Cruel Diagnoses

For many, the move to interpretation is nothing more than an escape from the ambiguous business of witnessing the world, and its pain.

There are things inside of you that allow you to live. Most of us don’t pay much attention to that. Some people try to make sense of it: doctors, nurses, all braver souls than I. From what I understand of anatomy and medicine, it’s all a series of squishy tubes that I, for one, want nothing to do with it.

For most of us, it’s less important to know how we go on living than it is that we go on living. It’s mostly when we’re worried about the latter, that we become a little more concerned with the former. Interpretation, this action of asking how the thing works, what it might mean, are mostly questions that come up only when the things we take for granted suddenly aren’t.

Let me give an example: In 2018 I had a brain hemorrhage. I wasn’t sure what had happened at first, except that something was wrong (it probably tells a lot about the way I spend my time that the way I first noticed something was off was that…a cheesecake I was eating didn’t taste quite right). When I felt something wrong, eventually, I asked why, and figured out what it was. There was a chance things could have broken very bad. There’s a chance they still could.

Of course I was, and am, tempted to imagine interpretive explanations of why this happened, what it might mean, etc. But the important thing was that the feeling came first. I could offer some interpretation because this was something that had happened to me, that I felt, inside. I have tried to avoid using interpretation as an escape from the raw, irreducible fact of the bad thing: it sucks. No interpretive framework is needed for that observation.

I may be radically unqualified for a career in medicine (squishy tubes are enough to dissuade me) but I feel like it’s fair to say that attention to symptoms must precede diagnosis. To attempt to make sense of something, you first have to see what it’s doing, hear the words of the people it effects, if not yourself.

Under conditions of global pandemic this is, unfortunately, a time of many, many symptoms of suffering, in a world wracked with ambiguities. And for too many, the response has not been to witness these symptoms, but to sprint headlong into diagnosis of what the virus might mean at some high level of interpretation without ever acknowledging the very basic fact that what the virus means first, before anything else, is suffering.


It would be easy to only call out the worst of the takes on the coronavirus, which are easy to identify. Mostly (but not exclusively) on the right, there have been calls to reopen marketplaces either out of a real conviction that COVID-19 isn’t actually serious, or out of a belief that we have to mitigate economic harm. Within the Christian universe, there have been a number of takes stressing something akin to a “Christian Valor,” that this is a time to keep the churches open, to keep society running, all to show that we are faithful, that the Church is strong, etc. And then there are also those religious interpretations inclined to call this all divine punishment.

A physician who ignores their patient’s symptoms and suffering is capable of offering nothing but a cruel diagnosis.

I reject these takes, sure, and maybe someday I’ll explain why (if it isn’t obvious). But there have been an equal, if not greater, number of highly plausible, intellectually stimulating interpretations of the pandemic as well. Philosopher Giorgio Agamben has infamously (or, infamous to the online and egg-headed like myself) interpreted the pandemic and his government’s response in philosophical and political terms. Politico has done something more ambitious, giving 34 thinkers an opportunity to interpret what the COVID-19 pandemic may mean. And twitter, of course, abounds with both left-leaning and right-accelerationist interpretations of the pandemic as something that is going to test normal structures of capital to their breaking point, or else further accelerate Western decay.

Some of those arguments are more interesting than other ones. Maybe, even, buried in there is an interpretation that happens to be correct. But my argument isn’t rational, it’s dispositional:

For many of these would-be interpreters, the move to interpretation is nothing more than an escape from the ambiguous business of witnessing the world, and its pain.

Interpretation is earned through experience. To make sense of a thing, you have to at very least witness it, even better if you can understand it, best of all if you can feel something in the way of empathy. To interpret without witnessing, to give in to the tempting self-aggrandizement of diagnosis without taking the time to ground yourself in others’ pain, is as easy as it is callousing.

A physician who ignores their patient’s symptoms and suffering is capable of offering nothing but a cruel diagnosis.


This isn’t to say there’s never time for interpretation, or that some mistakes aren’t excusable. I can’t speak to the heart of everyone (or anyone) who has an interpretive opinion about the pandemic. I’m sure that some have done the work to really try and grasp the human cost of the suffering it brings. Nor can I fault anyone who may not want to confront this real suffering due to the presence of a suffering all their own, and may want to escape to interpretive as a temporary coping measure. I am no special model for any of this—I am not immune to putting the interpretive cart before the horse.

But I remember my own small touch with mortality, and the feeling of having the things I take for granted become suddenly, terribly present. I remember the urge, even before I felt anything, to make sense of it. To use sense, interpretation, reason, as a kind of armor against the profound vulnerability of taking a moment to simply recognize the raw, basic fact: Hey. This is bad.

Two years after my brain hemorrhage, any effort I make at making sense of it is made better because I remember that immutable fact. It imposes limits on my interpretation. I can’t interpret my brain hemorrhage as a good thing, however I might want to, because I remember the profound, simple reality that it wasn’t. It was bad.

That’s my only suggestion, that anyone who would take on the task of interpretation would first acknowledge—whether in themselves, or in their interactions with others’ pain—the irreducible fact that people are suffering. This puts a limit on interpretation: however you may interpret, you can’t pretend that it simply isn’t bad. It has to be bad, but for a reason.

And when we have made explicit which programs are willing to look suffering in the eyes and say, “Ah, yes, but this was for a purpose,” if you can still keep a straight face when you say it, then it makes these consequentialst interpretations easier to recognize for what they are: cruel diagnoses.

To follow, if you’d like.

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