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Cold War To COVID-19, A Swedish Priest Answers Susan Sontag

A construction worker in Gdansk, Poland — April 8, 2020
A construction worker in Gdansk, Poland — April 8, 2020
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The late American essayist Susan Sontag theorized that people are drawn to watching disaster films to help normalize and rationalize what we find psychologically unbearable. Watching a fictionalized apocalypse on the screen, she argued, inures us to the possibility that a real one may arrive.

Sontag's idea in 1965 about the need for a remedy to global anxiety rings true today, in a bitter new way, for my generation. Yet, after three months of witnessing a real-life disaster unfold on our computer and smartphone screens, what some are openly wishing for now is not normalization — but rather that the end of COVID-19 may actually (finally) bring us some sense that there's hope for the future. What is it today that has felt so psychologically unbearable for young people?

Perhaps such big questions are indeed best answered by the likes of Susan Sontag, but in her absence I went for the next best thing — an old priest. He offered this:

- Do you believe in God?

- No, and I don't believe (in) you either.

This exchange between a reporter and a Moscow resident took place sometime towards the end of the Cold War. The old priest, who also happens to be my father, explained to me over the phone last week that the issue was not the disbelief in God, but the disbelief in everything else.

The Swedish world my parents entered into in the 1950s, like most of the West, was one marked by a firm belief in the promises of technological progress and economic growth. Fast-forward to 1989, when I was born, and that belief had already started to fade. Today, technology has become the very thing that undermines the economic prospects for many of us.

The issue was not the disbelief in God, but the disbelief in everything else.

After hanging up with my dad, I realized that in Swedish we use the verb "att tro," "to believe" and "to believe in" something or someone interchangeably. That returned me to the present, where the health pandemic was joined on our screens and in our streets by the Black Lives Matter movement — at once a testament of our lack of trust in the authorities telling us to stay at home, and a protest against a society we may no longer believe in at all.

Of course, my parents' generation of Les Trente Glorieuses had their own, and not so trivial, worries about nuclear war. But as my dad pointed out, it was a threat that was more clearly defined — and a burden shared by all. So what might unite us today: a global pandemic, racial justice, robots taking our jobs…?

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