In film and literature, monsters are often thought of as “other-worldly,” inhuman, or a stand-in for “the other.” According to this understanding, a monster is frightening to us because of its unfamiliarity to us.
. . . we as Americans are not as totally independent and isolated from others as we often like to believe.But this idea of monsters is not quite complete. In another—and much deeper—sense, monsters frighten us because they reveal something about ourselves we would otherwise not care to look at or acknowledge. This can be seen even in the linguistic origins of the word “monster,” which actually means an omen or sign that warns, reminds, and instructs. It shares etymological roots with words of understanding, such as demonstrate. Monsters therefore often function as symbols that reveal important aspects of the people and cultures that confront (or even cultivate and feed) them. In short, a society’s “monsters” are actually mirrors—sometimes distorted, but often very illuminating and penetrating—that reveal hidden details and problems in the society itself.
Consider two classic examples: Frankenstein’s monster and King Kong. Both of these supposed monsters warn readers and viewers not only about the dangers of humans interfering with nature, but also about our own hypocrisy and moral actions. In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s monster started out as a blank slate, and only became evil and isolated when people treated him with disdain; her ugly monster revealed some of the hidden ugliness in Shelley’s nineteenth-century society. Likewise, Tarantino’s brilliant pub scene in Inglorious Bastards reveals one potential hidden mirror of King Kong. When playing a game that requires each player to guess the identity of the name written on their card, one player narrows it down to someone who was native to the jungle; whose visit to America was not fortuitous for him but was for someone else; who went to America against his will; and who was displayed in chains once he arrived. The player quickly concluded this was the story of the slave in America, but when told that answer was incorrect, he said, “Well, then, I must be King Kong.” Both Frankenstein’s monster and King Kong reveal the ugliness of our own world in surprising ways.
Monsters also reveal our own internal monsters. In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Voldemort begins as a fully external monster—someone Harry must battle with a wand. But as the story progresses, Harry realizes how connected he is to Voldemort, and that he and Voldemort are, in fact, “twins,” just as their wands were twins. Harry must then defeat the internal Voldemort, and he eventually learns that he must do this not primarily through his magic, but by choosing friendship and love in order to resist the “monster” within.
I believe COVID-19 has become our society’s most recent real-life monster. This virus has many attributes of traditional monsters, in that it is new and frightening and difficult to understand or categorize. And like monsters, it has given us a glaringly bright mirror to see ourselves and our world. This monster virus is revealing us to ourselves, reminding and instructing us about who we are, and the lessons have not always been encouraging.
This list of what we have discovered about ourselves during the pandemic could fill pages (and has) as we take stock of ourselves. But the lesson that most stands out to me is this: we as Americans are not as totally independent and isolated from others as we often like to believe. Having grown up on tales of the self-made man and the value of hard work, we often think we can achieve anything on our own with enough discipline and willpower. While hard work and discipline are good things, however, they are usually insufficient when dealing with large and complex problems besetting society, such as the coronavirus pandemic. This is a monster we cannot face down alone: either as individuals, or as one solitary nation among many in an increasingly connected global community.
What the COVID-monster has clearly shown us is that we are much more interconnected and interdependent than we realized. Social distancing has taught us that one person can directly infect a hundred within days of normal activity, and though I certainly wish the proof of this interconnectedness was not a life-threatening virus, it powerfully reminds us of our elaborate webs of relationships, of how much we touch people across miles, oceans, continents. It is rare to glimpse such clear and persuasive evidence of our global interconnectedness, to physically see how one life can touch so many others.
Though we have clear physical evidence of our interconnectedness and interdependence, many still resist this interdependence, continuing with their daily activities despite public pleas and guidelines. We have seen waves of people who declare “they aren’t scared of the coronavirus,” not seeming to recognize or acknowledge that their risks are not only gambling with their own lives, but with their family’s, neighbors’, city’s, country’s, and world’s. They dismiss public health guidance, social distancing, and mask orders, often reasoning that they ought “to have a choice in the matter.” While having a say in one’s own health is certainly a reasonable desire, in a pandemic like this one, our choices are no longer simply our own choices: singular actions have mass consequences. We have now seen how even a few people not following guidelines at a university, for instance, can quickly lead to the entire school having to change course.
This physical evidence of interdependence can help us understand our moral and spiritual interdependence, too. The television show The Good Place, which just wrapped up earlier this year, did a lot of things well, but what I most admired about it was its core message of our moral interdependence. We cannot become good, the show insists, without other people. But it also acknowledges the difficulty in seeing our interdependent relationships, and how many people are impacted by our choices during an era that confusingly consists of one part globalization, one part nationalism, and one part extreme individualism.
The show demonstrates this larger, hidden network brilliantly, explaining, in one episode, the simple act of buying roses. The characters on the show notice a discrepancy in the points system used to determine whether a person will go to the “good place” or the “bad place”: in the Middle Ages, a man could pick the roses and deliver them to his grandmother on her birthday to earn positive points, but today, a man could send his grandmother roses for his birthday but earn negative points. Why? Well, the modern-day roses were grown using pesticides that damaged the earth and were taken care of by migrant workers who were paid poor wages and lived in poor conditions. Additionally, the man ordered the flowers using a cell phone made by a company uses child labor and other exploitative labor practices in making the phones and whose CEO sexually harasses his employees. Consequently, the same basic action—giving roses to one’s grandmother for her birthday—tallied wildly different point counts, with the medieval man earning points and the modern man losing them.
In our modern world, the goods we see in the store carry invisible layers stacked upon layers of complicated networks, webs, and structures. We may think we are making an independent, singular choice when we purchase, say, a t-shirt, but that choice contains a whole history before it made it to the shelf, so that my choosing to buy it means I’ve unintentionally made a whole series of choices—some of which I never would have made if they stood there, as visible as the t-shirt I can see and touch. Buying that t-shirt connects me not only to the shirt and the employee who rings it up at the register, but to the store, its practices, its advertising methods, its shipping methods, its supply chain, its manufacturing and labor practices, its material supply sources, its farmers, its soil…and a handful of other places along the way.
The dangerous myth of total American independence has also crept its way into our churches. In evangelical Christianity, where we tend to talk about “personal salvation” and “a personal relationship with Jesus,” our language reflects our belief that salvation is individual. Yet so much of Christian tradition and Scripture emphasize salvation as communal. During quarantine, the self-isolation and social distancing perhaps made us feel like we were on our own, but as states try to reopen, we have discovered that the way out of this crisis relies upon our commitment to solidarity with one another. If we want to defeat this monster, we have to save one another.
The monster-mirror of COVID has shown us our polarized politics, nationalist sentiments, economic and social disparities, and self-protective hoarding . . .Human beings are created to be in relationship with one another, Genesis teaches us through the beginnings of creation. It also clearly shows that our choices have a ripple effect, in that sin not only exiles Adam and Eve, but all of us. Genesis describes how even the land itself is impacted by Adam and Eve’s sin. Sin has communal consequences, and therefore requires a communal redemption. This communal redemption is represented in the language of being saved in Christ’s body, together. 1 Corinthians 12, for instance, gives us a vision of our salvation as a body, describing the church as being knit together as one body, each part intimately connected to—and needing—the other. Even with Scripture’s constant reference to salvation as being Christ’s body, and the Church as Christ’s body, we often ignore or downplay this idea of solidarity as salvation.
Moreover, this interdependence does not only apply to the church, but extends to everyone in Scripture’s description of love. The two greatest commandments—to love God and to love one’s neighbor (i.e. any neighbor, not just Christian neighbors)—are intricately linked. The first epistle of John expands on how these two commandments relate, stating that one cannot love God without loving one another, meaning, most simply, if we deny our connectedness to our neighbors, we deny our connectedness to God.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s character Grushenka shares a brief story about a woman and her onion to emphasize how we are knit together and therefore share the same fate. In Dostoevsky’s story, a woman dies and is sent to hell, but she appeals: she once offered an onion to a person in need. A deal is struck: if that onion is enough to pull her out of hell, she may be saved. A hand reaches from heaven to offer her the onion, and it begins to pull her out of hell. Several people cling onto her legs, creating a long chain to the hand holding the onion. Worried that the onion could not be strong enough to lift this massive chain of people up, the woman begins to kick the chain of people off her legs, annoyed that they might prevent her from reaching heaven. After kicking them off, the onion falls apart, and every single person, including the woman, fall back to hell.
The woman, in kicking off the others, was only concerned about saving herself, and thus, all were lost. But if she had hung on, if she had tried to save everyone—the whole chain of people clinging to her legs—who knows how many may have been saved? Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodox faith taught him to understand salvation as solidarity, a strong contrast from that language of “personal” salvation found in many of today’s American churches. Dostoevsky believed that we are bound together in ways we do not always recognize; as such, we’re in this together, whether or not we like it.
This message of solidarity is so different from our hyper-competitive society, in which everyone else is merely an obstacle to the prize. Dostoevsky would say that life is not a race, that we are not all competitors pursuing a limited number of prizes. Rather, it is more like a cathedral, or a mosaic, where every single rock is needed for the good of the whole. If one rock is cracked, the whole building is unstable. If one part of the mosaic falls, the picture is incomplete.
Like almost all monster stories, I hope this pandemic ends with the COVID-monster defeated. But I also hope that we continue to take stock of ourselves and take some difficult, honest looks into the mirror to see what this monster virus has shown us about ourselves. Like all monsters, it has shown us our capacity for good and evil. The monster-mirror of COVID has shown us our polarized politics, nationalist sentiments, economic and social disparities, and self-protective hoarding; but we have also seen generosity, creativity, resourcefulness, and resilience. Frankenstein’s monster becomes more monstrous in his isolation, while a hero like Harry Potter defeats his monster by learning to rely on his friends.
Only by recognizing that we are not islands but are bound together in solidarity and cooperation can we be saved. Only when we recognize our interdependence can we defeat two monsters at once, killing off both the virus and our false belief in self-reliant individualism.