Pilgrimage for a Million Lives

Marking what we have lost and what might be next

J. Nathan Matias
6 min readApr 24, 2022

Last Month, Ed Yong asked in The Atlantic why American society and government could not or would not acknowledge the magnitude & urgency of nearly a million lives lost to COVID.

How many parents, siblings, children, are no longer with us? On Friday, I got a box of chalk & made marks every 12 inches.

Feeling the chalk crumble against an un-moving road, I was reminded of how powerless I felt in the early stages of COVID, and how intractable preventable deaths have come to feel.

With a mark for each death every 12 inches, how far would the chalk marks go? 189.4 miles.

Contemplating A Million Lives

Within Christianity, a pilgrimage is a journey of contemplation that often taxes the limits of the body. To grapple with the scale of death and the spiritual, scientific, & political magnitude of the pandemic, I set out Sat morning to travel 12 inches per life. It took me 16 hours.

Surrounded by darkness, I set out an album by The Mountain Goats, that brought me back to those first pandemic months: “The Life of the World to Come.”

Each morning new
Each day shot through
With all the sharp, small shards of shrapnel
That seem to burst out of me and you
Psalms 40:2, by the Mountain Goats

Just over an hour into the ride, I paused to watch floodlit Shequaga Falls roar into the night.

you were a presence full of light upon this earth
And I am a witness to your life and to its worth
It’s three days later when I get the call
And there’s nobody around to break my fall
Matthew 25:21, by the Mountain Goats

Shequaga falls at night


Across this sixteen hour pilgrimage to grapple with the magnitude of the pandemic, I listened to a sequence of music and spoken word, a liturgy for a million lives. I also phoned a friend at the midpoint.

I want to share a few readings & moments I know I will carry with me.

What is hell on earth?” Listening to a 2005 commencement speech by Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer, this is a moment that seized me with weeping:

Poverty & powerlessness and untreated disease are hell on earth and there’s nothing God given about such conditions. They are man given. — Paul Farmer

Farmer told the story of Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846), one of my own inspirations. Having won an undergraduate Cambridge prize for an essay about slavery, he was riding home when he was seized with a question: what if it’s actually true? What would that demand of me?

Deaths are not randomly distributed, and many deaths have been preventable. Unfortunately, many Americans are washing their hands of the situation. As an epidemiologist said to Ed Yong, Accepting losses among people facing poverty & inequality “comes easily to ‘a society that places a hierarchy on the value of human life’”

Emmanuel Baptist Church in Penn Yann, NY

During the ride, I also listened to the first 18 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Done. This 17th century English writer, who lived through several Bubonic Plaue outbreaks, reflects on the science, politics, and spirituality of sickness. It’s moving and spectacular writing.

I listened to the LibriVox recordings, but not everyone is trained in early modern English literature like me. I strongly suggest Philip Yancey’s modern paraphrase of the devotions, “A Companion in Crisis.”

Contemplating Health, Life, and Death with Donne

In the Devotions, Donne imagines a world where the physical and spiritual meet. This world is a nesting box of health earth, cities, and bodies (Devotion X), and all of us depend on each other.

In section IV, Donne links human health with our planet’s health: “If the veins in our bodies were extended to rivers, & muscles that lie upon one another, to hills… creatures are our thoughts.”

He envisions a battle royale by doctors for the health of humanity and our world, roaming the landscape alongside the creatures of thought and knowledge to fight monsters that threaten human health.

“There are too many examples of men that have been their own executioners” — John Donne on rumor

In section XII, Donne describes “rumor” as an infecting “vapor” that causes self-destruction, infecting kings & subjects alike. “There are too many examples of men that have been their own executioners,” he writes. Donne prays for a dove of peace (and truth) to heal people from rumor.

In Section X, Donne writes about leaders who won’t admit failures to the public or even to themselves. Confession can help with guilt, Donne points out, but there’s an even better option. In his closing prayer for this section, Donne imagines what would happen if people admitted problems before they cause harm, describing prevention as a form of grace: “only thou knowest how many and how great sins I have escaped by thy grace.”

Ignoring the Lesson of the Bells

Nearly sixteen hours after setting out to memorialize a million COVID deaths, I came to Donne’s famous meditation on funeral bells. Today I listened to the part that English classes tend to cut — Donne’s frustrated prayer.

detachment from each other is a direct wound upon ourselves and an indirect wound that harms humanity and our world

Almost 400 years after Donne published this meditation, we still ignore the idea that no man is an island. In the prayer for section XVII, Donne points out that we hear this bell from nature, miracles, & “the devil himself” but still ignore our human and spiritual connection to each other. Donne even makes a snarky reference to “Balaam’s Ass” and the story of a prophet so committed to personal interest over the common good that he nearly destroys himself.

This idea of detachment from each other is a direct wound upon ourselves and an indirect wound that harms humanity and our world. As Donne writes:

When thy Son cried out upon the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” he spake not so much in his own person, as in the person of the church, and of his afflicted members, who in deep distresses might fear thy forsaking.

What can heal this deep wound? As an Anglican minister, Donne prayed for salvation, which he believed was essential for unity in this world and in life after death.

A cyclists bows his head in prayer on a forest road

Epiphany and Renewal

Unlike Clarkson who was distanced from slavery, I set out to contemplate something whose harsh immediacy has made it feel incomprehensible.

To those of you who shared names with me, may their memory be a blessing.

Pilgrimages don’t promise epiphany, but I did have a kind of renewal. In his 2005 commencement speech, Paul Farmer wrote:

It’s easy to look at the world as it is and lose hope. Can we live — move forward — without hope? Whatever it is you do, turn your road angst into hope & action. Do it for us, do it for each other, & do it for the millions you’ll never meet.

I’m not a doctor, but I *am* a social & computer scientist. Together, we are team “no man is an island.” Our work can shape

  • the collective will to fight the “hell on earth” of inequality
  • human understanding and cooperation
  • trustworthy evidence over rumor
  • the social & spiritual support people need
  • hope

It’s customary to end with a link to donate, but let’s be honest. We all feel overwhelmed by grief, complexity, and a temptation to just let it go. So in lieu of a fundraiser:

  • hug someone close to you
  • seek your own epiphanies
  • find others who care and organize for the long game



J. Nathan Matias

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. citizensandtech.org Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American