[OPINION] The existential community quarantine

Nikko Dizon
[OPINION] The existential community quarantine
'At a time like this, we yearn for something to live for. But the existential threat of COVID-19 does not just threaten our lives; it threatens our existence.'

My training as a professional philosopher came from the analytic tradition, one that originated from (supposedly) scientifically minded British and American philosophies. As such, I have since dismissed existentialism as that type of philosophy that you only engage in when you were an angsty teenager struggling to find direction but later on discards for “more mature” types of philosophies.

When our online classes in UP got suspended, my students and I decided to conduct a reading group where we meet online once a week to discuss a text outside the syllabus that we want to read for that week. While I preferred to discuss metaphysics, my students overwhelmingly voted for a philosopher who I did not take too seriously because of his popularity: Albert Camus.

In a collection of essays entitled Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Camus would claim that the fundamental question is the question on the meaning of life. It is not just a fundamental question but it is the fundamental one. What does it matter if the Earth revolves around the Sun or not if life is not worth living? Why would I care if the Earth is flat or not if life has no meaning? Touché.

Reading this in the time of the Enhanced Community Quarantine is particularly striking. The COVID-19 pandemic literally poses an existential threat to all of human life today. And when faced with the possibility of complete obliteration, it suddenly seemed as if nothing else in the world mattered but survival. Truly, no stock market price or academic work was spared: we all need to stay at home. Survival seems to be worth all of our jobs, and all of our money. Is it really worth it? The question still remains: what is the meaning of life?

At a time like this, we yearn for something to live for. But the existential threat of COVID-19 does not just threaten our lives; it threatens our existence

With the imposed isolation of so many communities, a part of us is lost – a part of our humanity becomes missing. Martin Heidegger talks of our relationship to the Being of other entities as our facticity. Our facticity involves our concern for things that we do, things that we buy, and people that we care about. But the needed isolation for survival devoids us of these relationships; the ECQ rids us of an aspect of our facticity. 

Suddenly, we can no longer do things that are of concern to us and we cannot visit those whom we care about. Even the food that we care to eat is suddenly lost; we are now at the mercy of which supplies are left on supermarket stands. Suddenly, just so we could survive as a species, we deprive ourselves of a modality of our Being as humans.

In isolating ourselves, we fight for survival. But in isolation too, our very existence is compromised.

The situation is bleak. At this point it seems as if Arthur Schopenhauer and his contemporary disciple, David Benatar, are right: existence is indeed a harm. If we never existed, there would be no way for me to suffer like this: a month-long lockdown without assurance of adequate food supply or security of tenure.

The situation, however, can only be bleak if we discount an important aspect of our humanity: hope. When we hope for something after this crisis, we can always reaffirm the adage, “This too shall pass.” Humanity, in its several thousands of years of history, has gone through different hardships – the Black Plague, colonization from the West, the Spanish flu pandemic, the two World Wars, and the 2008 financial crisis. Although in every single one of them there seemed to be no escape, somehow humanity managed to survive, only because we have always hoped.

But what can we hope for? When infection numbers continuously go up and there is always the threat of extending the ECQ, what makes us hope? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, reflected on Hebrews 11:1 where the unknown author said, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Benedict XVI observes that when we hope, we do not know what is to come; but with faith, what is hoped for becomes a reality. More importantly, the reality that faith gives us is not a reality in the future; it is, today, the substance of what we hope for. 

In faith, what is hoped for becomes truly present.

As an atheist, Camus would definitely scoff at this remark. But fidelity does not have to remain religious or spiritual; it is a substantial assurance and conviction that whatever we hope for is not about to come, but is already there, waiting for us. It is a fervent belief in human capacity: that whatever we’ve been working for has always been there for us to pursue.

Alain Badiou has an interestingly atheistic account of fidelity: as subjects, we essentially remain faithful to truths – not the Truth, but a plurality of truths. A human subject is human when it has faith; I dare say that it is part of our facticity. Factically, humans have faith. No matter how difficult it is to fight for worker’s rights, a political activist will continue to do so, only because she has faith. Even if the arts do not usually pay much, an artist will continue to work on her craft, only because she has faith. 

No matter how difficult it is to fight the spread of COVID-19, the frontliners and the whole of humanity will continue to do so, only because we have faith – and that assures us of our hope.

It is therefore with faith-based hope that we face this crisis together. Although most of the time, it is all-too easy to give in to nihilism and just give up. But maybe because of our humanity, we are too stubborn to do this: we fight, we persist, and we hope because we have faith.

In the end, we can take solace in President Magsaysay’s words in 1957, “Keep your faith and your faith will keep you!” – Rappler.com 

Jairus Diesta Espiritu currently teaches philosophy at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. Aside from philosophy, he spends his time doing photography and studying religious iconography. You can email him at jdespiritu1@up.edu.ph. 

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Nikko Dizon

Nikko Dizon is a freelance journalist specializing in security and political reporting. She has extensively covered issues involving the military, the West Philippine Sea maritime dispute, human rights, and the peace process.