is to buy time to reach a new equilibrium with death’s new ordnance. This is prudence; it becomes servility if the alarm lasts too long and consumes too much.

If my grandmother ages five years in (may God forbid it) five months of isolation from my children, but doesn’t catch the plague, it is no great victory for humanity. It may even be a great loss: If my fear of giving her the virus significantly diminishes her remaining time, in quality and quantity of days, it would be hardly more tolerable than actually doing it. It might even be less so. Eventually I, and all of us individually and as a society, must decide when the good of living outweighs the good of not dying.

This long Lent should be an invitation, then, to give up fear, not just fear of death but fear of decision and uncertainty and risk—that is, fear of life. The world can be, and perhaps must be, both more dangerous and more humane. After all the end of Lent is never an easy security or a return to normalcy, but a new and beautiful and bracing reality: Christ resurrected.

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