The Meaning of “Meaning” and The Virus

This morning (March 27, 2020 p.A 26) David Books wrote his editorial page piece entitled “The Moral Meaning of the Plague.” For Brooks, the moral meaning is the confrontation with self facing death, or the fear of death. Brooks reveals t hat he overcomes his fear with “conversation and direct action” and finds “a stronger self emerges out of the death throes of the anxiety.”  From this he then announces an axiom, “Suffering can be redemptive,” and an experience, “A stronger self emerges out of the death throes of the anxiety.” I think it is good phenomenology to assign “meaning” to experiences of the self.

I am thinking back to Walker Percy enthralled with the interplay of Helen Keller and her nurse Ann Sullivan. Ann was attempting “to teach” Helen that the Braille symbol  she was pressing into into her hand “meant” the cool liquid that was pouring from the pump in Tuscumbia Alabama in 1887. What could be more difficult than to communicate that this sign or symbol meant that “thing.” It raised the question with me – not unlike Bill Clinton’s question, what does “is” mean? – what does mean mean? And the answer seems to be, “what  relation does  this thing have to me (or me to it)? That is, “Meaning” like “is” as well as “person” are intrinsically relational terms. And notice that Helen seemed to be who she was and be at peace with herself and the world when named the water. That is, she threw a likeness of the thing at the thing. She exercised her “I” as a subject. She s-y-m-b-o-l-i-z-e-d (from the Greek sym [likeness] Ballein [to throw]. She threw the likeness of the thing at the thing. That is, Helen named the water and – what is most important not to confuse – she experienced herself as an “I” – a subject – a person in the action of naming.

The same happened to Adam when he named the animals in the act of obeying the Creator’s command to name the animals as part of subduing the earth as an act of work. The act of obedience in Adam, as well as in Helen, lifted both from the non-Godlikeness of being created “things” (Adam: a rational ‘thing’- [read animal]) to the Godliness of imaging the Creator as “Acting-Person.” And here we have the theological and philosophical account of the experience and consciousness of the personal dignity of work. And, of course, this dovetails with the vocation given to St. Josemaria where work is the fundamental asceticism of becoming another Christ. Neither vows or changes of life to leave the world, but to stay in the world and work, and work well finishing it. A Christlikeness beging to appear and with it the joy of becoming who one really is.  

And so, I would offer that the virus is meaningful not so much as a stiffening of human moral fibre in the face of death but as a hiatus in the boring humdrum of everyday life where I perform in an environment and culture of things. But the virus is reducing the world of the macro to the micro of the immediate and personal. Most everybody is home, and working away electronically on what they can work on. Not many are out and there are no large gatherings of anybody for anything. We are encouraged into 6 foot personal distances so you hunker down on the immediate – small  –  and personal. This is a culture changer in itself. A sense of transcendence hovers over this. I smell a change of eras in the offing since the Magisterium has been on this certainly during the Council, and afterwards until now.

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