Apocalypse Cabaret Diary, May 1
Replacing a used roll of toilet paper now has a ceremonial quality, as if a dirge were being played at the changing of the seasons and a changing of the guard.
We had, I think, created such a culture of consumption that we came to think that every item in it was immortal because every item in it was replaceable with another version of itself. To order more off of Amazon with the quick click of a button was a kind of reincarnation without any lessons learned. But we think differently about things, as much as we do people, when we can potentially see their end in sight.
And people … we are all so long in our own bubbles that when you start talking with someone, one of the first things you have to do is mutually establish when it is: this is Wednesday, right? And yesterday was Tuesday? Are we sure?
The more we live in our own bubbles, the weaker the bonds of consensus reality become. We now have to spend time re-establishing what we once simply assumed.
I have not had any dreams of flying or falling, but the number of stress dreams people report is overwhelming. They are climbing dangerous mountains or going back to school, they are failing to meet people or watching their friends die …
At the same time, a number of people are starting to feel guilty because for all that it is unsustainable, their lives in captivity are better in key ways than their lives were in the normal times. They can wake up whenever they want to. Their lives are less dictated by a series of deadlines. They have time to stop and think and process. They have space, in the way that a Zen garden does. However crowded in it may be by the world, within its own borders, it is open.
I understand why they feel this way. My whole life has largely been organized in such a way as to give me that space. There are severe consequences to living a live with as few attachments as I have had — I fact that I never understood, or understood how much it hurt me, until recently — but … but …
In the absence of the kind of relationships where someone is always around; as a result of avoiding the kind of high paying, high status, jobs where they expect you to be constantly on call, and instead working at places that couldn’t afford my talent in money alone but will gladly leave me alone to make up for it; in making sure I always had enough time to create when the muse struck me and contemplate when she was away … I have lived a life filled with this kind of space. And while I would urge everyone away from the mistakes I have made in pursuit of it, the goal is worthy. Everyone should get to live like that, if they choose. I am not at all surprised that, even in the midst of terrible suffering, it is both a lesson and a balm.
Crises are often good at revealing to us what is important in life. We always knew, at some level, that we were toiling in the mills of Moloch, struggling for things we did not really care about, and that were easily replaceable, but to feel that is entirely different.
Over and since the weekend I have had a few acute incidents, where my mood plummeted or gradually sank, and I have also lifted myself up out of them after a few hours or so. But mostly I have been experiencing a feeling that I cannot explain because I think it is genuinely new emotional territory for me. A kind of feeling I have never had before, at least in sufficient quantity that I could put words and signposts to it. It’s not suffering, it’s not bad or unpleasant, but, I cannot explain it to you because I do not yet have words associated with it.
It makes me wonder whether people who lived through similar moments in history, or had them in living memory, had access to a range of emotions that we lose in between plagues and devastation. Would the minor nobility during the bubonic plague have immediately recognized the emotions I ‘m having but cannot name? Did the survivors of the Spanish Flu have this sensation in common with me?
The question reminds me of a theory I once came across — I wish I could remember where — that the more prosperous a society gets, the more diverse kinds of personalities it develops.
The premise is this: when a society is at subsistence level, everyone has to fulfill certain roles in order to keep from collapse and starvation. There may be music and dance and acting, but society simply doesn’t have the capacity for someone to say “I’m not going to farm or hunt or build, because I need to spend all my time working on my music and my acting.” Everyone, whatever their innate temperament, whatever their quirks and unpredictable potential, has to fill certain roles, and so necessity channels their lives into a limited set of roles, which means a limited set of behaviors, which means fewer options for the unique and different to sprout and flourish. Because even if you have all the impulses in there somewhere, they don’t really flourish the way they do with sustained time, attention, and practice.
But the more prosperous society gets, the more it develops new roles for people to fill — and the more people can define their own roles, because it’s not like having people devote themselves full time to music means the society is going to starve. Excess capacity means people have more options through which their personalities can be expressed, which means more practice, which means more development … which, over generations, means that personality types start to diversify in lasting ways. The more excess a society produces, the more it can support the development of wishes and desires and impulses and expressions that it would have previously crushed out of a sense of self-preservation.
Which means — if true — that some of us are rare orchids who only could have become ourselves in this particular hothouse. People like us might very well not have existed a few centuries ago. Or even decades, if you want to speculate that the internet has accelerated this process, too.
I’ve encountered the echoes of that idea elsewhere: in Frankl saying that every generation or so needs to reinvent psychology for itself. In Jung and Rollo May suggesting that the neuroses of today are the normal behaviors of tomorrow. But mostly I have thought of human nature as a steady continuum that we are all on. And I think … I think … that’s still largely true. But perhaps that continuum is structured like a maze; we are all in it, yes, but full of turns and tangents, nooks and crannies, to explore if you have the time and determination … and perhaps it has secret doors and locked areas that require culture to unlock and explore.
The point being … when we are younger, we are always discovering new emotional frontiers. That’s what growing up is. But at some point we, or at least I, started working under the assumption that I had felt all the different emotions that there were to feel, and that the only task that remained was to get better at them, and to pick and choose the ones I wanted to encourage and wanted to discourage.
And then this happens. Under the intensity of a new hothouse, I become a different kind of orchid, and wonder what color this is on my petals.
And on the one hand, this is surely an opportunity to become something even more strange and wondrous. And on the other hand, this surely speaks to my fear that I will come out of this quarantine even less connected to the people around me.
Except that I’m not really sure it works that way at all.
Recently, when I’ve started to feel myself slide out of that emotional state that I do not understand and into a suffering that I understand all too well, I’ve taken to hobbling out to the front stoop of my building, sitting down, and singing for a while.
I’ve lived here for almost 10 years, and I don’t know my neighbors. But yesterday, after I took a quick walk outside to get some air, a guy rolled up on a skateboard, stopping about 8 feet away.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m Rob. I don’t know your name, but, do you know everybody here is talking about you?”
“Oh … good things, I hope.”
“Are you kidding me? Everybody was texting each other the last couple days ‘have you heard that guy? Do you know who he is?’”
He started pointing at different buildings along the block. “The people in that building, and that one, and that one, that unit … I know everybody … and they all said the same thing: ‘at first, I thought somebody was just playing their music really loudly, then I realized … no, somebody’s out there singing! That’s amazing! Which was just what I thought when I heard you yesterday, or a couple of days before, I can’t even tell anymore! “
“Okay, so, I shouldn’t be reticent the next time I think about doing it again …”
No, we love it! It’s weird that this is how we meet our neighbors now, huh?”
I don’t know why this kind of thing surprises me, anymore. But it does. Every time.
Somehow, our weird colorings and unique eccentricities can connect us more to people, not less, if they are simply and honestly offered up. Somehow, the idiosyncratic truth of ourselves reinforces our consensus reality, and makes it more beautiful.