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The world is panicking, the stock market is tanking, and even the wealthy and powerful are being struck down by a virus no one really understands. We are told this isn’t yet a pandemic, but it could become one.
I’m unmoved. We already have a pandemic. The countless suicides, overdoses, and self-destructive behavior among young men throughout the West are racking up a larger death toll than any virus.
Even the corporate press talks about “deaths of despair,” the people in Middle America who are drugging or drinking themselves to death. Their institutions have failed them; the industries that sustained them outsourced their jobs. The churches, for many people, provide no answers, partially because clergy lack the courage to defend their own doctrines.
What is really happening is that people have lost a center, a purpose, an identity. In Germanic mythology, the Irminsul, sometimes represented by a sacred tree, was a pillar that upheld the cosmos. It was the place where a tribe could ground itself, a way for individuals to know their identity and their worth. When Charlemagne and others forcibly Christianized the Germanic peoples, they destroyed these symbols. It was a way to rip out a tribe’s identity and resistance.
But this isn’t about religion, or another tiresome “Christian vs. Pagan” debate. It’s about a more universal concept, the idea of a center, the roots of identity. Various Christians sects have looked to Rome, Jerusalem, or Constantinople as a center. Jews think of the Temple; hundreds of millions of Muslims face Mecca every day to pray and are required to undertake a pilgrimage.
Of course, due to the virus, Saudi Arabia has placed a temporary ban on pilgrimages. I see this as fitting. We live in a commodified and desacralized world. We feel like we have no control over our own lives. We’re pawns of political and economic titans and the idea we have self-government is a bad joke. Even those things that some people see as sacred can’t survive in this current economic and global order. Events thousands of miles away and people we’ve never heard of seem to direct our lives.
Many people might believe (or pretend to believe) in God or the gods but there’s not that all-encompassing certainty people enjoyed in the past. Jean-Paul Sartre said we are “condemned to be free.” There’s no deity to shape our lives so we have the awful responsibility of deciding “how to live.” Of course, Sartre’s own choice was throwing himself behind trendy political movements, worshiping ressentiment instead of something worthy of service.
This is what most people do. Lacking identity, meaning, and purpose, people pursue money, notoriety, political power or temporary pleasures. We try to show we’re better than other people because we have more money or online clout. Nietzsche told us we need to become worthy of the death of God; instead we’re degrading ourselves even further. We have technology that could give us the power of gods; we use it to play insipid cell phone games and watch football and porn.
The “cures” people demand for social problems like income inequality or health care will just make problems worse. A government bureaucracy can’t substitute for tribe and a passport doesn’t give you a real identity. When people invoke “community,” it’s usually a sign that a real community doesn’t actually exist.
So we suffer. We suffer alone. We suffer and the world laughs at it. The Great and the Good believe our pain should be mocked. We live vicariously though blue screens, giving our time and money to people who despise us.
I’ve known those who have taken their own lives, voluntarily or involuntarily. Of course, when it comes to drug overdoses, even that has an element of choice because everyone knows how that road ends. In all these cases, I’ve felt personal responsibility. I felt it not because “I wasn’t there for them” or because I didn’t refer them to some stupid hotline, but because I wasn’t able to provide an alternative.
Of course, I recognize everyone has agency. As someone who’s struggled with suicide, I also understand that when you are gripped by the urge for self-destruction, often the last thing you want is someone telling you “life is worth living.” Is it? It sounds like a cope, like the person telling you just doesn’t want to deal with the aftermath of your death. It makes you more eager to put the barrel to your head. It means that even avoiding suicide becomes an act of weakness and fear.
I also understand that even when suicide has a trigger – a breakup, losing a job, the death of someone you love – there’s always something greater at work, something subconscious. It’s really the knowledge that whatever was holding you to this world was gone.
If you think about it rationally, the sum total of suffering in your life outweighs joy. Whatever experiences, accomplishments, or relationships you form will all end with death. Mere life, in and of itself, is not worth living.
So why do we go on? Or, rather, why do some of us go on? It’s not because we fear what comes hereafter, as Hamlet did. It’s because we feel we have something to do. Life reaches behind itself; we go forward because we are building towards something greater than ourselves. “Vita est militia super terram” – life is a soldier’s service upon the earth.
What is the mission? Some will say that it’s to “do good for others” or to “be kind” or “love people.” That’s petty, fake nonsense. It’s a good thing to comfort dying people in a hospital, but it doesn’t change the fact they’re dying. If you claim to love all of humanity, you really don’t love anyone. Those who bleat the most about loving everyone are usually the most vicious and dishonorable in their personal conduct.
We need a higher purpose and a higher goal to justify our being here. Nietzsche said it was the Overman, but everyone has their own definition of what this means. We can’t philosophize our way into justifying life. We need something greater than life. We need Myth.
What is Myth? It’s something that lets us feel and know that we are participating in something eternal. We aren’t just seeking pleasure or power. We’re pursuing an Ideal, and we aren’t doing it along. We are joined by living comrades and the ranks of the victorious dead.
Our Ideal isn’t about dragging the world down to the morass of egalitarianism. It’s to pursue something higher, better, and above ourselves. It’s a holy mission. And we must endure and never give up, because we can’t let our comrades down nor fail our Ideal.
I know some of you out there are suffering. I also know those cackling faces on the blue screens want you to pull the trigger, to stick the needle in your arm, to destroy yourself with cheap food and cheap booze. Defy them. “Hate will keep you alive when love fails,” wrote Mark Lawrence in one of his novels. That’s true, but it burns itself out eventually. Ultimately, it is love that will sustain you. It’s just not the greeting-card, candlelight-vigil horseshit prevalent today. It’s the burning, furious devotion to comrades, conflict, and a holy crusade.
We are rootless and cast adrift. Yet there is something calling to us. The Irminsul still stands, it just remains for us to find it. Don’t let this world tear you apart mentally or physically. Instead, find your identity, your home, your center. Find those that will constantly push you upward. Make every moment of pain into a sacrificial offering on the altar of our great Ideal. And no matter what, endure.
You’re not a fucking consumer and you’re not a product. You’re not a number on some government form. You’re a pilgrim on a holy mission. Accept your burden, do your duty, and you too can live a Myth that reaches beyond mere life. Don’t become another casualty of Empire, of the anti-culture that wants you dead, the spiritual pandemic that’s ripping out our will to live. Rebel.
I’m pulling for you. We’re all pulling for you. And if you feel the call, step forward.