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Distinguishing the Spirits of Fatigue

In many parts of the world, the Coronavirus is still raging, or even raging more fiercely than ever. It has brought unimaginable suffering to all parts of the world. It has relentlessly confronted us with the vulnerability of the world and of human life. The fact that the guild of Christian ethicists is also dealing intensively with the many pressing challenges of this highly dynamic crisis is attested to, among other things, by the many texts that have appeared in this forum in recent months.

Many will feel infinitely tired these days – and rightly so, not only from reflection, but also and especially from the demands of everyday life, fear and worry, caring for others or grieving for a loved one. More than half of those suffering from the Coronavirus also suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, which is one of the most common late effects of Covid-19. But the world, which – at least in the regions where the virus seems to be in retreat – is tentatively beginning to ask itself what lessons we will learn from the crisis once it is over, is not a place of rest. On the contrary, the post-Coronavirus challenges will be formidable. Many justice issues that can trigger political and military conflicts have been exacerbated by the crisis, widening the already existing gap between rich and poor.

It is true that we hear everywhere that the world will be a different place after Covid-19. But whether it will be a better one depends largely on whether a rethink actually takes place and sustainable measures are taken that create fairer conditions. So it will also depend on how we counter the widespread Coronavirus fatigue. For it is possible that in the shadow of this all-too-understandable fatigue, another, more dangerous variant of fatigue is spreading, which we should vigilantly confront despite our exhaustion.

In this context, a quotation from Dorothee Sölle’s book Leiden[1], published in 1973, comes to mind. The famous Protestant theologian writes [in my translation of the German original]: “Wanting to remain free of suffering, the relapse into apathy can be a kind of fear of contact, one does not want to be touched, infected, stained, drawn in, one keeps out of it as much as possible, minds one’s own business, privatises oneself to the point of stupor.” Not only this quote, but also many other thoughts in this book, which was written in a completely different context, the time of the student unrest in Germany in 1968, seem almost prophetic in view of a world marked by the pandemic. Sölle passionately warns of the destructive consequences of various attempts to instrumentalise suffering. She drastically demonstrates how great the part played by the Christian tradition in this was.

Above all, Sölle warns against a very special form of tiredness: apathy. The theologian understands apathy as a kind of incapacity to suffer. An apathetic society is so dominated by the desire to prevent suffering that it avoids relationships and contact and becomes insensitive. Many people are no longer able to perceive their own suffering and the suffering of others, to articulate their experiences of suffering, to confront suffering and to fight it. The people thus blunted against suffering, Sölle says [again in my translation from the German original], “go into quarantine, to a germ-free place where dirt and bacteria do not touch them, where they are alone with themselves, even when this ‘with themselves’ even excludes one’s own family.” (51) That the reference to this quotation is not intended to cast doubt on the quarantine to protect others from possible infection by the Coronavirus is clear. Rather, the reference to quarantine here can be understood as a metaphor for the refusal to be touched at all by the needs of others.

Certainly, there were and are strong signs of solidarity in the crisis in many places around the world. In intensive care units and clinics, people are and have been working to the limit, thousands of volunteers have volunteered, young people are shopping for old and sick people, food parcels have been given away, solidarity vouchers have been bought, donations have been collected. This creative willingness to help, springing from the heart of civil society, possibly heralds a solidarity that has the potential to promote a fairer society in the post-Corona world. I do not wish to minimise all this, but the world, at this stage of the crisis, is more than ever in danger of fatigue taking over and turning into apathy.

One task of Christian ethics for the coming weeks and months would be to distinguish the spirits of fatigue. It could sensitise us to the danger of overlooking the symptoms of a burgeoning and spreading apathy in all the pandemic exhaustion, even confusing them with the all too understandable Corona fatigue or excusing them with it. It could open one’s eyes to recognising the limits: “Not only is death such a limit, there is also stultification and desensitisation, mutilation and wounding that can no longer be undone”, writes Sölle. And then: “The only form of crossing this limit is to share the pain of the suffering, not to leave them alone and to make their cry louder.” (200) More than ever in this crisis, I think this is an excellent description of the task of Christian ethics.

[1] Sölle, Dorothee: Leiden: Stuttgart 1973, 50f. (Page numbers refer to the German original)