LIVING MORE COMPLEXLY (Quarantine Essay #5)
(from Facebook friend Ric Hudgens)
I’ll start with a trigger warning: I’m going to say something cruel and heartless. For the people in “leadership” among our government, media, religious institutions who have volunteered to give their lives in order to end this pandemic I say we take you up on your offer.
In the words of Chris Rock, “Yeah, I said it.”
The problem is that your deaths would not end the pandemic. A loosening of our shelter-in-place restrictions would only increase the pandemic’s influence. Thousands would flock to church on Easter Sunday morning, fill the bars and restaurants, return to the highways, and get back to work only fueling the raging fires of this crisis. Most of us are not as “brave” and “selfless” as you; not so committed to the insatiable God of Mammon. This virus is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t care if you are Republican or Democrat.
But it is a virus fatal to morons. People advocating a return to “normal” against the advice of public health officials and doctors, against the advice of the World Health Organization who yesterday noted that the United States is about to become the next global hotspot for COVID-19, are stupid.
I mean that with all sincerity.
Bill Gates (I am not always a fan) recognized that we cannot just go back to business-as-usual and ignore “the pile of bodies in the corner”. Yet, this is where we are: the age-old human instinct to satisfy the inscrutable gods by human sacrifice.
I will not do what President Obama (blessed be his memory) used to say “That’s not who we are as a country”. For in fact, this is who we are. A polarized nation of great diversity, full of nameless brave and selfless heroes; but also full of the self-proclaimed “brave and the selfless” who are not heroic at all. And there are some, hopefully not too many, who would sacrifice your grandparents to protect their stock portfolio. This is who we are as a country.
These times are apocalyptic in the root meaning of that word, derived from the ancient Greek apokalyptein “to uncover, disclose, reveal,”
How did we get here?
In The Atlantic yesterday, an article by Zeynep Tufekci was titled “It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong,”:
“Many will be tempted to see the tragic coronavirus pandemic through a solely partisan lens: The Trump administration spectacularly failed in its response, by cutting funding from essential health services and research before the crisis, and later by denying its existence and its severity. Those are both true, but they don’t fully explain the current global crisis that has engulfed countries of varying political persuasions.”
Tufekci’s main argument (please look it up and read it for yourself) is that “we failed to understand that complex systems defy simplistic reductionism.” What he means by that is that the coronavirus emerged within a complex system of ecology, politics, public health, culture, economic, and governmental factors. The world failed in considering the risk it posed in its full context; and how quickly multiple things can go wrong all at the same time. Our global leaders were fooled by the false comfort in numbers and percentages moving linearly across a graph which suddenly leap non-linearly across the surface of the globe. It was like combining an acid and a base, vinegar and baking soda.
Tufekci recognizes that we had all the information we needed; and by “we” he means the entire global public health community. But the alarms did not seem to go off soon enough:
“If nothing else, that China’s efficient top-down regime, which highly values its own survival, was willing to take such drastic steps was a sign that the coronavirus was a profound threat.”
The world did not take it seriously enough until casualties started mounting in Italy and everyone began to see how even an advanced Western public health system was not going to be able to cope.
I can understand how things sometimes get out of control. We can think of examples as dramatic as the large brush fires in drought-stricken California; or as trivial as the stubborn goutweed infestation in my own backyard. Reality is a stubborn competitor to our stubborn fantasies; and given a direct competition I’ll bet on reality.
Coronavirus is also a potent refutation to 18th century philosopher Bishop Berkeley’s idealism: that material things only exist in our minds. You can sense traces of this sentiment at work among the deniers of science, climate change, and the coronavirus.
No, we are immersed in a reality that is more complex and systemic than our most spacious paradigms can embrace.
Wendell Berry was once asked if he could provide some advice for living more simply and he responded, “I don’t want to live more simply. I want to live more complexly, taking more and more things into account.”
Part of living complexly is what I call doing the things that make other things possible.
This is a simple concept in and of itself, but it has complex ramifications.
When I was an adolescent my late father would call me away from solitary adolescent pursuits to help him in the garden, the yard, repairing or painting some part of the house. (I never would have imagined how nostalgic I now am for those annoying obligations.)
At the end of the day it was my job to “clean up.” That meant cleaning and preparing the tools we had used so that they would be ready next time. Thus, I learned the “doing things that make other things possible” at an early age.
We cannot always do the things we want or need to do because we have not completed the things that make them possible. For example, in our current situation we do not have the capacity to respond to a nationwide pandemic. We don’t have the personnel, the facilities, the equipment which could help us through this crisis until the antidote is developed.
We have misconceived the true threats to our national security. For example, an eighty million dollar F-35 fighter jet is pretty useless right now. How could the United States have better deployed an almost 700 billion dollar defense budget?
However, in order to do the things that make other things possible it does indeed help to have some conception of what those things might be. Perhaps, no one could have imagined a global health crisis of this magnitude. And yet it is revealing (apokalyptein) the weaknesses of our cultural infrastructure in ways nothing else could have done.
Healthy cultures or ecosystems rarely succumb to outside threats. There is strength and health in diversity, complexity, and change. A static or polarized culture is daily making an invitation for the forces of the universe to invade, dismantle, and purge it of its weaknesses.
Despite the sentiments of “morons” among us, perhaps there is indeed a purge needing to happen. Perhaps eventually we will have to reemerge from our defensive caves into the light and confront once again the risks of daily life – despite the pile of bodies piled up in the corner.
What is being revealed is not only how stupid some of our leaders are; but, how fragile, simplistic, and myopic our individual and shared empires have always been.
This crisis is a crisis right now. As Dr. Maggie McQueen said on the PBS Newshour the other night “We are waiting for the P in PTSD.”
But, once we re-emerge we will have an opportunity to do things differently.
We need the true meaning of “repentance”: the practical, turning away from a path with a dead-end toward a path that is regenerative, far-seeing, practical, compassionate, just, and systemic. A path of life.
I vote for change.
March 25, 2020