Priority Sign Posts
Art: John Galanakis/Courtesy Titletown Publishing. Terry Jo Duperrault on November 16, 1961
I read a lot of Stephen King growing up. The Stand led to daydreams, where I survived the superflu, free to wander the empty streets of my miserable suburban New England town. Not long after reading it for the first time I filled up my family’s inflatable raft with air on my bedroom floor. I packed the lifeboat with supplies and laid down inside it, imagining myself lost at sea, away from the discord of the world, drifting alone.
Philosopher Frederic Jameson wrote something insightful about end-of-the-world fantasies. It goes like this: It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism. That quote rang a bell with me when I first heard it in school. Today I wonder if it was because of the apocalyptic thinking hard-wired into me from an early age.
My generation spent a lot of time thinking about the end of the world. We thought our time here must be the end of something. Even when I went to church as a little kid, it felt like we spent most of the time bracing for Revelations to come true. If anything, the pandemic and resulting quarantine revealed this isn’t an end. It was only ever a middle. Our time here is just a bump in the road on an off-course journey toward an ideal civilization. We are not the last generation in history.
My former college roommate Timothy Sheahan is another Gen-Xer. But instead of dwelling on our doom, he’s a virologist working on a solution to the pandemic. When GQ interview him last month, he said:
“I'm hopeful that this experience will change how we do things on a grand scale. Such that when we do get graded on this, it's actually a legit grade and we can respond better and faster than we have in the past.”
Tim isn’t the only person I’m following online who has a vision for the future. A few artists I respect also made thoughtful statements lately about what’s next. Nick Cave wrote about listening more and being careful with our noisy opinions. David Byrne says this is an opportunity to learn how to change our behavior. David Lynch thinks we’re going to come out of this kinder and more intelligent.
All white dudes… I know. But those three men come to similar conclusions: we’ve led an unsustainable lifestyle for a while now and things need to change. As difficult as it feels right now, the 2020 quarantine is a positive opportunity. I reached out to several of my friends and colleagues and asked, “If this is our opportunity to make the world a better place, where do we start? From your perspective, what should we prioritize?”
This month’s newsletter is a summary of the answers I received. Some folks had little, if any hope. Oh, how I sympathize. But others told me they see this as a chance to declutter and rebalance our lives. Another group told me their ideas to improve our awareness, communities and communication. If you would like to read their entire responses I uploaded them together here as a PDF.
Art: “Here, There, Everywhere: Project Another Country” by Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan
The Centre Cannot Hold
I identify with the people who say any call to fix society is both vain and futile. In my head, William Butler Yeats, Joan Didion and Sleater-Kinney are all screaming “THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD.” Whenever I look at social media I’m reminded of a different part of that poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
One of my friends told me, “There’s no better place coming, just more systems of control, marginalization and financial inequality.” From his perspective, we’re surrounded by madness. Again, I sympathize.
Writer and Fossil Preparator Corinna Bechko feels similarly, saying that trying to stop society from falling into utter chaos and ruin is exhausting. Given Corinna’s work in paleontology, she’s probably better at seeing the long view of entropy than I am. “It’s optimistic to think that much of anything, much less humans, will survive the long term,” she wrote, “That said, I think this pandemic, horrific as it is, will just be a blip in the face of climate catastrophe.”
Andrew Wallace is a teacher and the Political Action Committee Chair for his local teacher’s union. He’s skeptical as well: “Everything is interconnected and tough to move,” he said, “There’s no real starting point, the circumstances are constantly shifting, and we often feel like we’re never getting anywhere.” Wallace’s response reminded me of Wicked Problems theory, which holds that some social or cultural problems are just so difficult that they’re impossible to solve.
But Wallace also says that while he’s full of rage, he’s still hopeful. That’s where I find myself as well, alternating between nihilism and desperate hope. Two books I’m reading are keeping me wedged in that vice, China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution and Don Brown’s graphic novel Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918. Both make it clear that changing anything is going to take a tremendous amount of hard work and cooperation. Even then there will continue to be eerie parallels to our past historical mistakes. But, as much of a natural pessimist I am, I still have my fingers crossed.
“If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
Another cluster of the responses I received centered around focusing on self-care before attempting any large-scale reform. As the adage goes, we have to help ourselves before we can help others. Can I get an amen?
Cognitive scientist and yoga/meditation educator Dr. Sarah Cavrak wrote, “Until we acknowledge how we feel and how we’re going to move and shift through our emotional responses to this, in any moment, then I’m not sure any of us will realistically have the capacity to envision a better world and take the necessary actions.”
I sometimes forget this, but Sarah makes a good point. We don’t prioritize our emotions in this society. They take a backseat to our ambition or conveniences. It takes real work to understand what we’re feeling. “For me, the work always starts at home; at home in my body; at home with my family,” Sarah shared.
Sarah reminds us to be compassionate with ourselves instead of distracting from the discomfort, frustration and anger we’re experiencing. Another yogi, my former colleague Robert Lamb wrote something similar. He sees this as an opportunity to rebalance our lives.
“I think there is also the potential to find better ways, fresh approaches and perhaps spaces to re-examine our previous approaches or balance,” Robert wrote, “The challenge, I think, is whether we can keep what we've learned when we transition back into something like our previous lives. Will it simply be a return, or will it be a revival?”
Another anonymous friend has already decided he doesn’t want to return to the workaholism and perfectionism of our culture. He’s sick of judging himself for not “doing enough” or “rising to the challenge.”
I took on this newsletter because I felt a similar urge to DO MORE. But I’d rather spend half my day under the covers right now, curled up in the fetal position. Instead, here I am, feeling guilty because we didn’t fixed the world yet. Another friend, Rich Barrett, wrote that he feels guilty because his life is relatively stable right now. It’s a Catch-22. We need time to take care of ourselves first. But when we do, we feel guilty. What kind of monstrous lifestyle bred that cognitive dissonance into us?
My anonymous friend wrote that he’s going to “find some space, within myself or outside myself, that isn’t full of 24/7 COVID-19.” We’re constantly reminded of the pandemic by news, social feeds and newsletters clogging our inboxes. Two others mentioned using their quarantine time to declutter, focus on the essentials and prioritize what’s really important to them.
“Being stuck in the house staring at a bunch of junk that I really don’t need has been an eye-opener,” said one, “My mind would be less cluttered if I didn’t have so much stuff. I’d be more focused, perhaps on things that truly matter.”
Rich wrote about how much time he’s getting back during the quarantine. “I’m sleeping 8+ hours a night, reading books, playing with the kids, going for walks, exercising, spending some time with my own thoughts and still getting all my work done,” he wrote, “This wasn’t happening before.”
Rich points out that when you boil away everything else, the most essential thing we’ve got left is time. That’s the gift of the pandemic. It forces us to sit still and be alone with our thoughts. “I don’t know if we’re going to easily give that back when this is over,” Rich wrote.
Extreme Noise Terror vs. "All Politics is Local"
I received another anonymous response from someone more optimistic, saying there will be significant change to come out of the pandemic. However, based on history he expects “the road will be long and hard.” He compares our present to the stretch of time leading from the 1873 publication of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today to the progressive support for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 New Deal.
He calls this a naive parallel, but points out that even though the 1918 flu pandemic took place in the middle of that movement, it still took another fifteen years before America saw political change.
“I worry about the amount of suffering that will happen along the way,” he wrote, “But I’m woefully unprepared for so many in the country I love to endure prolonged pain and suffering, especially since the least deserving of that suffering will be the ones who carry it most.”
To ease that suffering, he recommends that we listen to each other and forgive our old grudges. His response was among several with an emphasis on improving our community by reducing the noise levels that interfere with how we communicate.
Brian Winkeler in Oklahoma was another of these. He told me a story about talking politics with a trainer at his local gym last summer. At age twenty-seven, this trainer had never registered to vote. But Brian’s encouragement convinced him to do so.
“I think a better world comes from finding ways to connect with people who are open to change,” Brian said. He also stressed that it’s important to share resources, while allowing the receivers space to decide to engage.
Massage therapist Roman Marecik in Poland is also focused on “increasing people’s awareness in order to navigate better in this complicated world.” Instead of politics, Roman wants to teach human behavior through virtual, interactive events about the theory of Spiral Dynamics.
To be honest, I never heard of Spiral Dynamics until now, but Roman calls it a “model of evolution of the human psyche.” From a brief internet search, it seems like Spiral Dynamics proposes that our cultural views change in response to our collective experiences as a species. It goes on to speculate that we’ll eventually end in a kind of holistic universal order. Perhaps a global crisis like the pandemic will provide enough motivation to shift how we think about human progress?
Both Roman’s desire to enlighten his audience and Brian’s friendship with his trainer remind me of good old-fashioned, door-to-door community building. So it struck me, maybe that should be our priority?
Then physicist and writer Karmela Padavic-Callaghan mentioned the importance of maintaining our communities with care and action. “I hope we can rethink our idea of what a network is,” she wrote, “Wrestle the term away from being monopolized by social media giants and professional development experts.”
What Karmela described in her response sounded like Tip O’Neill’s “all politics is local” adage. Karmela sees local politics as foundationally important because they’re an opportunity to rethink our definition of community, while also engaging in advocacy and helping each other get through crises. She also reminded me to keep checking-in on the people in my life, even when it seems like they’re too strong to need help.
My friend Sean Fisher is thinking about politics too, but on a grander scale. Sean reminded me of Jameson’s earlier quote about apocalypses by mentioning Mark Fisher’s thoughts on “capitalist realism.” Sean’s another Gen-Xer. We both grew up in New England around the same time, going to hardcore punk shows and spending too much time imagining the end of the world. But both Fishers (Sean and Mark aren’t related) actually see our current predicament as a failure of our imagination.
“There is no endpoint. We must constantly and collectively change and evolve as time advances,” Sean said, “First imagine, then create.”
Art: Cover to Normal by Warren Ellis
The Next Normal
A few of the other responses I received suggested specific policy reform, mostly about health care. But the majority of the responses fell into the three categories above. They were skeptical. They suggested we rebalance ourselves. And they advocated for improving our communities with healthier communication. If you’d like to read their entire responses, check out this PDF.
As I was finishing this piece another anonymous friend wrote me. He works in crisis management and told me about a new phrase popping up in his field: “The Next Normal.” Instead of accepting a single status quo, technology and health experts are starting to think of society as being in a constant state of flux. Addressing COVID-19 won’t be the endpoint. It’s just one cycle before another game-changer comes along. He said:
“Ultimately, how can we adjust to now, when another change is on the way, and another change after that?Do we develop better mental and emotional flexibility? Do we need to restructure the systems in place for helping people quickly adapt to one change with the expectation of and anticipation for another change appearing on its heels — either rapidly or after a lengthy delay?”
This isn’t the end. There is no single, ideal civilization. Just constant evolution that’s going to require flexibility from us, on both an individual and an institutional level.