We are all looking for a respite from the current pandemic. A pandemic as this one exposes the stark reality of our limitations (as humans) that not even artificial intelligence seems able to currently rescue. What seems to be working is the more resilient practice we seem to have given up on: that of collective wisdom grounded on the reality of interdependencies. At the same time, despite the pandemic – the system that may have most likely played a part in our current demise continues to function fine as the handful of billionaires continue to get richer as their net worth swells. This pandemic is far from being the so-called ‘great equalizer’. The deeper sickness of society, the heartbeat of the real pandemic, may be endemic.
Blaise Pascal may have been thinking of his own time when he wrote that the problems of humankind stem from our “inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. It is timely for us as well. To judge from our need to multiply online meetings, online churches, online conversations and all sorts of online inventions, one cannot help but think that Pascal was spot on.
The idol of productivity rules even though we are onto the mantra that after this pandemic it cannot be business as usual. I am amazed how many of us who claim to be transgressive and out-of-the-box and wayward thinkers continue to reel out a yearning for a return to ‘normalcy’.
Our rhetoric of puncturing normal and normalcy comes across as mere good sound bites. We cannot cope with what it means to be inactive, silent, quiet or displaced. Not that I am against keeping in touch, connecting with families and loved ones, and finding creative ways to continue to give a semblance of meaning to our lives. It is more about how hooked we are to an unreconstructed understanding of ‘normal’ that has little space or room to sit quietly alone for a while. So much so that a colleague, surprised with the speed that local churches/congregations have launched into online church (which they have resisted for years), confessed that over his 40 years in ministry he has never seen the holy spirit moved people so quickly to get online as in this pandemic!
Undoubtedly, what is being revealed are some of the scandalous systemic cracks, disparities, and fault-lines of economic polices (past and present), including designed austerity measures and the impact of the policies on our environment (climate crisis). We may all be in this together; yet, the truism around ‘unprecedented’ may also be about the ways this specific pandemic exposes the breadth and depth of inequalities be it housing in impoverished neighbourhoods, zero-hour employment, years of neglect to critical infrastructure projects and lack of investment in key social services including the health services. Is there a deeper illness that is being uncovered here with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Perhaps, Soren Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death’ may be a helpful phrase to capture some of these systemic issues. The need for online public approval – as we submit almost every aspect of our lives for clicks of likes and emojis may be designed to be a new opiate to distract us from the heart of our existential situation and what we need to do to change it, starting with an ability to sit quietly and alone for a while. Perhaps one of Kierkegaard’s ‘parable’ may offer further insight into this condition. I am thinking of that story of the fire that started backstage in a theatre. As Kierkegaard wrote: “The clown came out to warn the public; they (the crowd) thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater”. Is this how we are heading over the precipice – to a general applause of the show (which continues to roll on) believing it is all a joke? Even more telling of our current sick situation is a further insight from Kierkegaard on the ways to be fooled: “One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” There may be a third – covering up an illiteracy of the imagination with all sorts of distractions.
Another writer with a parable or metaphor that comes to mind is Albert Camus and his classic work The Plague. This may be more at home for our current situation as it captures the tensions and tiresome monotony of sickness and quarantine. The book is often read and interpreted in terms of Nazi occupation of France, the spirit of resistance, the reach of fascism and the horrors of war. It has been suggested though (not least by Camus himself) that the book is an interrogation of a deeper illness and crisis – a human one and how in the future we may carry the necessary antibodies to ensure immunity of the herd – inoculation against a repeat of the virus (whatever the type). So, what are the ‘antibodies’ we will deploy against the idols of productivity – growth – wealth – routine? Interrogating the deeper illness, what should now be considered as urgent to a necessary and essential list (as against a non-essential one)?
©caribleaper April 28, 2020