BY E.M. FORTIER
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
The flu pandemic of 1918 infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide—about one-third of Earth’s population—and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims (the inaccuracies and lack of reliability in reporting results in such a wide range), including some 675,000 Americans. The death toll of the Second World War, including soldier fatalities and those of civilians, is estimated at 56.4 million worldwide. In the first half of the 20th century, the world lost an estimated 100 million lives to these two occasions. Most of these lives were young. That of course does not include the fatalities from World War I or those from the maladies of poverty during the economic depression of the 1930s or other deaths of violence, age, or illness.
Perhaps this seems a depressing way to start a piece in the midst of another pandemic. A pandemic many are very concerned about for health reasons, for economic reasons, for societal reasons . . . For so many reasons mixed together.
I spent close to four years of college taking every World War II history class I could take, studying the first half of the century – what led up to it, how it impacted the world, and how the world recovered. I spent a semester of law school researching the Nuremberg Trials for a paper I still feel barely scratches the surface of its impact on the second half of the century to today. I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about what death means; how it impacts the individual and how it impacts the broader society.
To me, death is a part of the journey; it is an undeniable element of living. This would shock the child that I was to know that she would grow up to regularly encounter death and dying – in her studies and in her profession. I was a child nearly paralyzed with fear of my own death and the possible death of my loved ones. But then something happened – my most beloved Grandfather died when I was sixteen years-old. A man who marched from the beaches of Normandy across Europe, ending in the war camps and freeing the prisoners. He was a doctor; one of the physicians embedded with the troops as they fought across the war theaters. Before he died, the 50th Anniversary of Normandy was celebrated and he began to speak of what he saw and what he thought. It was at that point that I started to realize the magnitude of loss and redemption in death.
The greatest realization was that death wasn’t an ending. Beyond the idea of eternal life – which for the believer gives strength and meaning and for the non-believer seems a confused and disappointing basis for anything – death has time and time again shown the resilience of humanity and the bond of friendship. In unity, the living have buried their dead; they have cared for the widowed and orphaned, for the parent shattered by grief, for the sibling now broken to one fewer . . .
Friendship is not merely the coffee and drinks in social gatherings; it is walking a path that is often broken and strenuous. It is leaning on someone and allowing them to lean upon you when the journey seems impossible to transverse.
I have no doubt this time we are living in can be endured should we choose to look outside ourselves and to nurture the relationships in every part of our lives. The world has survived far worse than we here observe, it will survive far worse than we fear. The question is, what makes the survival worthwhile?
History seems to answer – that which is beyond ourselves, our relationships. So, I fear not the ending but rather endeavor toward what I can do and how I can serve.