There is a Scottish folk tale that provides an apt metaphor for the ethical-philosophical problem of the Covid era. It is called “Death in a Nut”, and my favorite version is the one told by Daniel Allison in his book, Scottish Myths and Legends, narrated by Angus King.
As the story goes, a boy named Jack who lived by the sea with his mother loved to go walking on the beach. One morning, while he is out walking, he is approached by Death. Death tells Jack that he is looking for Jack’s mother, and wonders if he could be so kind as to give him directions to their cottage.
Jack, horrified at the prospect of losing his mother, and doing what you might hope any good son would do, instead leaps at Death, tackles him, folds him over on himself until he becomes small enough to fit in his hand, and then stuffs him in a hazelnut shell. He pockets the shell and goes home to have breakfast with his mother.
When he arrives home, it dawns on him how easily he could have lost the person he loved most, and he is seized by a sense of urgency to treasure every moment with her. Overtaken by emotion, he showers his mother with affection and appreciation. He offers to make her a nice breakfast of eggs.
There’s just one problem: the eggs won’t crack.
Jack uses all his strength to bang away at one egg after another, but none of them will break open. Eventually, his mother suggests they fry up some carrots instead. Again, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot cut the carrots. Finally, he decides to go to the butcher and buy some sausage, which the muscly butcher will surely be able to cut with his heavy cleaver. The butcher tries to cut up some sausage, and then some steak, but to no avail.
“‘Something strange is going on, Jack,’” says the butcher. “‘It’s as if…as if nothing will die.’”
It’s then that Jack realizes what he has done. By imprisoning Death, he has stopped the process of life itself, and has brought society to a standstill. He rushes home to tell his mother the whole story. While she is touched by his desire to protect her, she says:
“‘That was very brave, what you did. But it was wrong. Death is painful, Jack. But the world needs Death. Death is what keeps the world alive. I wish my time hadn’t come so soon. But if it’s my time, it’s my time. You have to let it be.’”
The two weep together, understanding that Jack must release Death from the nut in order for life to continue, which implies that they must give in to the natural order, accept fate, and say their goodbyes.
When I first heard this tale, a year ago, I was struck by its resemblance to the basic philosophical dilemma of the Covid debate. Facts aside, we are stuck in a clash between two moral perspectives:
On the one hand, there is the attitude that Death must be vanquished at all costs; that the highest value is survival and safety, both for ourselves and for the ones we love; that the natural order is cruel and unjust and should be controlled and sanitized.
On the other hand, there is the perspective that an overemphasis on fighting Death — which, after all, is an inevitable part of life — ultimately ends up sacrificing the very things we live for. Those of us in the latter category don’t advocate a cold indifference to fate or a “let it rip” attitude; we merely believe that the fight against Death should not become an all-consuming holy war, which demands as its sacrifice the soul.
Few of us want people to die, and most of us fear death to some extent. It’s not a pleasant thing, and it can be incredibly cruel. We can empathize with people like Jack — perhaps, even, in the beginning of the story, we root for him. Approached by Death, he refuses to give in and he subverts the typical narrative of the “Death encounter” by fighting back.
In fact, even Death himself is taken off guard by this rebellion, which is why, despite being armed with a scythe, he succumbs so easily to his opponent. Jack is feisty, and on top of that, his case has moral appeal: what could be more honorable than the impulse to protect one’s own mother?
What I like about this story is that it’s ethically complex. It illustrates beautifully and viscerally the heroic ideal of trying to protect one’s loved ones. This is what motivated many people to “do their part” during the pandemic in various ways they thought would help — by getting vaccinated, by wearing a mask, or by complying religiously with self-isolation, testing, social distancing rules, and quarantine requirements.
Many people had selfish or cowardly motivations of course; but others, like Jack, truly believed they were doing the right thing — the obvious thing. Forget for a second whether or not the facts supported them; they truly saw themselves in a fight against Death to protect their parents, their children, their family and friends. If we were to see this dimension in isolation, we could easily frame them as heroes.
The ethical twist is that Jack’s attempt to bind Death ultimately does not serve the “greater good. In fact, just like under the Covid regime, society is stopped. The economy is shut down; restaurants (to the extent they exist in Jack’s town) are closed; no one can share meals together or earn a living (to the extent it involves killing plants or animals or preparing food, which in an old rural Scottish town, would probably include most people). Sure, no one can die, presumably, so they won’t die of starvation — but what do they have to live for when their lives are put on pause?
In the story, everyone — including Jack’s mother — recognizes that this is an unsustainable state of affairs. While no one wishes death on themselves or their loved ones, they understand that life as a process requires death in order to keep flowing.
Life is a messy, risky, and at times lethal adventure, and while it’s perfectly acceptable and in fact compassionate to try to lower this risk to some extent, a complete elimination of all risk would create a dull, lifeless world devoid of conviviality and meaning. The people of Jack’s town are willing to accept some level of pain, sadness and suffering in order to reap the concomitant rewards that come with living life to the fullest.
One wonders how some of our public health “experts” would react at hearing the end of this folk tale. Judging by their track record, they might be mortified. Perhaps they would accuse Jack of infringing on the rights of the collective by releasing Death from the nut? Perhaps they would call him selfish for wanting to return to sharing meals with the people of his town, or wanting to reopen his economy, if it meant that some people would inevitably die?
How could he make such an irresponsible decision on behalf of others? While Death was imprisoned in the nut, his town had zero deaths, from Covid or from anything else. After he releases Death, there could be dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of deaths from all kinds of things. Is this man not an immense danger to public health?
We can only surmise.
The madness of the pro-mandate position, which at first glance might have appeared reasonable but, upon closer inspection, reveals itself as absurd (to put it lightly), is that there is no compromise, no accommodation for any other sorts of priorities. And this, despite the fact that its root goal — the eradication of death, symbolized by a virus — is inherently unattainable.
Anything and everything is deemed suitable for the chopping block, with the exception of the so-called “essential” (that necessary for survival). There is no amount of tolerable risk, no mention of proportionality, no deadline by which we either pronounce victory or accept defeat and move on. It is an attempt to produce conditions never before experienced in the natural world, while risking everything to achieve it. It is a brutal crusade of insanity against…dying.
Ironically, though, isn’t it Jack’s tussle with Death that really moves him to value his mother? It is the realization that he could lose her that makes him treasure every single moment by her side. An awareness and acceptance of death, its inevitability and ultimate unstoppability, and the understanding that none of us are immune to it, does not automatically make us colder and more heartless human beings. On the contrary, it teaches us the urgency and importance of living a meaningful life and sharing every moment we can with those we love.
When risk, pain and sadness are hidden from us, there is the temptation to feel that life is our shareholder’s due, that we are entitled to it, and that it might and should go on forever. But no matter how much we may feel this, the powers of nature are always stronger than us and we remain vulnerable to them.
Luckily for us, this is not a new phenomenon. Humans have contended with pain, loss, disability and death for thousands of years. These hardships are universal and make up the subject matter of endless myths, folk tales, spiritual narratives and stories from cultures both familiar and alien to us. Such narratives act as guides not so much for escaping or fighting fate, but for facing it with honor, compassion and humanity. And in the end, as both history and myth have proven, humans can face even the darkest of circumstances as long as we have our sense of meaning and each other.
We are never safe from death. No human has ever escaped it. Thus, we cannot truthfully say we have a right to dodge its grasp. But as long as we are granted the wonderful gift of living here on this planet, we do have the right to treasure our moments, live them with a sense of vibrancy and urgency, and share them with the people we care about — things that are theoretically under our control.
This right has never in history been snatched away from a people to the extent that it was in 2020. Those moments — those years — are never coming back. For the people who lost that time with loved ones, who lost the opportunity to live beyond mere existence, to celebrate or mourn with their companions, to seek and learn and explore the world around them, to spend time with dying relatives or watch their children grow, there is no replacing what they lost. Those were real, present, available years sacrificed for a hypothetical goal — the avoidance of death — that can never actually be accomplished and at best only delays an inevitability.
How can we call this fair, compassionate, ethical or just?
This is my plea: Let’s learn from our myths and our folklore. Let’s stop trying to cheat fate and start developing the fortitude to face it, together. Let’s celebrate the moments and the people we have while we have them, so that when fate shows up, we’ll have no regrets. Let’s stop trying to pause time and stuff Death in a nut.