Nobody knows anything

I’ve been trying to write something about the crisis for some time now. But every time I gather my thoughts, I realise that the sense I have made of things is lagging behind the pace of change. I am trying to figure out how to be useful while confined at home. But much of my energy is curiously consumed with the busyness of simply sustaining life. I could fill my calendar with well-intentioned Zoom calls from dawn until bedtime. But to do so feels like displacement. So I’ve spent the past couple of days deleting all such invitations the better simply to be with what is.

I’ve noticed that the day ends badly when I allow the evening to be consumed with news. Monday’s announcement that the Prime Minister was in intensive care followed this pattern. There were complex feelings. Much as I hold no brief for Boris Johnson, I wish him well as a human being, as the father of an unborn child and as the leader of the nation’s response to Covid. Beyond that, as Dominic Raab steps blinking into the pitiless spotlight, I reflect on the misfortune that the virus strikes at the time when the UK Government is in the hands of the most mediocre bunch of ideologues to inhabit Whitehall in living memory. Nonetheless, I have sympathy for these people who rose to power encouraging a belief (and perhaps believing themselves) that complex challenges could be met by vacuous slogans. You can see the fear in their eyes and the fatigue on their faces as they do their best to respond to destiny’s call. Who would want to be in their shoes? I have confidence in their intentions. But I wish Britain weren’t starting from here.

The development with the Prime Minister came at the end of a day spent trying to support by text message a vulnerable friend who was experiencing disturbing symptoms of the virus. Knowing what she was going through, I had an idea what Johnson must have been experiencing. The illness shifts form at short notice. People can put themselves at risk by following advice received when the symptoms are serious but not life-threatening, only later to find themselves in what in normal circumstances would be considered an emergency still unsure whether to call on medical care. Such is the cadence of events, that it seems more like an era ago than a month when life wasn’t preoccupied with existential considerations.

I was fortunate to spend Saturday in a day of meditation practice online. The day was planned long ago as a meeting in London. When I woke on Saturday morning, I can’t say I was relishing the prospect of six hours in videoconference. We spent a good part of the day in dialogue pairs and it was refreshing to encounter people speaking candidly about their fear and sadness. I’ve noticed in my calls during the working week that many don’t want to or can’t allow themselves that degree of honesty. Britons, in particular, seem prone to a “mustn’t grumble” duty of bonhomie. But it’s there also in conversations with people elsewhere in the world. Jill Shepherd, who led the day, touched on this when she spoke about equanimity. This is from notes she sent us:

“There can be a misperception that equanimity is a kind of flat, blank, disconnection. In popular culture, for example, sometimes people talk about someone being ‘very Zen’. Usually by this, they mean just kind of sitting there doing nothing, while some massive crisis is going on. But this is not true equanimity, it’s more like denial. And it’s not underpinned by clear seeing, by wisdom.”

Mindfulness meditation is often equated with the cultivation of compassion. But its cultivation of equanimity is at least as important. Practitioners are attuned to the vulnerability that is intrinsic to being human. The practice is about recognising this and finding a way to live positively nonetheless. In the busyness and complexity of modern civilisation, we have managed (at least in the short term) to conceal this vulnerability from ourselves. We are getting a taster now of how quickly our sense of normal security can collapse.

Everyone has their own survival strategies at a time like this. But our default strategies may not be those that serve us best. Until now, for me, lockdown has not been the spacious experience that it is portrayed to be in the media. Not working through lists of books I’ve longed to read nor learning a new language. The past few weeks have felt frenetic. Hence my stepping back from navigating on autopilot.

Aisha Ahmad, who seems to have experience I have fortunately avoided of survival in times of crisis, has called out the pressure we put on ourselves to be productive. In a piece written for academic colleagues, but which is finding resonance with a wide audience, she talks not of getting through the next few weeks but of accepting that life may never be the same:

“Global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the Covid-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened. And so, while it may feel good in the moment, it is foolish to dive into a frenzy of activity or obsess about your scholarly productivity right now. That is denial and delusion. The emotionally and spiritually sane response is to prepare to be forever changed.”

This touches on a broader point that isn’t much acknowledged: that a lot of what we’re feeling at the moment is grief. Some of the emotional response to the Prime Minister’s condition exemplifies this. The laying low of the nation’s leader symbolises not just the loss of our sense of security but an anticipatory grief about what lies ahead. That it should happen not just to our Prime Minister but to somebody as bumptious and boosterish as Boris Johnson pulls the rug from whatever lingering denial we may have been labouring under. Denial, of course, is one of the stages identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her renowned model of grief. That still leaves us to grapple with anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance – and who is to say denial may not resurface?

It’s not just that you or I are experiencing grief at what is lost or anticipatory grief about what may happen. What is unusual in the current crisis, perhaps in human history, is that we are all experiencing it at the same time. David Kessler, who worked with Kübler-Ross, says this makes the grief particularly challenging:

“There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”

Anticipatory grief, he says, is “the mind going to the future and imagining the worst.” The way to calm the mind is to “come into the present” – through breathing exercises, mindfulness, simply noticing what is in front of you right now.

It’s also a good idea to cultivate your compassion. In my local WhatsApp group, I’ve seen the exuberance of sharing in adversity give way to tetchiness. As one of the moderators of the group, I find myself the recipient of unwelcome projections. I notice that my own irritability keeps me alive and kicking.

If you read carefully the experiences of those who have trodden this path only a few weeks before us, all this is to be expected. Where now the videos of Italians joining in collective song from their balconies?

The point about compassion is not just to give others a pass if they are behaving in a way that seems off-colour but to give yourself a break too. As the Queen said on Sunday night, “Better days will return.”

Kessler added a sixth response to the Kübler-Ross model of grief: finding meaning in the experience. In my profession, there has been talk – premature, in my view – of the opportunity the pandemic creates to reset the way the world lives. I see the appeal of this way of thinking. Being confronted with the fragility of our globalised economic system, and even of human existence, may yet prove a spur to fresh thinking and readiness to change course. Such hopes are a way of giving meaning to our sacrifice.

But how can we know at this stage what may happen when we can’t yet see a plausible exit from the lockdown. I can’t help thinking that, when this crisis eventually passes, we’re as likely to see a return to consumerism with a vengeance – the party to end all parties – as a willingness to recalibrate our way of life.

For me, meaning is to be found for now in more near-term considerations: the connection that can be found even in isolation; the opportunity to do something worthwhile, however small; the sun on my skin and the air in my lungs when I take my permitted exercise.

I’m immensely grateful for a tiny back yard that previously seemed unprepossessing, bordered as it is by the inter-city mainline railway.

Round here, Londoners are saying good morning to each other when they pass on the streets. Definitely, the world is not what it was.

7 thoughts on “Nobody knows anything

  1. I really enjoyed this provocative and though provoking piece Martin. You have captured so much in a succinct appraisal of the thoughts of so many at this strangest of times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your blog, Martin.

    I have been mulling over your posts for some time, trying to articulate my response to them.

    You seem to me to be drawing attention to how we Homo sapiens have a propensity to use our capacity to ‘know’ perversely – in order to convince ourselves that we can control our environment and our destinies. I think this is a delusion that is conjured up as an instinctive, mindless defence to avoid using our capacity to ‘know’ for the creative purpose of experiencing the reality of our vulnerability and lack of power. It seems to me that the latter is the heart of your unknowing project and would, in my view, lead to real, as opposed to spurious, growth, for us both individually and collectively. The former, although appearing to be rational, is anything but. For it is usually driven by the need to project onto others the feelings of vulnerability that are experienced as too painful to face and through projection are kept unconscious to the ‘projector’. You point out how fragile are the structures – technological, economic, religious, organisational – which are built upon such a perverse use of the capacity to ‘know’ and how they are now tottering under the existential reality with which the coronavirus pandemic faces us.

    As a psychotherapist I am reminded of the story of Oedipus, remembering how sapient he seemed to be, and thought he was – how through his intellectual sharpness he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, released Thebes from its power and thus became its King. And how at the outset of Sophocles play Oedipus Rex, several years later, he is confident again that his capacity to solve and know will free the city from the plague that has come to afflict it. The story of the play, of course, is of how Oedipus, through his investigation, discovers that he, himself, is the cause of this plague.

    In 2020 we would perhaps not find it so easy to see psyche as the source of the coronavirus, but I think that in your posts you are suggesting that the inflated sense we have of our own power (hubris), our failure accurately to experience our true human nature, and our relation to nature as a whole, has, at the very least, contributed to the destructive power of the virus.

    I think of the story of Oedipus as the story of the avoidance of becoming conscious of the vulnerability of the human condition. Before his marriage to Jocasta and, then, the birth of Oedipus, Laius avoided his own vulnerability through attacking such vulnerability in himself. Then to avoid awareness of this he projected it onto actual children by his abuse of them, most notably Chrysippus. He then abuses his own son, Oedipus, instructing that he be left as a baby, with his feet riveted, to die on the mountainside. This is so as to evade the prediction of the oracle that Laius’s child would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother (presumably as divine justice for Laius’s abuse of children and his neglect of the challenge of sexual relationship with an equal adult). Thus Laius compounds his avoidance (he reminds me of Macbeth murdering to avoid consciousness of the murders he has committed as much as to achieve his ambition). Jocasta is drawn into this web of avoidance, which she continues to weave through turning a blind eye to the obvious possibility of Oedipus, with his swollen feet, and tell-tale name, being her son. Like Laius, she is determined to prove all the prognostications of the oracles wrong – in other words to avoid submitting to the Gods i.e. the facts of life, that, as it were, ‘passeth all understanding’ and cannot be controlled.

    Even Oedipus’s adoptive parents are avoidant for they insist they are his actual parents, after a drunken fellow alleged he was illegitimate. In going to the oracle to check this out, Oedipus hears the same prediction Jocasta and Laius had received: that he will marry his mother and murder his father. Thinking to avoid this, he rushes away from his adoptive parents to murder, unwittingly, his actual father and marry his actual mother…

    How different it would have been if Oedipus’s adoptive parents could have borne the pain of telling him the truth and helped him to bear and work through his grief at being abandoned/abused by his parents – in your words, offered him ‘fierce compassion’ and ‘grounded responsibility’, rather than lies intended to comfort, which ultimately did the opposite. Then the cycle might have been broken, through the kind of grieving process, which it seems to me is central to a state of unknowing. And then new life could return. Instead, in Oedipus, the sapience of Homo sapiens has been hijacked. This turns this sapience from ‘knowing’ human vulnerability and, therefore, entering a creative state of unknowing, into behaviour more like that of a virus whose sole purpose is to reproduce itself endlessly. I think such ‘viral’ behaviour in Homo sapiens is in order to create the illusion of power so as to avoid the reality of vulnerability, endlessly….

    Unfortunately it only achieves this until reality hits, as it does in Oedipus through a plague, and as it is doing for us today through the plague of Covid-19. I think you were correct when you wrote in your post of 8th March, ‘We have a chance to wake up and moderate the entitled abandon by which we live our lives. A global pandemic will force this upon us. But if we awaken sooner, we can influence the course of the disease.’

    However, now that the plague has hit, I think there is a danger that, like Oedipus, we will ‘blind’ ourselves to avoid the coming months, then, years, of pain. Certainly the pain will be more difficult to face during the next period, with eyes wide open, than it would have been when present-day Teiresias figures, from Bill Gates, through Robert Harris, to Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, were trying to get us to see.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Peter. You are helping make explicit intentions that I haven’t yet fully grasped myself.

    For instance, “You seem to me to be drawing attention to how we Homo sapiens have a propensity to use our capacity to ‘know’ perversely – in order to convince ourselves that we can control our environment and our destinies.”

    This is certainly one of the dimensions I want to explore. And it has come to the fore as the primary theme because of our current circumstances. When I began this blog, in a different era at the beginning of this year, the virus had already appeared in Wuhan but we were scarcely aware of it here. I hadn’t foreseen what lay ahead. But I had been reflecting on ideas around knowing, unknowing and not knowing for some time and had a growing conviction that these ideas were relevant to our time.

    The pandemic has highlighted the inter-related nature of the systemic impacts of our hubris as a species and our emotional responses at an individual level. We seek solace in our knowing. But this actually amounts to a counter-productive “avoidance of becoming conscious of the vulnerability of the human condition”. My thesis, yet to be developed, is that if we can drop our fear of not knowing, we can find ease in acknowledging our vulnerability. Perhaps also this might create an opening to currently unthinkable ways of resolving the contradictions we have made for ourselves. To reach not knowing, though, we have to pass through unknowing. We have to let go of the certainties which we assume provide us with security but which can be very destructive (as we are discovering).

    So, you are certainly right with this: “I think that in your posts you are suggesting that the inflated sense we have of our own power (hubris), our failure accurately to experience our true human nature, and our relation to nature as a whole, has, at the very least, contributed to the destructive power of the virus.”

    But there is a risk of dogmatic knowing in this too. Our salvation from the virus lies in part in the scientific-techno rationality that created the complex and fragile globalised society that allowed the virus to spread so quickly. The same surely goes for climate change too.

    There is also the problem of consent. Hubris creates stasis in democratic societies. If there are doubts about our ability to maintain even a temporary suspension of modern conveniences to counter the pandemic, how much less likely is it that society will transform radically to avert climate change?

    But I keep coming back to the societal dimensions of unknowing. Part of how we respond concerns how we let go of the blindness of knowing at a personal level and find a way to live with our eyes wide open in not knowing. When we allow ourselves not to know, we can discover more. The pain that blindness conceals is part of the human condition so we may as well learn to live with it. But there is solace to be found in the honesty.

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