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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 5/14

Dear Friends, Let me briefly talk of death. These days, we are hearing politicians, doctors, statisticians, and health care experts speaking about acceptable levels of deaths from COVID-19. They try to balance between numbers of deaths, serious illnesses, burdens on the health care system, and declining economic results. Emergency room physicians and healthcare workers on the front line also have to deal with this every day. They use data that includes age, pre-existing condition, quality of life, and anticipated outcomes, all trying to establish triage for patients. Increasingly, however, we are also hearing politicians and ordinary citizens suggesting that it is time to make “tough choices” and to save the economy. This is a perfectly normal and appropriate inquiry. But let’s remember that many of these tough choices often are choices that do not affect the speaker. Some of the troubling statements in this discussion include: • This disease just affects the elderly. We can’t let the health outcomes for these people, already having lived full lives, to destroy our economy. • This disease affects primarily the obese. These people haven’t taken care of themselves; why should we be so worried? • Most deaths are associated with pre-existing conditions. The argument here is that they are always at risk and we can’t throw the instrumentalities of the State at saving them, risking economic consequences for the rest of us. • Even with a couple of million deaths, “that’s only .8% of the population—hardly enough to go through all of this.” • It’s just “luck of the draw”—don’t worry, there’s only a 1% chance you’ll die and less than 1 in 20 chance you’ll be hospitalized The coarseness of our society that existed in the political environment before this crisis has extended to our humanity. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t important considerations and trade-offs or that people will die as a result of necessary decisions. I am suggesting that the way in which we judge potential victims, judge the willingness to dispose of others’ lives, and the cavalier way in which we discuss “acceptable” deaths diminish us.



Every person who dies—whether in an accident, a crime, a disease, or even at their own hand is precious. He or she has parents, relatives, friends—people who care about them. Let me tell a brief story.

I hated my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Wade. I hated her because she made us read aloud a book called “Death Be Not Proud,” by the journalist, John Gunther. It was a stark story of one father’s witnessing of the slow, painful death of his son from a brain tumor. This was in the days before “trigger warnings” or considering the sensitivity of the listener before discussing literature.

This author’s memoir of his experience, witnessing the onset of the astroblastoma, repeated therapies and operations—moments of hope followed by devastating recurrences—was powerful, painting a vivid picture of unrelenting agony and tragedy. When we started reading the book, I was convinced our teacher was monstrous—subjecting us to such a grim and depressing story. Why not read something uplifting and life affirming instead?

By the time we were finished with the story, most of the class appreciated the book—myself included. For the first time I can remember, an adult (other than my parents) was communicating to us as adults. Also, through this story we understood that all lives are precious, that life can be random, and that nothing can really describe the feelings of a parent in such circumstances. It was from that moment that I realized that one cannot speak so freely, and without empathy and compassion, about death—anyone’s death.

Dorothy Parker describes the effect little Johnny Gunther had on her:

"But had [Johnny] lived to be 90 and had his achievements filled encyclopedias, he could have made no greater achievement than this, transmitted by his father: To show us what, on its highest levels of courage, serenity, truth and beauty, a human life can be; to show us that as we live we die, and life and death are one."

Years later I read this poem by John Dunne, the title of which John Gunther borrowed for the book’s title:



Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.

—John Donne

Death Be Not Proud was written in the late 16th century by a Catholic theologian. I am not Catholic, not a theologian, not an Englishman; and certainly not of his era. When people decry the teaching of Western civilization, one need only read something like this, by a dead white male, penned some 350 years ago, to appreciate the value of such education.

Let us be kind and compassionate, as we consider options—in everything from opening up the economy to wearing a mask, knowing that there will be fathers who, as a result of our collective actions, will witness their children’s deaths—and children of their parents’ premature demise, as a result of the decisions we make.



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