Last week, I was speaking with a friend of mine, a professional artist, who has been staying and working for the past few months in Portugal. She was telling me that, as news of the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining momentum, she and her partner had been traveling to a couple of larger metropolitan areas in Spain and the South of France, before returning to the small coastal town that had been serving as their “home base”. Even though this was more-or-less at the start of the virus, and well before any travel restrictions had been mandated, she had been feeling very guilty, worrying about whether they had unknowingly brought the illness back to this beautiful village, with its breath-taking coastal views, its warm, welcoming (and preponderantly elderly) inhabitants, and dire lack of the proper medical facilities and resources to adequately deal with this unforeseen medical catastrophe. What if they, these “privileged tourists,” had driven back to the charming village with death as their invisible hitchhiker?
I did my best, of course, to reassure her, to tell her that she could not possibly have known at that point, and that it was in no way her fault. Nevertheless, I could completely empathize with how she felt. I’m sure it’s a feeling most of us have had at some point in our lives, whether justified or not: that we have, without meaning to, done some terrible harm to others. Perhaps we have broken someone’s heart, or harmed them in some way, emotionally or physically, through recklessness, thoughtlessness, or negligence. I know it’s a feeling that has kept me awake through many nights over the course of my life; things that I’ve done, or left undone; said, or left unsaid; so many things that I would like to change or undo.
Perhaps that is why so many of us are drawn to stories of imaginary sociopaths in novels, films, and television shows: Professor Moriarty, Hannibal Lecter, Alice Morgan, Villanelle. In a strange sort of way, we often find ourselves more attracted to them than to the heroes of the stories. It is pure escapism; we root for them because, on some level, we wish we were them. We wish we could go through life doing whatever we want, living only for our own pleasure and gratification, without fear of a guilty conscience.
But what pale, twisted creatures we would be. And what a terrible world this would be. Conscience is a funny thing. Like invisible ground glass, it tears us up inside. Yet, without it, we would be so much less than human. Indeed, it’s one of the ways we know that we are human. Like love, sorrow, wonder, and joy, guilt and worry—the offspring of conscience—are essential aspects of our collective humanity; without them, we are diminished, something much less than fully developed beings.
It seems to me that life, when filtered through the human psyche, is a wondrously strange and complex experience. All our emotions, whether ecstatically pleasurable or excruciatingly painful, form a vibrant, essential part of the intricate tapestry, the endlessly varying fugue. To feel a profound sense of anxiety, such as that felt by my friend, is one of the costs—but also, perhaps, one of the privileges—of being alive.