Fate, Hope, and Loss of Control in time of Disease

Immersed in our collective “summer” of discontent, increasingly we feel the weight of confinement. This is not to suggest that options are unavailable, but rather that as we make choices about what to do, whom to see, where to go, we invest considerable effort in our decision-making. We are painfully aware that unwise decisions, however we or our acquaintances might define them, come with risks, perhaps great risks. The “awareness” is both a privilege and burden. Our age of medical advancement and technologically permissible communication puts us in a position that is relatively new, when considering the long arch of human history. Appreciating the novelty of the age in which we live stimulates some reflection.

For centuries, prior to the mid- or late twentieth century, plagues as they were sometime called, or more simply the spread of unchecked disease, as horrible as they were, most probably led to a much different reaction than what we as individuals and as societies largely experience today. I am not going to suggest there was an advantage to suffering, loss of life, harm to society inflicted by such events, but instead wish to consider how our modern circumstances might impact us differently and to degree adversely. There is some classical psychological research on depression that suggests that our sense of helplessness and eventually depression is particularly profound when we try to take measures to alleviate a bad situation and find nothing seems to work.

In generations past, disasters caused by disease were more or less totally out of human control. Whether attributed to vengeance of an angry deity, the presence of evil in one’s midst, such as the devil or witches, or in more contemporary times the recognition that life is filled with profound hazards, and widespread disease afflicting nearly entire populations was simply one of them.

Today, we know better, and we know WORSE. We appreciate these plagues as not some mystical phenomenon, but more appropriately as a biological phenomenon with a rather specific origin. And, with some effort we will eventually discover a way for combatting the affliction. Yeah, we now understand more correctly both origin and that somewhere around the corner a cure will be found. However, as a result of such knowledge, we no longer can accept a notion of fate! We are no longer blind to causes and remedies-this is a part of nature and thru nature we will handle it.

But, having this knowledge of origin and solution, also makes things worse in a psychological realm. We are used to handling, controlling difficulties as they arise, but here we are with all our wisdom unable to readily control an invasive and deadly virus. At some point we will gain an advantage. However, for now we appear no better off than the ancients. Our knowing that something can be done, might be comforting at some level, but as we await a cure, we sense our loss of control quite strongly. The wonderful thing about attributing such events to fate, is it relieves us of any sense that we have an opportunity to control the outcome. When we are less attuned to fatalism, our inability to control, stop, conquer the villain accentuates our feeling of helplessness and dread. Moreover, when we observe others whose behaviors seem to contribute to the villain’s mission, i.e., the determined effort of the virus to damage our health, those who stubbornly refuse to mask, accentuates our feelings of loss of control. For now, we also realize that our vulnerability is not just a function of the disease but also those with whom we live. Not only is the disease compromising our life and out of our control, but so are a portion of our fellow citizens.

We thus strain to balance decisions that seem in line with what modern thought, modern medicine deems responsible with our relatively ancient genetic adherence to fate. Decisions are weighed carefully, pitting what we are privileged to know in our contemporary era, with what we were blissfully ignorant of in the past. We simultaneously have to wrestle with being wise about making informed decisions, and the lurking notion that the extent to which we can control our personal outcome is compromised by both a perplexing disease, but also by the perplexing behaviors of portions of our society. Do we really have control or are we a small player in a game of fate?

About the Author
Seth Greenberg has a PhD in experimental psychology and human cognition. He held two Endowed Chairs at private institutions in the United States, and held a position of Visiting Scholar at Haifa University. He has published about fifty articles and chapters in several books including a chapter in a book on academic perspective on Genesis. He's also received about 1 million dollars worth of grants and lives in Jerusalem with his wife. He has three married daughters, one of whom lives in Israel.