Apocalypse Cabaret Diary, March 19, 2020
California became the first state today to tell everyone to stay home — unless they are doctors, bankers, work in a grocery store, or deliver pizza. The definition of “essential” workers changes significantly in a crisis
This is just as true of the social contract as it is for us as individuals. A crisis forces us to ask: are we really all in this together? If the answer is yes, then people who are not used to sacrificing will have to step up. If the answer is no, then it’s fair to ask why we should care about laws that protect the elite. I mean, it’s not like we’re all on the same team.
The idea that we’re not all in this together, however, sometimes comes from surprising places.
A friend of mine who works with homeless populations was enraged a few days ago because so many of her friends were saying that, as a result of COVID-19, they’ve really started to think about death for the first time. My friend lives in a world of death and tragedy. Thinking about her friends, she suddenly wondered “who ARE these people? HOW could this be the first time they’ve ever really thought about the way death ruins everything?” What she was really asking was: how can these people I love, and I, really be on the same team?
I get furious at anyone who talks about the upside to this pandemic, who says some version of “Well, but it’s good for the environment!” or “We may get Universal Basic Income out of it!” or “It will finally force America to look at its healthcare system!”
All these things may be true, but they are justifications of the unjustifiable. Doctors are stacking corpses outside of hospitals and crematoriums in Italy. Mass unemployment and economic collapse are on the horizon. You may not know anyone whose grandparents are dying, or who are being evicted into a pandemic, but surely you can’t talk about a silver lining without first fully taking stock of the storm. “Millions dead” does not have a silver lining.
What it does have is a call towards redemption. Victor Frankl wrote that perhaps the only truly constant purpose we have in life is to be worthy of our suffering. To live up to the burdens put upon us. Yes, we can use this tragedy to fight for a better world — but that is a call to action, not a silver lining. It is a promise you make, not a gift, wrapped in corpses, that the world has handed you.
If we needed (or you needed) millions of dead and wrecked lives to do the right thing, that is not a silver lining: that is another tragedy.
Just one that we can be worthy of, if we work at it.
I get so fucking pissed off at people who try to put a happy face on this. However much their pretensions to environmentalism or humanitarianism, they are not on humanity’s team.
I’ve gotten angry a lot, today, but it doesn’t last. The urge towards torpor is strong. Without someone else in the house, I start edging towards hibernation. To turning myself off, playing video games and watching movies, and letting the world sort itself out before I emerge again. Today — a nothing day, in which nothing really happened to me — I was either angry or tired. I raged or I slept.
I have that luxury, because I am both privileged and inessential. I am a luxury good in this world, in a time when people ransack shelves for toilet paper.
Or maybe it’s just that I’m alone. I have noticed this same thing happening among other people who are in solitary quarantine now. After a few days we lose momentum, and after a few days more we lose direction.
“What is human connection?” someone asked me today. “We all need it, but do we actually understand what it is? What we’re looking for?”
I have been profoundly lucky: for all my isolation, I have people checking in on me. My day started with someone I love dearly reaching out to me, and in our digital conversation we brought each other back to life for a time. I’ve been lucky like that several days in a row. I have a great team.
But needing people and having people is complicated. Sometimes people have been reaching out to me, offering support or needing it, and I have shied away. Just because I am desperate for human connection doesn’t mean I can connect with any human. I’m stupidly picky, and often inconsistent. Even when I’m with people, I can’t always be with people.
What is it that I lack, but can’t always accept? What kind of connection is it that wakes me up out of my hibernation? Even brings me back to life?
“Just be with people” … isolation doesn’t just make that harder, it makes it evident how little you know how.
I’ve been invited to play several online role playing games — versions of D&D and Call of Cthulu held over teleconferences — and this, too, makes me furious.
I mean, these are lovely offers, and why the hell not — it’s something to do, and face time with people, isn’t it?
But these are games I stopped playing a long time ago, even in person, because they don’t represent the kind of connections I actually want to have. I don’t want to pretend to be a character to play with people: I want to play with people. I want unmediated connection.
To pretend to be characters over a screen represents a mediation on top of a mediation — an artificial distance on top of an artificial distance. It feels like being made to live in my old childhood bedroom again.
This is a very idiosyncratic thing that probably only applies to me, I know. But perhaps … if one of the key markers of adulthood is to leave home and have access to the world, and we are all now forced to stay home … does that mean we’ll all be struggling with our own potential regressions back to childhood?
I actually think does. But that’s a hypothesis being tested in a million homes as we speak. The results will come in.
In the meantime, I’m glad online gaming’s working for them. But that’s not the kind of human connection I want. And maybe being that kind of picky is one of the reasons I’m suffering.
My friend who works with the homeless has accused me of being great at “quality time,” but terrible at “quantity time” — at the kind of routine, by-the-numbers, time spent together that makes up the majority of most relationships. “You suck at that,” she’s told me. “You don’t even understand what that is.”
And she’s right. But at this moment, everyone is asking themselves what kind of human connection need, and pacing around their isolated spaces asking themselves how to get it. In this, I am not alone. None of us are. We are all re-evaluating what it means to be connected. And, because this is a crisis, we are basing this not on what we want, but on what we feel we are lacking.
That’s not a silver lining. I’m not even sure it’s a good idea. But it is a suffering we have to be worthy of.
The alternative is not anger, it is restless sleep.