There’s an old favourite movie of mine, “How To Get Ahead In Advertising”, in which the main character, in the midst of a creative crisis, describes his mind as being stuck in a “dreadful oily neutral. I just sit there for hours, chewing the ends off pencils, smoking myself daft.”
Between the legions of public health officials warning us that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is still ahead and a feckless American president insisting until only the other day, in the face of the voluminous evidence to the contrary, that everything would be all better by Easter, we find exactly that dreadful oily neutral, on a societal scale. Remunerative work for tens of millions in the West is suddenly non-existent, and with it the prospect of acquiring the necessities of life. And for those lucky enough to have more resources and used to a minimum cushy level of comfort, let’s all shed a tear, because the year’s calendar with its many frivolous diversions is officially in the bin.
We’ve passed through the shock phase of this crisis now, the “oh shit, this is really a thing, what do we do” stage, the one that encouraged panic buying of everything from toilet paper to pasta sauce to guns. Now is the grim resignation phase, the gloomy doldrums in which we adjust to the new reality and scrape our way through the days, in whatever form that takes, until the victory conditions are met, in whatever form those take.
In a historical sense, none of us are innately entitled to stability, security, or predictability. The very concept of those things as possibilities is a recent creation. Until maybe a hundred years ago, “long term planning” for most people didn’t mean anything further away than the coming winter; even an assumption that you and all of your family members would make it through said winter alive was a dodgy one at best. And that’s without the risks of war, famine, or epidemic disease. Fast forward a century, and most of us in this part of the world — even those living paycheque to paycheque — normally live a life of relative luxury that our ancestors couldn’t even have dreamed of. We have enough food, enough shelter, enough warmth in the cold months, and more entertainment options at our fingertips than we know what to do with. It’s the shock to our usual state of predictability — and if we’ve been particularly fortunate until now, that of stability and security — that’s so jarring for most of us.
And back around to the dreadful oily neutral: we have no idea when this new reality will end. We know we’re to practice social distancing; we know we’re to self-quarantine for two weeks if there’s a risk we’ve been infected, for the sake of others in the community. But after those two weeks, what then? No returning to “normal” for us: we venture blinkingly out of self-quarantine into a world where we still have to practice social distancing, and where there’s not much to distract us except more Netflix and occasional Facetiming with friends or loved ones we can’t physically embrace.
So what do we do? Some of us simply deny, with varying degrees of naivete and irresponsibility. Some of us hoard toilet paper. Not, I believe, because deep down we’re all heartless sacks of barbarian shit. No, because we’re scared — and pretending it’s all not true or buying up mountains of toilet paper, while both superficially excessive and ridiculous, allow us to regain the tiniest sense of control to replace what the pandemic has taken from us. We’ve been assured incessantly since the end of the Second World War that everything we need or want is there in abundance, just ripe for the taking and fully available to anybody willing to work hard for it. And it had the illusion of truth until, suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, it didn’t. It sure was a comforting illusion while it lasted, though.
It’s strange that “a month ago” now seems so distant. And the stuff that was occupying our collective attention a whole two months ago in January — the impeachment of Trump, the fires in Australia, the almost-war between between America and Iran, the scandals and squabbles of the British royal family, which rich famous person was dating which other rich famous person — is now pretty meaningless and irrelevant. That, I suppose, is the nature of transcendent events: they change things. Radically, but peacefully if we’re lucky, or violently if we’re not.
But in the midst of all this change, we see humanity. People picking up food or medicine for those in quarantine. Downtown residents collectively cheering health care professionals. And most of all, the heroic, ceaseless work of those very legions of professionals. The fact that this crisis has no known end date admittedly poses a challenge to these efforts at collective solidarity — might they simply sputter and die out of sheer exhaustion? Possibly. But history gives us reasons to be optimistic; we need only look at the national mobilizations against Nazism in Britain and the Soviet Union for examples. And the fact that there’s no known end date opens up the possibility that the collective solidarity just might have enough time to take root and become a part of who we are. That we might come to expect and demand better of those who lead us, of each other, and of ourselves.
I’ve always had a streak of mindless optimism in me, so to my mind there’s no better way to end this blurb than with some words from the deeply flawed but always eloquent Winston Churchill, delivered in the dark circumstances of the day:
“Good night, then — sleep, to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly on all who suffer for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn.”