How are you feeling? The reason I ask is I keep waking up in the same nightmare every morning. I brew a latte and google “COVID-19 updates.” Right after the graphs of “rising death tolls and mind-boggling predictions,” I note the frequency of loglines with some version of: “A day after…” so-and-so revealed such-and-such— “The government finally announces…” this-or-that belated plan of action. Another lethargic, alarming response.
Nonetheless, one fortuitous side-effect of this slowdown in some of our daily activities, in spite of social distancing, lockdowns, and self-quarantining, is having the time to rest, recover, read, and reflect on what this all really means. Columnist Jeff Sommer’s piece on why “This Time Really Is Different” in the New York Times was sober-minded.
PBS Newshour guest, American-Canadian Politics/Culture Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks’ summoning relevant history lessons from the aftermath of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, even more so. La Grippe Espagnole, or La Pesadilla as it was known, infected 500 million people worldwide—one third of the planet’s population—and killed an estimated 20-50 million victims.
I don’t know about you—that’s why I’m asking—but are you finding time in the midst of this whirlwind, transmittable crisis to stand aside the immediate fear and anxiety, and more broadly reflect on what far-reaching implications further negligence might have on our future? Not only for everyday business, medicine, health care, and media politics, but for our most basic institutions. Those of science, philosophy, history, art, and education. Over the rest of our lifetimes and those of our grandchildren.
Back to Basics: Tribute to the Myth of Prometheus
Frustrated, and looking for some further, constructive distraction, I turned on the National News. Hopeless. The ads are the content; the news is the fill. I turn that off to self-medicate. Take the dog for a walk in the park. Back home alone again turned on National Geographic while, at the same time, rifling through my book shelves with no apparent motive at first.
There was something interesting I recorded on cable about the origins of how we evolved as a species that I listened to in the background, while I searched for my copy of Prometheus Bound. The version translated by Scully and Herington. Aeschylus’ Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and was tortured for this glorious, princely initiative on behalf of us all.
This program begins by explaining how capturing fire gave us the means to cook and soften our food, which made it easier and faster to chew and digest. Although the women and children spent a lot of their day in preparation, having cooked food added hours to each day for our species to go on learning by making new tools. Thus affording us the ability to fish, forage, farm, and hunt to sustain the human race (for the time being).
The foods and nutritional environments in which our ancestors lived enlarged and improved our brains and central nervous systems. As well as the strength of our limbs and the health of our internal organs. As our hearts grew stronger, so did our skulls on account of what’s in them. Only, the width of our mothers’ hips hadn’t kept pace, which resulted in our being born premature and utterly helpless for a decade at least, unlike other mammals.
What came from that transformative development—the necessity of having the care and assistance of others in childbirth and rearing—is fairly unique in nature. Out of that emerged the origins of social cooperation. When the herd or the tribe became more stable communities. For that new social phenomena to thrive and for civilization to evolve we needed to invent language, trust, sharing, cooperation, and empathy for one another. The building blocks of civilization: our cities, our temples, our new laws and societies.
Fast Forward to 2020: A Space Oddity
Pulling back from the seemingly universal, media focus on worst-case scenarios and abstract statistical analyses of “What will Covid-19 do to the markets?” I give the PBS Newshour a whirl. After all, it’s not the media, per se, that’s at issue. It’s more a matter of dilating the narrow frame of vested interests, and seeing this current pandemic from a wider, human perspective.
With more to fear and more to feel anxious about—once people begin to see hospitals overwhelmed and flooded—and despite a spate of drastic measures to control the virus—social trust, caring, and volunteering tends to break down right at the time it’s most needed. Those who survived the Spanish influenza, explained David Brooks on PPS, “we’re ashamed of how they behaved during the worst of the crisis… [Now] we need to take moral steps and social steps, as well as taking health steps to mitigate,” Brooks recommended.
What can we do to marshal the Spirit of public generosity and trust that thought-leaders like Sommers and Brooks are asking us to consider? I ask myself, while I take a moment away from stewing over voluntary lockdowns and changes to our daily routines. Time to take off the narrow blinders, open my eyes to new perspectives, and catch a fresh breath of inspiration for accomplishing real, socially constructive changes. We may be feeling despondent but in that we’re not alone.
As theoretical physicist (and realist) Fritjof Capra wrote The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems 20 years ago, we are increasingly faced with global problems that are defiling the very Being of our existence. More and more often, in well documented ways, that may soon become irreversible.
The Crisis Perspective Paradigm Shift
Ultimately these problems and echoing crises must be seen as different incarnations of one single overall crisis, says Capra, a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most of us subscribe to an outdated worldview. “A perception of reality,” he says, that has proven “inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.” The good news? There are solutions.
The foil? The recognition that the far-reaching change of perception and thinking that’s needed for our survival hasn’t yet reached the golf course resorts and bucka- beer barbeques of media-celebrity politicians and corporate execs with more money and bronzer than brains. Or, in my experience, most of the administrators and professors of our large research universities. Something’s been lost on all of them greedy buggers and here it is: Worldwatch Institute’s definition of a sustainable society—
“One that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations.”
“The intellectual crisis of physicists in the 1920s,” says Capra, “is mirrored today by a similar but much broader cultural crisis.” The entrenched, worn-out values and ideas of a culture that views the universe we inhabit as “a mechanical system composed of elementary building blocks.” Presumably one that views human bodies as machines and life in society as a competitive struggle for a mangy dogeat- dog existence. At a time like this—in the midst of a pandemic outbreak—do we really want to thump our fists on our breasts to the over worn, out-of-time beat of “sur-vi-val of the fit-test?”
If and when the very concept of the human spirit is more deeply and widely understood and reflected upon as “the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole— will it become clear that the ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest sense,” (italics mine), writes Fritjof Capra.
The solutions we seek will not be uncovered by logic alone, or even primarily, without a deeper reflection—and more acute awareness of “the web of life,” and the network of “steps to an ecology of mind and nature” that we’re all a predestined part of together.
More later of course if you’re interested, so please let us know what you think.