The philosopher Alan Watts observed, “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.” Trees rely on underground mycelia networks and diverse bacteria spread throughout the forest floor as much as rain and sunshine. Humans too often gaze skywards when the essential action occurs below.
Societies, designed to contain one of the most social animals ever, also rely on a host of invisible factors. These unseen agents were not created for our benefit. They long predate us. In many ways, we’re the product of these forces. Without them, we would not be.
Viruses began life as hitchhikers accompanying the first living cells. “Life” is an odd term given their zombie-like nature. These microscopic agents are inert until hijacking an organism’s cells. Once inside, as British biologist Peter Medawar phrased it, viruses are “a piece of bad news wrapped up in a protein.”
Not all viruses result in tragedy. They’re as much a part of us as cancer cells. You just don’t want the nefarious ones proliferating.
Evolution is a long game of defense. We’ve had a good run these last 12,000 years; viruses persist despite our success. They would laugh at our pride if they felt any emotion at all. Herpes has been hanging around for hundreds of millions of years and shows no sign of leaving.
One frustrating aspect of viruses is their size. Conventional microscopes cannot detect them. Bill Bryson puts it into perspective:
If you blew one up to the size of a tennis ball, a human would be five hundred miles high.
The Black Death was the most fatal pandemic in history. In the 14th century, diseases were thought to be caused by noxious “bad air” filtering down from the heavens. This caused many Christians to practice alousia, “the state of being unwashed,” as a protective mechanism. Linen shirts were thought to keep you safe; bathing opened your pores, allowing toxic vapors to enter your body. This practice lasted for centuries.
Then Louis Pasteur infects a group of cattle with anthrax and we learn what Traditional Chinese Medicine taught for nearly two millennia: a little bit of disease causes your body to adapt and fight off larger doses.
Meanwhile, miasma theory—toxic air from the heavens—was proven false by Italian entomologist Agostino Bassi. Tiny agents are the true cause of disease.
Germ theory predates him as well. Indian physicians speculated person-to-person transmission existed since at least the sixth century BCE.
The metaphysicists were right: invisible forces affect our health. Even Hippocratic students didn’t believe diseases have divine origins, however. As one cautioned:
“Men think it divine merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things!”
Siddhārtha Gautama is a century older than Hippocrates, though there’s crossover in their respective work. The Hippocratic Oath—first, do no harm—aptly sums up the Buddhist mindset. Both men realized harm is inevitable. The goal of their systems is minimizing your role in causing more.
They also knew humans are capable of going one step further: when you see harm being caused, do your best to help.
Gautama’s epic quest began with disenchantment. Born a prince, his father did his best to shield the horrors of the world from the future Buddha. Yet we all know how prohibition works. Tell someone not to look and their next action becomes inevitable.
Gautama practiced yoga for years. Meditation was drilled into his DNA—it’s important to point out “meditation” also means “contemplation.” Spiritual practices aren't about tuning out the world, but weighing all of the possibilities and forging the most appropriate path ahead.
During his time, Gautama noticed the tendency of his peers to wish for “something more.” Life is fragile and unsatisfactory; somewhere better must exist. This translated, then and now, as the theory of an afterlife. While Gautama understood this emotional impulse, he kept his mind rooted in the moment. As religious scholar Karen Armstrong puts it,
He did not believe that this “something else” was confined to the divine world of the gods: he was convinced that he could make it a demonstrable reality in this mortal world of suffering, grief and pain.
One of the keys to accomplishing this mindset is humility. Gautama eventually left his yoga teachers due to their arrogance. He recognized pride as a dangerous obstacle to understanding. This is why debating is such an essential component of Buddhist practice. As soon as you think you’ve attained the truth, you realize there’s nothing to be had.
This became the basis for Gautama’s primary Noble Truth: you suffer when you believe reality should be other than what it is.
The antidote is humility.
Buddha was not the only humble leader. While most every spiritual practice teaches some form of humility, Jesus is one of the best examples of humility. His sacrifice was not to gain cred. It was to help others.
Associate Professor of Theology, Adam Johnson, writes,
Humility, in short, is the twin movement of not clinging to something that is ours, but using it for the benefit of others, that they might share in it to their benefit.
An important cross-pollination of two major religions: We’re in this together, so let’s act like it. Let’s lift one another up instead of trying to claw our way above others.
Political columnist David Brooks has an uncanny knack for injecting Christian philosophy into his writing without spilling over into fundamentalism. That in itself is a humble quality. He recognizes the message is more important than an agenda.
Humility relieves you of the awful stress of trying to be superior all the time. It inverts your attention and elevates the things we tend to look down on.
As Childish Gambino sang, this is America.
Of course, it’s not all of America. Not even a majority. Enough to make you wonder where humility went, or if it was even considered.
Americans are raised to believe the religion they’re born into is who they are. Faith is a label, like a middle name. A word affixed to a biography. Something you turn to when it best suits you, to proclaim loudly when your identity is questioned.
Gautama could easily have lived a princely life. Curiosity forced him to leave the safety of his kingdom and question everything he had been told. He ultimately realized religion is not an addendum. It’s a practice. You don’t get to claim it without following its directives.
Religion isn’t required to understand the relevance of humility. It keeps you curious. It invites questions. Humility asks you to turn over all the stones before believing treasure only lies under the first one you flip.
Humility begins, as it did for Gautama, the day you step beyond shelter to witness your place in a vast and tragic and beautiful world shared with billions of other confused and proud and beautiful human beings.
You realize we’re in this forest together.
Nature has many protective mechanisms. When one species of tree tries to dominate the forest, the mycelia divert resources to other species. Fungi know what we seem to forget: everyone thrives as long as no single person tries to steal all of the light.
Early in my career, a friend warned me that any business run by a corrupt leader filters all the way down. Bombast is an inevitable death knell. I only have anecdotes when now, a quarter-century later, I affirmatively shake my head.
As a country, though, we have proof.
Humility is the last lesson learned when you don’t prioritize it. Thinking you know more than you do is too tempting when YouTube is a click away.
100,000 Americans dead, give or take. The national response is wrong because the canopy of the administration is corrupt. This time, the miasma theory is correct: toxins freely float to the floor. That doesn’t mean our response should be haircuts and 5G.
Freedom takes more work than that.
Just because we don’t know everything about this disease doesn't mean we’re completely ignorant. We know viruses don’t debate. They’re not partisan. While COVID-19 exploits certain conditions Americans seem uniquely suited for, it doesn’t care about your social media following. It doesn’t care at all. It leaves that to us apes.
The question is: how much do we care?