WHERE WE START FROM
“The whole globe is shook up, so what are you going to do when things fall apart? You’re either going to become more fundamentalist and try to hold things together, or you’re going to forsake the old ambitions and goals and live life as an experiment making it up as you go along.”– Pema Chodron (1997)
On March 31 the New York Times published a chart comparing the climbing trajectory of cases in the United States with those in Italy, Spain, and China. On March 31 we here in the US were at 3000 deaths. Two days later we surpassed 5000. The numbers are increasing with no sign of levelling off (flattening the curve) for another two to four weeks. And in many places across the country the ascendance of cases is just beginning.
Parts of the United States are still resistant to taking any precautions. Churches in Florida and Texas are seeking a religious exemption to keep meeting on Sunday asserting that they offer “essential services”. Dr. Anthony Fauci is receiving security protection now to protect him from the threats against him. A prime example of going after the messenger. And every afternoon the President talks as if he knew this was going to happen (despite repeated statements to the contrary) and if only his critics would support him we could successfully defeat this “invisible enemy.”
But the chaos and incompetence at the federal level is remarkable. That is no fault of Trump’s critics.
The US requested medical equipment from Thailand while simultaneously shipping medical equipment to Thailand. The US sent 18 tons of medical equipment to China in February just as cases were starting to increase in this country. (The first COVID death here was February 29).
The President’s son-in-law with the President’s permission sought private contractors at exorbitant prices to produce the ventilators that the Defense Production Act is designed to mandate. One thousand of the ventilators in the National Stockpile don’t work. And on and on.
Getting angry and venting our rage is almost pointless. We don’t have time for that right now. There are lives to save. But we cannot do what we immediately need to do because we have not done what we needed to do. Who we elect to national office matters. Those who sit in the upper echelons of government are our first line of national defense. Not against foreign foes. But against ourselves.
But things never fall apart at a convenient time.
Pema Chodron’s quote is one I wrote down and posted next to my desk.
I’ve had personal experience of things falling apart. Sometimes I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started all over again. But more than once I just walked away. I was forced to decide whether holding things together that are fated to fall apart again is really worth it. Fated, destined, designed, tending toward, inevitable, unable to cohere. You choose. Things fall apart, as Yates said.
How we as a world, as a nation, and as individuals emerge from this crisis will be crucial to the quality of our future. Despair is both a dead end and a doorway.
Philosopher John Gray writes in The New Statesman (April 1, 2020) that this pandemic is “a turning point in history.” A meme I shared on social media says “Stop thinking about the apocalypse. Start thinking about the revolution.” “To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” wrote T S Eliot long ago.
What might be coming to an end is unclear. There have been several times after major events in recent decades when we’ve thought things could never be the same again. And then after a while things were the same again.
So Pema Chodron’s quote does not mean we have to do anything. We don’t need to try to hold things together. Nor do we need to begin a new trajectory (“live life as an experiment”). We have a choice.
It feels to me as if this entire crisis is not only a stunning and tragic rebuke to the cruel, insanity of Trump’s tenure. It is a global crisis. A rebuke to an entire modern trajectory and the stories we tell ourselves about it. It is an epic anomaly that our reigning paradigms are not showing the ability to cope with.
But maybe not. Maybe this is merely a momentary (though tragic) breakdown that the world will recover from. Sobered, but not chastened. More intent to better do what we were intent on doing before: restarting an extractive economy, polluting the planet, increasing inequality, expanding our militaries, sowing distrust, maximizing oppression, seeking affluence, multiplying racisms, denying our addictions.
I hope not.
April 2, 2020