The Old Lie

We are in the middle of a tragedy along the lines of Oedipus Rex. Thebes is experiencing a plague. King Oedipus (a “tyrant,” or leader with no legitimate claim to rule) is told that, to end the plague, he must find the one who killed the previous king. I will spoil the plot for you: he did it. He’s the murderer, but he doesn’t know it yet. This story isn’t about who did it; it’s about how we create the conditions of our own demise through our efforts to avoid that very demise.

Now replace “Thebes” with “the economy” because in our world, country and economy are one and the same. Who is to blame? How can we save our countreconomy from this plague?

Our Tyrannus Rex believes that the blame lies with liberals who are pressing a “stay at home” agenda. His solution is for everyone to go back to work, to let the death chips fall where they may. Will we be able to make things stop falling apart by acting as though they are not falling apart, or will that action ultimately be the very thing that delivers the death blow to our countreconomy?

What happens when millions of people die? Even, let’s say, if it’s just older people? And what will that truly look like? Are we just numbers, or are we humans gasping for air?

And when it’s over, will the young carry on as everything was before? Another spoiler alert: they will not. What a cruel joke to even suggest it. They CANNOT.

Because, behind this tragic plot, is another one, the BIG tragedy of our times. Our actions are killing our ecosystem. We are the ones who did it, and along with the impersonal ecosystem, we are killing our own children. We weren’t willing to change our climate-altering behaviors before, but (plot twist!) this plague is changing them for us. Perhaps this is, after all, a joyous comedy for the earth and our young. All’s well that ends well.

But in every comedy, there is pain. We celebrate the triumph of spring over winter, but didn’t winter love itself too? Is there nothing lost when the silence is broken, the snow melts, the bare limbs become hidden behind leaves?

We are being told right now, by people in government, that is sweet and honorable to die for country: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. As the poet Wilfred Owen knew, this is an old, ugly lie. But if we do, wouldn’t it be beautiful if this were the start of a new spring? Please let it be so. Meanwhile, I’m going to work on my will as I sit in my office as though nothing strange were happening around me.

Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


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