We are living right now, as we have heard so many times and from so many sources, in unprecedented times. The world as we know it has been flipped on its head, we have unceremoniously been disillusioned of our belief that life can be certain, and amidst the chaos and uncertainty that now seems to be the foundation of our existence many of us are limping our way through and finding our own ways of just getting by.
I have heard this virus referred to in many ways. Some have suggested it is like an invisible monster roaming our streets and that we should be scared to set foot outside our houses in case it happens to be close by (like the monster might get bored and move on if we all hide away for long enough), others have compared it to a mortal enemy with whom we are at war which suggests there may be ways we can engage the virus and come out victorious (if we just have the right PPE we will be shielded and can evade it, if we come under attack from it we will still emerge victorious just so long as we are a fighter). Others still have suggested that the coronavirus may be a new inhabitant who has come to live amongst us and that we need to find ways of living alongside it, I believe I largely fall into this particular camp.
Another term I have heard banded around for this pandemic is apocalypse and among the things which have kept me entertained over the many weeks whilst we have been in lockdown have been the comparisons on social media of what people thought their post-apocalyptic outfit would look like and what in actual fact the reality has been. Scores of people have taken to social media to post pictures of people wearing skimpy, quite glamourous but distressed looking outfits fit for nothing other than posing against a barren landscape and comparison photos of them in their tracksuit bottomed reality of existence.
While this has been very amusing, I have found myself asking time and again, quite seriously, are we in fact living through an apocalypse?
If we take a look at the dictionary definition of the word apocalypse, we find this:
1. (initial capital letter) revelation.
2. any of a class of Jewish or Christian writings that appeared from about 200 b.c. to a.d. 350 and were assumed to make revelations of the ultimate divine purpose.
3. a prophetic revelation, especially concerning a cataclysm in which the forces of good permanently triumph over the forces of evil.
4. any revelation or prophecy.
5. any universal or widespread destruction or disaster: the apocalypse of nuclear war.
What really interests me from these definitions is the idea of an apocalypse being a revelation of sorts (thank you to Alex Evans for introducing me to this definition initially). The idea that we might learn something from this experience we are having is something I am holding onto for dear life at the moment, it fills me with some sort of hope for our collective futures.
I find myself refusing to not acknowledge exactly what is happening around me and getting really quite angry and frustrated with those who seem happy to stay in a bubble of delusionment (like I have some sort of monopoly on what is the truth).
But is my frustration unwarranted? I think I have enough about me really to be able to stay my frustration and hold onto my empathy (that includes for myself). Afterall are we actually capable of seeing the revelations that this virus might bring let alone learning anything from it right now, whilst ever we are in the midst of what is going on?
Human consciousness is an awesome thing for the most part and is what has made us one of the most successful mammals on this planet. One of the things which makes us stand apart from other animals (from what we can prove) is our enhanced ability to imagine what the future might look like. I’m not convinced that this ability is reserved purely for humans but that’s the topic of another rambling of mine all together so I will try not to get side-tracked here.
This ability has a downside to it though, it has made us a little addicted to the idea of certainty. What we see in most mammals when faced with uncertainty is an increase in vigilance, extra attention is payed to cues from the environment and reacted to accordingly. What we tend to see in humans is a focus on making things certain; studies have shown that people would prefer to receive an electric shock immediately rather than waiting to possibly receive one at some unknown point in the future. They also show increased sympathetic nervous system activation when waiting to receive a shock of unknown timing. It seems to me that what actually seems to set us apart from other animals is our tendency to ruminate on and worry about our uncertainty.
So, what happens when, like now, we can’t necessarily make things certain? Well, it would seem that we all to some degree or other have a leaning towards becoming anxious in these circumstances. The level to which uncertainty can be tolerated differs from human to human, but for the most part our reactions when we reach our level of tolerance is the same.
When we are anxious our bodies go into fight or flight mode, our adrenaline levels raise and our sympathetic nervous system which controls automatic body functions like breathing takes over. Our heart rate rises, breathing becomes more rapid and blood is shunted to our limbs rather than our vital organs preparing us for action, helpful if we are faced with a snarling tiger and we need to act quickly in order to avoid death. As a survival mechanism it is highly effective, when we are faced with an immediate threat to life, however in the circumstances we currently face it is less than useful. Running away will not save us from this virus or the repercussions to our livelihoods and the economy.
If you add to that the fact that when we are in this state our pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for more complex reasoning and decision making goes offline somewhat it becomes clear that being anxious is not helpful for seeing us through this situation. When our more complex thinking and reasoning is impaired by the fight or flight response our ability to work with the information that will see us working out a way through this pandemic goes out of the window also. For some people they are just incapable of seeing right now.
In the face of this I can understand why people might not be capable of looking or might want to turn away from looking at what is actually going on and turn instead to what they think they can guarantee will be certain or perhaps cling onto certainties from the past, it seems like a much more comfortable place to inhabit.
But that still leaves me with the question are we living through an apocalypse right now? I think some, who have a greater tolerance for uncertainty, are experiencing the revelatory nature of our current predicament in the here and now. For others this may come later as their ability to tolerate uncertainty increases or the uncertainty levels in the world at large reduce. Perhaps for some it will never happen.
I worry that not enough of us will learn some useful lessons from this experience or that our addiction to certainty will see us dropping our learnings like hot cakes in favour of picking up old certainties from the past which may or may not serve the world as a whole. But, and this is a big but, I still hold hope.
I hold hope that others like myself will have had/will have new revelations about the state of our world or had their eyes opened even further… to things like personal privilege and the stark realities of inequality, the impact we have on the world in which we co-exist with other beings and how we can live more sympathetically, the realities of where we place power and the constant abuses of power that happen around us to name but a small few. And I hope people have had revelations on a smaller scale too, about our relationships, about how we want to live our lives going forwards and about how our past informs our present and whether this is helpful to us or not. It’s no certainty, but I am finding this active hope is helping me get through.