How Fatalism Could Kill Us All


“You’ve gotta live,” people like to say, shrugging off some constraint or precaution. I was always the first to agree.

Until COVID-19.

“If it’s my time, that’s up to God,” a woman remarks to me late in lockdown, adding that she does not wear a mask. Pressing my lips together, I fight the urge to resurrect Ben Franklin. Doddery by now, he would blink at her through those wire-rims and mutter, “God helps those who help themselves.”

If there is any spiritual order at all in this universe, any font of meaning, any consciousness more unified than our stray flashes of epiphany, then surely its point is not to make us passive? God helps those who help themselves, i.e., nervous and hypervigilant citizens who track the counts, research the disease, wear the mask, and keep our distance. This woman’s fatalism was stupid and dangerous. Through our conversation, she was moving in and out of caution, sentence by sentence, overwhelmed by the changes it required, and falling back on faith to cancel her fear. I hang up worried for her, in the condescending, tsking way of all smug, scared rule followers.

Another month of distancing follows, and then, with no medical justification whatsoever, the world starts opening up again, and friends invite me to their homes, and one of those times, I go inside, unmasked, because it is hot and muggy outside and surely they have been as careful as I have been and for God’s sake, we cannot stay locked up for the rest of our lives, can we? If I am going to get sick, I am going to get sick. You’ve gotta live.

Fatalism slips up on you. It comes when you are exhausted, overwhelmed, pouting over deprivation, or bored silly. We all turn reckless different points, but one way or another, we all get there.

In my twenties, I drove home looped more than once, and I slept with someone entirely inappropriate and miraculously failed to get pregnant. In my thirties, I reported on stories that required hanging out with heroin dealers, murderers, and people so paranoid and angry, they were dangerous. In sedate middle age, the big excitement is–well, everything I think of has been canceled by COVID, so there is no big excitement at all.

But just when I thought my reckless days were over, it turns out that all I have to do to live on the edge is stand five feet from a friend. And when even bland normalcy risks one’s life, it is all too easy to turn fatalistic.

Except, I cannot. If I throw in the towel now, I endanger my husband, who has been helping a friend who is immunocompromised and has multiple disabilities and cares for a father in his nineties. Not to mention my own mother-in-law and any friend at extra risk. We all have these litanies of connection, this web of tracery that forbids us to be reckless. And so, with constant exertion of will, I stay as careful as I can, and sometimes it makes me feel less than human—paranoid, persnickety, traitorous.

Until this pandemic hit, trust felt like a gift, a way to honor a friend’s integrity and loyalty and virtue. Now I can no longer bestow it that way. Who knows which of us has felt fatalistic at the wrong minute?

The dictionary definition of fatalism is “the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable.” I do not believe this pandemic was either one. The secondary definition is “a submissive outlook, resulting from a fatalistic attitude.” So much for the stance’s breezy appeal. To philosophers, fatalism indicates that we feel powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.

I fly back into action: mask, sanitizer, mental yardstick. There is plenty I can do. Before agreeing to even an outdoor meetup, I review demographics. Who has wild teenagers living at home? Who is such a foodie that they could never forswear indoor dining? I gauge medical knowledge, awareness of current events. I consider temperament: extraversion or introversion? Restraint or impulsivity? Highest on my watchlist are the bubbly, harum-scarum, devil-may-care friends I adore—but then one of them surprises me. Turns out she has been waiting three days to open each Amazon box. Hurriedly, I swap categories, moving my most cautious, meticulous, and hypervigilant friends to the top because, by the law of irony, they are probably the likeliest vectors of all.

All of this makes me want to scream. Trust is the foundation of any relationship worth having, and we are living in a time when we cannot trust anyone, least of all ourselves. This is, to say the very least, unnerving. “Distant” used to mean cold—and probably angry. “Set some boundaries” is a counselor’s advice when a relationship is already in trouble. Trust issues have frozen or crushed a great many hearts.

Yet now, after years of Oprah urging us to open up, we have to avoid getting too close—literally. We have to state and restate our caution and forgive ourselves for sounding—what? Sensible? We have to forgive people for being suspicious of us, even when it stings, and we have to forgive ourselves for being suspicious of them. We may even have to forgive an unwitting exposure or two, because this thing is spreading fast, and it is insidious, and all the precautions in the world—no. Stop there. The precautions may not be foolproof, but they are all we have, and they make it much harder for the virus to reach us. It is not an option to shrug off the anxiety and toss our fate to the universe. No, we are not the master of our own destiny—because we control quite a few destinies as well as our own.

Responsibility that serious used to come with a position of trust. We could place our lives in someone else’s hands—a doctor, say, or a judge, or a banker—because we trusted them. It was trust that made the vulnerability bearable. And trust is now impossible. With the best of intentions, we could murder our friends.