John Prine’s death from coronavirus realized the crisis in my mind.
Outside of a religious framework, I think it is difficult to sufficiently weigh the tragedy of any individual loss of life—particularly that of a stranger. The limitless and inherent dignity of human life cannot be conceptualized by humanism. Even Christians struggle to value life (As Reno recently demonstrated in First Things). The tone of American debate over saving lives versus saving the economy is a very particular deficiency in valuing the life of community members and neighbors.
Prine’s great strength was the empathy and compassion he exhibited for others, using this understanding to tell stories that would otherwise be unheard. As a young man, he wrote the remarkable song “Hello in There,” depicting the interior life of an elderly couple. “Sam Stone” is an emotionally-distant but charged retelling of a kid growing up with a father who returned from war with a fatal heroin addiction. “Lake Marie” intertwines several narratives of pain, loss, and recovery with great wit. Prine was always able to give voice to others often unable to speak themselves.
One of the most difficult aspects of the coronavirus is its indiscrimination. There is little control over who is and is not infected; total isolation is perhaps the only way to ensure one does not get sick. The virus takes the lives of both celebrities and the unknown, scholars with decades of study and people with decades of living. It is a tragedy when a noted scholar, writer, or former head of state dies and the world can sense the void that their future work would have occupied. Yet, tens of thousands more are dying without a testament to their legacies—no memoirs written, no or limited obituaries, and no way to ever again hear their lives’ stories. Seemingly at random, the coronavirus plucks the life out of someone and quickly moves on to its next victim while loved ones are unable to visit and deathbed confessions, tales, and insights are lost.
When the Library of Alexandria was burned, between 40,000 and 400,000 works may have been lost—many without outside copies that could preserve their knowledge. Over 100,000 people have died from coronavirus, each with a life’s worth of stories and knowledge that have similarly vanished. John Prine’s unique abilities and love for his fellow man helped the rest of us to see into the lives of others. No more will we hear from him or an untold number of others.