What we’re doing now and what we’ll do later

I went for what turned out to be a great run late this afternoon in an empty Washington; sharing a few scenes from the run and some quarantine thoughts.

E. J. Hutchinson writes on “learning in quarantine,” reflecting on his post-September 11th experience and C.S. Lewis’s 1939 Learning in War-Time address:

We are once again in a similar situation, but this time the enemy is even more viscerally one of flesh and blood: the sour grapes of a virus that has set the world’s teeth on edge. My institution, like many others, has suspended its in-person classes. And the question can easily arise: Why bother learning? People are dying. More people are going to die. Reading a book seems to be at best a ridiculous self-indulgence, at worst a repudiation of trying at least to do something useful.

On that score, what Lewis had to say in 1939—mutatis mutandis, ceteris paribus, and all the rest of it—has something to say to us now. For he had to face the same question. Given Hitler, given Mussolini, given all of it, why go to school? How can one justify it? “Is it not like fiddling,” Lewis asks, “while Rome burns?” The way in which he responds to this question is at once incisive and illuminating.

The first thing he does is to set the war, and the way it might make one radically rethink his priorities, against a deeper, broader, and more cosmic backdrop. That is to say, the drama of life occurs in the midst not only of temporal concerns like war or disease, but also of eternal ones, namely heaven and hell. Everyone is on his way to one or the other. Thus “every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant.” The last enemy is not one of flesh and blood.

This is not to say that the war is completely unimportant, but rather that it is not–cannot be–the most important thing. Lewis is not attempting to be callous or to perform what is known on Twitter as a “Jesus juke.” His point is that “[i]f human culture can stand up to that [i.e. the question of one’s eternal destiny], it can stand up to anything.” If we think that culture and learning are important even when taking the last things and eternity into account, then they are a fortiori important when taking earthly calamity into account.

After all, war and disease do not create death where there was no death before. We were already mortal. What they do instead is “simply [to] aggravate the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.” And if we waited to “search for knowledge” until we had solved the problem of death, “the search would never have begun.”

When we think about death, we realize that “[l]ife has never been normal.” …

It is a difficulty that this all sometimes must occur under the shadow of catastrophe. This makes us anxious, and that is not surprising. But Lewis counsels that you “not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament is more abnormal than it really is.” To return to an earlier point, conditions will never be ideal, and “[i]f we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work.” But the truth is that “[t]he only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”

Consider this moment in time through the lens of striving for virtue, striving for excellence. Does this time make that striving harder, more difficult? Does it dispel some of the fog of the everyday and help you see more clearly what the essential things in this life are? To pursue virtue, to pursue excellence is to thrive in the midst of the unfavorable conditions of the everyday, and what these unusual days can help prepare us for is precisely that: our eventual return to the everyday and the unfavorable—even if more mundane-seeming conditions that come with the territory of that life.

And what are saints except those who have lived heroic lives of virtue, who have encountered God, amidst the ordinary and extraordinary in every generation? I’m thinking of John Paul II, who went home to God on April 2nd, 2005. I remember listening to the tolling of the bells of Rome through Fr. Roderick Vonhögen’s Catholic Insider podcast, through his distinctive “soundseeing” episodes of that time where he simply walked the streets of Vatican City and let who knows how many of us feel closer to the only Holy Father that many of us had ever known. Jason Evert writes in his book Saint John Paul the Great:

In the final months of his life, his face was swollen from cortisone (he had Parkinson’s). His aides stood at his side to wipe drool from his mouth as he attempted to address massive audiences. 

The man who for decades masterfully used inflections and dramatic intonations to stir the hearts of his listeners could now only slur his words. But John Paul didn’t want anyone to look away in embarrassment. He wanted them to see him, for their own benefit. The man who taught the world how to live was now teaching them how to die.

Lying in his bed, he asked that the Gospel of John be read aloud. His last words were (in Polish) Pizwolcie mi odejc do domu Ojca—Let me go to the house of the Father.

He once said: “Just when night engulfs us, we must think about the dawn coming, we must believe that every morning the Church is revived through her saints. Not because they have conquered the world, but because they allowed Christ to conquer them.”

What are we doing now and what are we going to do later? Are we going to let ourselves reflect in this time and let it change our lives after this time in our life is over?

Are we going to recognize that these questions apply to every day of our lives?

Palm Sunday during pandemic

Yesterday I walked to Saint Stephen Martyr for confession. Spring is emerging in its fullness in Georgetown, so the walk there was beautiful. I also saw my first Biden yard sign.

It was the first time I’ve set foot in a church since the pandemic closures, since I got back from my Longlea retreat three or so weeks ago. As I sat in the empty church after confession, it was reassuring to hear the organist still practicing—knowing Easter will come shortly whether we’re together in person or not.

And today I joined Fr. Charles Trullols via YouTube stream for his noon Palm Sunday Mass:

It’s a beautiful day out, hitting 70 degrees probably, so I’m heading out for a run.

Rose Park in springtime

Washington feels largely emptied out since self-distancing and quarantine/lockdown really came into place in mid-March. And since Mayor Bowser’s formal stay-at-home order, the feeling of emptiness has increased somewhat. I still get out to go for runs, and public exercise is allowable along with other reasons to be out like heading for groceries, etc.

Americans in the millions have lost their jobs over the past few weeks, and unemployment claims are expected to continue to grow by the millions. Depending on how long this lasts, it’s possible we could be looking at Great Depression-level unemployment numbers.

In light of that, I’m especially thankful to still be working. And I’m grateful to be in Washington in this time and to still be able to head into the office periodically to pick up essential correspondence and do what needs to be done in person.

The sings of spring are all around and the days are growing increasingly beautiful. It’s tough to want to be indoors, even as we recognize that this self-distancing is prudent and necessary to contain the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve” of demand on our doctors and hospital staffs. Hopefully we can turn the corner soon, and figure out how to restore work to those who have lost it in the weeks and months to come.

Potomac pandemic run

I’ve been letting too many of the days under quarantine go by from waking to sleeping without meaningfully getting outdoors. As our typical routines have evaporated, the simple interludes in our day that we end up taking for granted or complain about turn out to be key bookends that give structure to our days: our commute, stepping our for coffee or lunch, taking a walk during an afternoon call, heading to an evening dinner or event, heading to noon Mass, etc.

All of that has effectively disappeared, and so now we have to do it intentionally. Today I decided to get out during lunchtime and got in a nice ~5.5 mile run along the Potomac. And tonight I’m meeting a colleague in Arlington for a good walk and conversation.

Simple things are also essential things and it’s good not to take them for granted, but to engage each of them as a gift.

Saint John Paul the Great’s centenary

George Weigel, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, spoke tonight at the Mayflower. He delivered the annual William E. Simon Lecture, and this year’s theme was “Saint John Paul II: A Centenary Reflection on a Life of Consequence”. EPPC streamed the lecture and I’m embedding it here.

The post-lecture reception was a great one, partly because COVID-19 fears meant that the lecture was about half empty. (Last year it was packed/overflowing.) And that meant a calmer and more relaxed time to be with good people.

The backwards law

After work yesterday I took the Metro with two colleagues home from Farragut West to Rosslyn, mainly so we could continue a conversation we had started and partly because I’m tired of my walk home along M Street. Heading to Rosslyn and walking home across the Key Bridge gave me this:


How great are the great things in our lives that we don’t need to pursue but simply recognize and enjoy.  Alan Watts wrote about this and Mark Manson riffs on it:

Wanting a positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience. It’s what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as “the backwards law”—the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place. The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make. The more you desperately want to be sexy and desired, the uglier you come to see yourself, regardless of your actual physical appearance. The more you desperately want to be happy and loved, the lonelier and more afraid you become, regardless of those who surround you. The more you want to be spiritually enlightened, the more self-centered and shallow you become in trying to get there.

Protect Women Protect Life Rally

I spent this morning in front of the U.S. Supreme Court for the “Protect Women Protect Life Rally” in support of Louisiana’s “Unsafe Abortion Protection Act”. Americans United for Life joined with Live Action, Alliance Defending Freedom, Students for Life, and Louisiana Right to Life and others to put this rally together.

As we were rallying outside, the U.S. Supreme Court was in session and hearing oral arguments concerning Louisiana’s law. We expect a ruling to be handed down in June.


National Press Club press conference in support of Louisiana law

We held a press conference this afternoon at the National Press Club in advance of tomorrow’s “Protect Women Protect Life Rally” at the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Louisiana’s health and safety law:

National Pro-life Coalition Holds Press Conference Ahead of Oral Arguments in Landmark Abortion Case

U.S. Senators, Representatives to join Louisiana State Lawmakers and Pro-life Activists to discuss June Medical Services v. Russo

Washington, D.C.—The U.S. Supreme Court will take up June Medical Services v. Russo, potentially the most important abortion-related case in more than three decades. Ahead of the oral arguments, a coalition of preeminent national pro-life organizations and leaders will hold a press conference at the National Press Club on March 3rd at 2 PM to discuss the merits and implications of the landmark case.

The Court will consider the constitutionality of a Louisiana law requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they perform an abortion as well as whether or not abortion businesses have standing to file lawsuits against pro-life laws, as opposed to lawsuits being brought by individuals seeking access to abortion.

I had the chance to interview Sen. Katrina Jackson this morning. She’s the pro-life Democrat who sponsored the Louisiana law at the center of this U.S. Supreme Court case. That interview will be out next week on our “Life, Liberty, and Law” podcast.

Raise a standard

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”

I noticed this on an early morning walk to work. I was walking from St. Dominic in Southwest, south of the Mall near L’Enfant Metro. I had crossed Constitution and looked up to see this beautiful classical facade with this timeless aspiration inscribed upon it.

It’s one of my favorites from Washington for both its power and nobility.

Georgetown canal path

I forget that Georgetown has these incredible canal paths. I worked from Capital One Cafe again this morning and later while on a conference call walked along the canal path on the way to the office.

This is definitely one of the nicer stretches of Georgetown’s canals. Certain locks are non-functional or are presently under reconstruction. And I know there’s a longer term (3-5 year) revitalization plan that was recently approved for the Georgetown stretch of the canals.

What we have here is beautiful enough for now and probably one of the best ways to spend an afternoon—and certainly a conference call.