TO MAKE A ROAD
There is a difference between an epidemic and a pandemic, but it is a matter of scale. An epi-demic (over or upon the people) affects many while a pan-demic (all-the people) affects all.
Pandemic is also related to panic, which is related to the Greek god Pan of whom it was said could frighten a multitude with loud shrieks. The story was told that when the ancient Greek gods were battling a horde of giants, Pan’s shout was so overwhelming that it won the victory through the fear it caused in their opponents.
Observing a panic historically and experiencing a panic are, of course, two different things. Panic can be a curious, even fascinating social phenomenon when viewed from a distance. Panic is related to anxiety, and we were already a society exploding with anxiety disorders. They are the most common mental health concern in the United States. Over 40 million adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder, including 7% of children between the ages 3 and 17.
But during this pandemic, panic and anxiety begin to affect us all. The other day I found myself browsing online for the cost of industrial toilet paper until my sensible daughter laughed at me. “Lots of people in the world live without toilet paper!” Of course, we do. I was beginning to panic. Fear was making me irrational. It was like a wave sweeping over an unsuspecting beachcomber. Yesterday, there was a block-long line at our local Trader Joe’s. There were people masked and spaced six feet apart. But Evanston is not a food desert. There are within walking distance multiple locations to purchase food and toiletries. We are not yet at the place where such anxiety is justified. It is irrational. It is panic.
3.1 million children die of malnutrition every single year. Some people in our community might be concerned about that. No one is panicking. Perhaps we need more panic.
But although a pandemic affects everyone, it does not affect everyone equally.
Heartbreaking statistics were released yesterday about the racial inequalities evident in this crisis. African American communities are being devastated by this pandemic.
“In fact, as the virus smashes into black communities, it is actually one epidemic jumping on top of several other epidemics. The sad fact is too many African Americans are not healthy or adequately insured on a good day. In polite company, we speak delicately about ‘disproportionate health outcomes.’ But this antiseptic term does not capture the truth. Black people are sicker than white people across the board,” writes Van Jones (“Black American must wake up to this viral threat,” April 6, 2020).
Until yesterday, the media was oblivious to the shocking racial disparities in the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths. Here in Chicago, 72% of those dying from COVID-19 are African-American.
“Those numbers take your breath away, they really do,” said Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago, who announced the city’s figures on Monday. “This is a call-to-action moment for all of us.”
Reactions like panic and rage are not necessarily productive. They can distract, weaken, or immobilize our abilities to respond. But in proportion, perhaps some panic and rage are needed for us to do something. Panic can create urgency. Rage can produce energy. Both can move a community from stasis to activity.
Mourning and grief are also necessities. They must be appropriate to the moment and proportional to the loss. But sometimes the moment calls for something outrageous.
In the book Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering (Duke Univ Press, 2015) Rosemarie Harding recalled a story from the 1960s:
“Bob Moses tells a story of a woman he knew in the Movement. Somebody in Mississippi had been through so much pain, so much loss, she just fell to her knees in despair, one day. She fell on the floor of her kitchen, cradling bad news or pushing away a fresh memory, and from nowhere anybody could see, a sound rose up. It was within her someplace between her waist and her lungs, a vast place more guttural than the throat, a sacred place. And it was a deep haunting sound. Not shrill. But it rose and was full. The tone rose up out of this woman’s body on the floor, on her knees, and when she was done, everything was alright. She was alright. She had made a road.”
Such a wail, such a grief cry, is reminiscent of the shrieks of the god Pan. In this case, it subdued the psychic enemies. It made a road.
Jungian psychotherapist James Hollis calls these emotions “dismal” (Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places, 1996), and I am not arguing that they are virtuous. But often they are necessary.
The old Joe Hill slogan was, “Don’t mourn. Organize!” and that is the generative outcome of this turmoil. Organize. By organizing, I mean moving beyond voting, volunteering, or even “activism.” Attending a march may be something, but it is not organizing. And organizing is what we need. (I’ll write more on this, but I want to make a referral to a recent podcast with Labor organizer Jane McAlvey, “A Master Class in Organizing,” The Ezra Klein Show, March 15, 2020)
Not everyone is learning of our social inequalities for the first time. Many were long ago past the panic, rage, and mourning. Many were already engaged in doing something more than just wide-eyed anger, shock, or weeping. There are people already laying the foundations required to organize and mobilize in and after this crisis. There will be a next one. Look those people. Find them. Join them.
Now is a time for dismal emotions: for panic, rage, and grief. But eventually, we must organize. We must turn our panic to attention, our rage to energy, our grief to solidarity.
Sometimes this is the only way to make a road. And we need a road if we’re ever going to get out of here.
Ric Hudgens, 4-7-2020