In this time of pandemic, is the light of existence so limited that we elders must douse our candles prematurely in order for others' to remain lit?
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. When Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote these lines in 1947, most people would agree that light was synonymous with life. It was a bright energy that everyone wanted to experience and enjoy for as long as possible. And so, of course, the assumption was that old people would naturally cling to it at all costs. Hence the need to rage against its dying.
Today, in the midst of a brutal pandemic, life is still a light, but one that is now casting a harsh glare into shadowy places we’ve long refused to acknowledge.
Before early this year, as I perused each morning's New York Times, I hardly ever looked at the obituaries pages, except to learn more about famous people whose lives intrigued me. But now, I tend to check them daily. Here's why.
People of all ages are dying from COVID-19, and we grieve their collective loss. Not surprisingly, the deaths of babies, children, and teens from this hideous virus invariably evoke our sadness because we think about the many more years they should have had to experience life and fulfill their potential. Moreover, the deaths of middle-agers produce their own poignancy as we acknowledge human loss in "the prime of life."
But what about the COVID deaths of individuals like me whom society lumps into that ageist category known as "the elderly"? Should collective sadness be any less intense for us because, well, after all, we have already lived much of our lives and thus should expect to die? More than that, as some have contended, should we older adults consider sacrificing ourselves to COVID so that younger people have a greater chance at economic opportunity and therefore survival? Is the light of existence so limited that we must douse our candles prematurely in order for others' to remain lit?
As I read the obituaries of nursing home residents, Holocaust survivors, World War II veterans, and others in their 70s, 80s, 90s, and 100s who have succumbed to COVID, I think "They survived years of great challenge, only to be taken down needlessly by a tragic disease that might have been seriously mitigated, given a competent strategy." This makes me incredibly sad.
And here's where my sadness turns into rage.
The federal government's obscenely botched handling of the pandemic in a timely and effective way by not establishing immediate, widespread quarantining and not providing health-care and other essential workers with protective and emergency equipment, reliable testing, and extensive contact tracing has caused an additional tens of thousands of deaths. So, too, Congress' failure to promptly and adequately fund small businesses and low-wage, gig, and unemployed and underemployed workers has caused economic peril and ruin. The current darkness in many lives is due to the intersectional effects of ageism, ableism, racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia in a pathologically unjust society.
Particularly regarding age, as all of us are constantly trying to cope with the protean realities of this virus, we're also experiencing outbreaks of ageism, which has been festering all along but now has emerged more clearly from the shadows and into the light of daily life. And while we're asking such questions as "Should I wear a mask?" and "How close is too close?", we should also be asking "What is a human life worth?", "Are some lives worth more than others?", and "Is it moral to calculate such worth?"
Every person's life has equal value. No one is dispensable or disposable. No one can determine the potential of one human being --- be it a baby or a centenarian --- to positively affect one or more fellow humans. And no one should have the authority to do it.
The amazing thing about a lit candle is that it can share its flame by lighting an infinite number of other candles without itself becoming dimmer or being extinguished. What this pandemic should be teaching us is how to build a more equitable society that provides the chance for every one of us to keep our personal flame ablaze as brightly and enduringly as we can.
Yes, we should make our peace with dying. That time will, after all, come to all of us. But for now, while we're alive, let's not go gentle into accepting and perpetuating the nightmares of discrimination that keep others in darkness and may hasten their death. Instead, let's burn and rave for moral solutions.
Let's rage, rage against the denying of the light.