THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING: AND THE FOG OF IGNORANCE (Quarantine Essay #6)
I keep hearing in my head the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World” but then I immediately hear a response from author Paul Kingsnorth who wrote “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world.”
Eventually we are going to reach the peak of this pandemic. How long that will take and what the numbers of cases and victims will be cannot be known. But, like death, taxes, and the coming of spring we can be certain that this crisis will pass.
What our economic, political, cultural, spiritual condition will be then is unknown. This crisis is provoking unprecedented alarm, anxiety, tension, and restlessness. Although our financial markets are not a reliable measure of everything (no, really they are not), their volatility is indicative of how variable our feelings are during this time. We are all perhaps up and down at multiple points during each and every day. That is typically how any crisis unfolds.
Facing a discrete crisis (e.g. a crying child, a clogged toilet, or a flat tire) we may be aggravated, but these are finite crises. “The fix” is clear and our anxiety may be neither high nor prolonged.
However a global crisis (literally and figuratively) may seem infinite, overwhelming, irresolvable. Therefore our feelings alternate as we focus alternately upon either its immense scope or the particular task in front of us. In fact, our anxiety may determine our mere capacity to focus on either one or the other.
A fixation on the enormity of the crisis might paralyze us. People ignore the news and binge on Netflix’s Tiger King.
A myopic focus upon the task at hand might blind us to its magnitude. There is a shortage of eggs and yeast right now because so many people are home baking bread.
But an understanding of the immensity of a crisis might also mobilize us; or the concentrated vision upon what we specifically can do, where we fit in, enables us to get a grip. I feel better when I know my own specific role regardless of how overwhelming the ultimate task I face. (That old hymn, Gandhi’s favorite, comes to mind: “Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom. Lead thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home — lead, thou me on. Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene — one step enough for me.”)
So a balance in our personal equilibrium is largely dependent upon a balance in our perspectival equilibrium. This is a difficult vantage point to acquire in the midst of a crisis. By now it’s a bit late for such remedial tasks. We are who we are and bring what we bring: as capacious or destitute, calm or anxious, as we may be.
And yet, the challenge of self-regulation is crucial and can’t be neglected.
This is why models are helpful but also limited. A model can help us envision what might be about to happen. It gives us a picture based upon our current condition of how the future might proceed if we either do nothing or continue to proceed as we are.
Our models are dependent upon data. As more and more data accumulates our models are revised to both reflect the developing reality and the implications of that reality.
Even if we are not scientists or statisticians we do this type of thinking all the time. What is the dilemma I am facing (e.g. running out of toilet paper, a chipped tooth, a flat tire, etc) and what are the possible actions I can take in this dilemma (e.g. yell for someone in the next room; go immediately to the dentist; phone AAA); and what are the implications of those actions (e.g. an annoyed partner, an expense I can’t afford, being late for my next meeting).
Our frustration in daily life is that our models don’t always include all the relevant data we need to consider. I’m hosting a dinner party that begins in one hour. I am out of something essential to my preparation. I might be able to get to the store and back unless there is road construction between me and the grocery store. If I knew that for sure I could go next door and awkwardly ask my neighbor whom I haven’t spoken to in months. Or perhaps I can just exclude that part altogether. This is problem-solving. Most of us do it so naturally we rarely think about it. The challenges we face are often small; the models we make are rarely complex; and when the unexpected occurs we adapt.
However, this depends upon the scale of the problem. The absence of a ventilator in a hospital room is a small thing. There might be one nearby. But a failure in the inventory system, such that the hospital doesn’t have enough ventilators is a more complex situation. A shortage of ventilators in multiple hospitals is an even greater problem. Compound that by an increased nationwide demand and a shortage of supply and you have part of our current public health crisis.
That brings me to my third thing. How do we function let alone lead when so much is so uncertain and unknown?
We have to cope, it seems to me, with three factors not just two. First, there is the “global”, expansive view of the size and scope of the problem before us. I’m out of toilet paper. There is no toilet paper in the house. There is none at the store. There is none on the way from the paper plant. Each level has an appropriate level of anxiety and challenge.
Second, a discrete and finite problem is easily fixed. Our community’s homeless population needs shelter in an environment that will keep them from getting or spreading this virus. I could work with the local organization to organize hotel rooms for them to stay in. I have a phone. I know whom to call. I can do this right now.
But the third factor in dealing with any situation is the not knowing.
Years ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was unjustly criticized for observing the distinction between the known-knowns, the known-unknowns, the unknown-knowns, and the unknown-unknowns. We might despise his politics (I do) and still affirm the validity of this schema.
The known-knowns are simply the things we know and things we know are known. The taken-for-granted. What we sometimes confuse with reality.
The known-unknowns are the things we don’t know, but realize we don’t know and can find out. (how many homeless in my community are needing shelter right now?).
The unknown-known are those things that we don’t know, but can identify as unknown (perhaps I’ve never worked with the homeless before and have absolutely no idea about how practical my idea might be).
But the kicker is that we cannot know all that we do not know. Taken-for-granted reality is not the sum of reality. We can know what we know and sometimes what we don’t know.
However, the devil lies in what we don’t know that we don’t know. The surprises. Where we get blind-sided. The things that come from outside our paradigm. The realities we are not prepared for because we never could have suspected them.
COVID-19 is not an unknown-unknown. Experts have predicted for years that a pandemic of this size was going to happen. We could have devoted a sufficient amount of money, enough individual researchers, stockpiled enough equipment, and developed enough public health protocols to meet such a situation.
But what is really frightening to think about is what we don’t know we don’t know. The things out there waiting to surprise us.
Problem-solving often involves questions we don’t have the answers to. What is distinct about our current national and global crisis is the scale and complexity of the crisis we are facing. Also, that so much of our hoped for success depends upon the voluntary compliance from so many. There are global and discrete tasks. Things we must all do as a collective and things we must all do individually.
How well we succeed in doing either of those things is an unknown-unknown.
We cannot know how our institutions will respond to this crisis. We don’t know how well the democratic citizenry of the United States will respond to a request to shelter-in-place. Some places seem to be complying; others not.
China was more successful in suppressing the virus because as a totalitarian government they had no scruples about enforcing compliance. We face the same viral threat but with distinct challenges: a less submissive populace, a less totalitarian government, and a more chaotic public health system.
But there is a vast difference between a cloud of unknowing and a fog of ignorance.
The “cloud of unknowing” is a phrase from fourteenth-century Christian mysticism. In that context it was about the knowledge of God. But the point has wider applicability. We must willingly live on the edge of our unknowing, willing to face into our unknown-unknowns. This requires flexible models, intellectual curiosity, persistent patience and dedication. We must constantly make course corrections. Inflexibility is perhaps a greater threat than the threat we face.
This is different from the “fog of ignorance” that engulfs so many right now. I am making a distinction here between not knowing and being ignorant. I am asserting that some are willfully ignorant and willfully ignoring both the magnitude of our challenge and their own specific responsibility in facing that challenge.
In dealing with something as pernicious and deadly as a virus such ignorance is a risk to us all.
We must become adept at living in a world of unknowns. This is an open-ended universe. No one has a corner on where things are headed.
But to intentionally practice ignorance about such trajectories, to stick our heads in the sand, to welcome only hopeful thoughts, or wish that it were so, is no help to anyone.
A personally peaceful ignorance says “All this panic is overblown” or “Let’s get back to work as soon as possible” or “Want to join me and some friends for a party at the beach?”
This ignorant attitude is quite different from a calm, reality-based, daily determination to face into this immediate crisis and all of the subsequent problems that are about to come.
Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom. I do not ask to see the distant scene — one step enough for me.
March 27, 2020