Civilization Devolved

Fear of one another is its own disease

I went alone for a long walk around my neighborhood after California’s self-quarantine advisory. A bit fatigued, I sat to rest on a bus-stop metal bench, the kind with handles between the seats. The traffic at this local intersection was now a tenth of the usual rush hour traffic. A Sprinter trolley pulled into the station and stopped next to city hall with surprisingly few passengers. So this is what happens when an advanced civilization comes to a standstill, whatever the reason — be it plague, war, or economic depression. Even youngsters from California State University campus had somehow mysteriously evaporated into thin air.

It was time I walked back home. Suddenly I realized with horror that my right hand was holding the handle that a hundred sick passengers waiting for their bus could have grasped. In fear and trembling, I held forth my hand and glared at it as if an infected alien intruder, silently demanding corporal equal rights. I mentally quarantined and stiff-armed that right hand, while particularly careful not to touch my clothing with it. All the way home, its fingers wiggled and wailed for recognition, but I refused to look at it even once.

How stupid of me not to keep keenly aware of everything I touch, lest I get fatally sick.

I kept reminding myself what I had heard on social media, that old folks like me with a heart condition have an 80% chance of dying from COVID-19. So when a person walking toward me approached, we made no eye-contact and didn’t nod, smile, or say hello. I kept my eyes cast down, feeling like a leper carrying some dread disease.

Then I became aware of infecting my keys after groping for them in my right trouser pocket. Unlocking the side door to my garage, I turned the knob with my left hand. My bedroom door required use of another key. Paranoia alarmed me to not touch anything else until I washed my hands, which I did, for 20 seconds, singing Happy Birthday to You. In those few nostalgic moments, aware I still must disinfect my key ring, it struck me how close I’d come to behaving like an obsessive-compulsive nut.

The other day, after pushing around a shopping cart while getting my groceries, then hefting my plastic bags into the trunk, grasping to open my car handle, touching my steering wheel, car keys, and shift handle — then having to carefully disinfect them all — I wondered if dying at the age of 78 from COVID-19 was really so bad a fate.

After all, I’ve seen there’s “nothing new under the sun.” So I’m ready to cash in my chips, leaving behind this world gone mad. For it seems our advanced civilization has devolved into making us all crazy loons sooner or later: mortally afraid to meet with one another, shake hands, dine and dance together, or go to church for holy communion. Sentenced to quarantined, home-bound isolation, getting on each other’s nerves, are we sadly experiencing proof of John-Paul Sartre’s rumination that “Hell is other people”? I’m not sure which is worse, the social distancing cure or a disease ravaging mankind.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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