Friday the 13th, Pandemics, and the things that go bump in the night

Posted: March 13, 2020 in Uncategorized
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Death smiles at us all and all a man can do is smile back.
— Marcus Aurelius


In the late 1800s a man named Captain William Fowler determined that he had to remove the lingering superstition surrounding the number 13. To do so he decided to found an exclusive society called the Thirteen Club.

The group dined regularly on the 13th day of the month in room 13 of a place called the Knickerbocker Cottage. Before sharing a 13-course dinner, members walked under a ladder and a banner reading “Morituri te Salutamus,” Latin for “Those of us who are about to die salute you.”

That’s one way to do it. Head on. The hair of the dog that bit you. When death smiles your direction smile back. Get familiar with the distinguished reaper. Make friends. If you have fears or reservations, let them not be for the wrong reasons. Like the number 13.

Truth be told, we have lots of symbolic stand-ins for our fear of death. Friday the 13th is but one of them. We have designated certain “boogy men” to represent our deepest fears. The Day of the Dead functions similarly in Latin cultures. For a barely endurable moment the curtain is pulled back and we look old death in the face. But our glance is fleeting, for only as long as we can stand it. Most of the time we live in an illusion of immortality. Until, that is, something cracks that illusion open.

As real a threat as is our pandemic du jour, and as important as it is that we all be proactive and vigilant to mitigate its damage, this current visitation of the dark angel is but its most recent iteration, a temporary appearance in a long line of appearances. Pandemics, symbolically speaking, act as the number 13. They rattle the cage of our daily routines with a chilling reminder.

And they are more than direct harbingers of their own potential destruction. They remind us that something, somehow will get us, that each person, no exception, owes one death. That unvarnished truth is the kind of thing that the great world religions never shy away from. They all recognize the impermanence of life, its limits, the mortality of this human flesh, and our very brief tour on the planet.

In the Christian tradition this is epitomized by Ash Wednesday, which even the faithful avoid like the plague because, well, the observance gazes straight into the jaws of the plague. And if you ever wonder what the symbolic function of the cross is in the Christian mythos, this is one of them: There’s no getting through this life alive. And even the best of us, the superlative souls, must pass this same way.

Pandemics – like the Corona Virus – are truth-tellers, the breakers of illusion. They say in one way or another, “I may or may not be the one. But something else will get you, now or later.” People know what they mean on an intuitive level.

We are much more likely to perish as the result of cancer, heart disease, a vehicle accident, slipping on the soap in the shower, collapsing mowing our lawn in the heat of summer, being shot in a school shooting, squatting in a refugee camp, a natural disaster and so on and so on. Whatever the Corona fails to accomplish will be taken up by another member of the team.

So no matter how irrational is Friday the 13th, it is a day that reminds us of something else, of other fears that linger barely beneath the surface. Whenever the next pandemic circles the globe on its world tour we are reminded. We are reminded of the big fear that lurks behind all other fears and makes the current threat larger than life.

That’s why our response in the face of threat – other than reasonable survival instinct precaution and practice – requires a kind of existential courage. We must indeed smile back when we are smiled upon. And the answers to our fear of death – in whatever mask it presents itself – are love, hope, faith and trust, all of which transcend that which threatens our existence. Forcing us to dig deep for those again is the one of the collateral gifts that Friday the 13th and the Corona Virus unintentionally visit upon us.


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