pandemic as portal


‘What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us.

Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it’.

Arundhati Roy, FT, 3.4.20

‘Go tell it on the mountain, sista!’ was my immediate response to reading this article. Then it sparked a bit of mulling over something I’d already been reflecting on since the pandemic got underway… How, whatever chaos and turmoil we are in currently, we were already in considerable chaos and turmoil before. 

As Roy says, I think the worst thing we could do would be to cling to having everything put back in its place exactly as it was. That place has been causing untold suffering to a significant percentage of the world’s population and untold devastation to our shared home, planet earth. The pandemic itself is the truth of that made manifest. 

But there are many who do want things to go back to exactly where they were and will fight for that with every bone in their body.  For some, perhaps it’s just that they’re in so much pain and so disempowered, they don’t care, as long as they’re not where they are now and can get back to what they know, what is familiar and of relative comfort; essentially, what feels certain, even if in truth this is only an illusion. Or worse, but I suspect it’s true for many, they don’t even think there’s any other option. I get it. 

The modus operandi of my belief system is that when challenges arise, there is always a reason. That reason might not always be apparent or even knowable. But with a little (sometimes a lot of) digging, pre-existing cracks begin to emerge and a clearer understanding of underlying causes and necessary changes tends to make itself known. Occasionally, though, there are events in life that occur for which there is no fair reason, such as the death of a loved one through illness or material devastation through acts of God-type natural disasters. There are some things that will always seem fundamentally unfair.  But life isn’t always fair and living with that unsettling reality is an inevitable part of the human condition.  My experience, however, has been that no matter how painful, these experiences can still have a sacred, albeit hard-won, wisdom to impart.

This brings me back to the pandemic conundrum. The lessons we can learn from it are numerous. For example, it is clear that it is effecting masses of the world’s population who have done nothing but try to survive on the bare minimum of resources in the most challenging of daily circumstances, within the context of increasing levels of inequality. Any discussion about how we escape and recover from our global crisis must finally include them on the To Do List. We can’t go on like this. 

But who, is going to direct us through the portal to the post-crisis side? Well, one thing’s for sure, it’s not the work of an afternoon and it’s not the work of one person. These portal-spanning architects of our future sure have their work cut out for them. Just the thought of the infinite number of factors, with the vast array of very real, current, near-future and far-future issues they throw up, makes my head spin. As Yuval Harari contends, many of these relate to rapid technological breakthroughs – infotech and biotech working hand and hand to bring about developments that will, for example, exert a significant impact on future employment markets and pose a serious threat to liberty and equality.  

Given the breadth and diversity of things to consider, there are certain qualities I personally want my architects of our future to possess.  It goes without saying that they need an indepth knowledge of the intricate workings of our complex, interdependent, technologically-connected yet psychically-disconnected, material world. But I believe that a triad of practical, creative and psychological thinking would have more chance of creating a social framework that provides safer outlets for – and thereby has more chance of mitigating against – many of the darker tendencies of our species, as evidenced, for example, by the creeping emergence and normalisation of right wing, authoritarian views within liberal democracies.

And so, I think we need those who may not be gods but who are capable of godlike, genius thinking,  something I associated with mental bursts into the collective unconscious – Carl Jung’s term to describe a psychic element common to every human being that is a repository of archetypes, or mental symbols, operating outside of normal space and time. We need those who can plumb to such depths but at the same time can soar to thought altitudes few of us could hope to reach, achieving a sufficiently expansive and interconnected, but also lucid and ethically-committed, view of our global situation, enabling glimpses of other potential economic and political frameworks. A paradigm shift that takes its learning from what has existed before yet which creatively and compassionately conceives of something different. 

Crucially, I feel they need qualities akin to the soul of a poet and heart of a holy man, to ensure that any Plan for Man is underpinned by a deep recognition of our sometimes considerable capacity to experience immense opacity when viewing ourselves. There’s no denying that we are capable of phenomenal feats but there’s no escaping the fact that we are essentially fragile sentient beings – our hubris at the level of the large group making us much more so – with a far higher percentage of what drives us remaining unconscious and irrational, (think climate change denial or the idealisation of Trump by those who are most damaged by his policies), unless we take the time and effort to explore our innermost, as well as our outermost, reaches.

I trust such thinkers exist but as to whether or not their voices are heard or actively suppressed enough to affect adequate change, I do not know. Either way, I‘m sharply aware that this portal we currently stand before beckons us through with great urgency. We must heed its call. The consequence of not doing so is unthinkable….Unspeakable, even; it transcends language.

As Roy says, we need to fight the urge to regress. We need armies of voices whose battle cries are filled with words of realism, imagination and compassion.  But these are up against vast, highly trained, highly experienced armies of soldiers whose strategy centres on two things – money and power. It’s like witnessing an intense, obsessive love affair that lets nothing or no-one stand in its way; a toxic relationship that’s passionate and heady but ultimately soul-destroying, we – humankind – and the planet being its soul.

All this fighting talk has left me in need of some light, jazz, relief… 

Here’s a rendition of ‘Signing Off’ by my dear friend Ella Fitzgerald. I’ve known her intimately for more than twenty years and she can use her voice to evince wry disappointment and boundless joy with equal effortless panache. In this song, she sees her toxic love affair for what it is and, whilst acknowledging that she will miss it, she’s outta there… Go tell it on the mountain, sista.