‘Surreal” is a word people have been using a lot in the past month or so under the new coronavirus realities. It can be used to touch on the terrifying and the life-endangering as well as the merely inconvenient. For many of us, life is not what it once was. Routines might be out of whack, a family might finally spend time together (whereas before, work kept people apart for long hours), or you couldn’t even be with a dying loved one at the end. And, of course, there is the all-around uncertainty. We need something to latch on to when we don’t really have words that can adequately describe what is going on. There is also the wistful thought that this may just be a bad dream we get to wake up from.
“Surreal” could describe a recent day when New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily news conference included praise of President Donald Trump. The president then had clips of the governor’s praise played at the White House coronavirus evening briefing that same night. A cynical bone in me thought: “Is that some clever way someone thought to harm a potential Cuomo presidential run?” The president also has been known to be a fan of praise.
But could there be something else going on, too? In a country that has been falling into the abyss of constant anger and derision, could we be having a moment where this “surreal” has an element of enduring change? The pivotal question seems to be: Is this just a national crisis that we are going to merely get through with some minimal surface-level changes, or is this going to be a moment of profound change?
After that Cuomo–Trump lovefest of sorts, I was thinking a lot of my friend Kate O’Beirne. She died three years ago this month, and if you know her name, you remember that she was a panelist on CNN’s Capital Gang as well as my colleague at National Review. She had a quick New York wit, and it was a gift many of us wish we had. It often seemed like everyone wanted her advice on just about everything — whether it was high-level national politics or dating advice. (She may have gotten me appropriately dressed to meet Pope Benedict XVI on one memorable occasion.)
The anniversary of her death wasn’t the only reason I was thinking of her — it’s all the surreality, too. Thanks to the generosity of her family, I was able to be with her near the end. I saw things I cannot explain. Healing things. God prepares us in mysterious ways before we leave. And I saw confirmation of that (for not the first time in my life). But I also remember all the people in her hospital wing who were alone. That’s, of course, the rule now. You’re sick and dying, and you can’t have those you most love in the world by your side. I know God uses that, too. But it’s agony. It was surreal, of course, that moment three years ago, to see a woman laboring to even breathe — a woman to this day often described as a “dynamo” and a “force of nature.” A woman who would make every event better, who would draw you out of yourself, who was the godmother of men widely considered D.C. curmudgeons (the late journalist Robert Novak and Judge Robert Bork), was lying helpless in a bed.
We are, of course, all going to be in that position one day. Whether it’s succumbing to cancer or the sudden robbery that is coronavirus or something even more abrupt, death is inescapable. And the reason I thought of Kate when I watched the two press conferences that day is that it seemed, as it can sometimes these days, that maybe even the politicians realize that there are things more important than party politics. You see service kick in. Pope Francis prayed for politicians the other day and noted that it is a noble calling. At least it should be! That’s why we pray for wisdom and prudence in elected leaders, and for those who want to be leaders, too. A presidential campaign, even in the time of the coronavirus, sets a tone. It can add or subtract to the confidence level of a population.
With Kate, as she neared the end — this woman who was the font of every good column idea for her colleagues — gradually had no interest in politics. She seemed to care only about her family, her faith, her friends.
Who knows what complex psychological issues are playing out in all of our individual and shared experiences of the surreal right now? But I do wonder, as I hear a governor talk about his family and his struggles during the course of a daily briefing, whether he’s having the kind of healthy mortality check we all ought to have.
Of course, sometimes I watch the White House evening briefing and see the comments on Twitter and realize we are nowhere near the sober place this is calling us to. But we can all make a decision to contribute to this as a transformational moment — one that is not just about survival but about flourishing, in enduring and even eternal ways.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.