Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Of viruses and convenience

Lately occupying my thoughts is how the infamous comfort zone interconnects with soul growth and viruses. I touched on this idea in my last post but want to expand on it here. As such, this article functions somewhat as a companion piece to that post.

Civilisation can be understood in a variety of different ways; it is a highly complex concept. For this small article, however, I want to bring into particular relief our reflexive expectation that it deliver us with endless “conveniences”, that the ‘wild and untamed’ world Out There is messily devoid thereof and thus needs taming, controlling, perfecting and ordering until transformed into a machine that produces more and more of this most prized good. Certainly convenience’s tentacled roots reach deep into Safety, but it is likely civilisation emerged as a slowly evolving set of unintended consequences of our ancestors’ innocent experimentation with seed planting and fixed dwellings; though some expectation of convenience will have played its part, civilisation was not begun in fear. Nevertheless, safety is critical to all living beings; modern civilised humans, however, have succeeded in making a fetish of it, and thus of its far shinier distant relative, convenience.

This is not an issue most people discern. The SARS-CoV-2 phenomenon – one of mass hysteria in my view – is a stampede to safety in visceral fear of something ordinary and regular that has been amplified into a vaudevillian bogeyman for a variety of nefarious reasons. We have been finagled into a panicked stampede because we are susceptible – and now wilfully blind – to the manipulations that artfully brought it about. (The felt experience of those on board with the lockdowns, it should be said, would for the most part be rational decision making in the face of grave danger. I spy something else at play.)

What makes us so susceptible? My short answer: our unexamined and unattended fears. What follows is a brief explication thereof.

Freud gets a bad rap nowadays, but I think it is uncontroversial that we hide much of our feeling world from ourselves. We prefer the familiarity, comfort and convenience of tamed emotions: civil, polite, pleasant, convivial. Those that don’t suit our day-to-day world get suppressed. Fears of rejection, exposure, failure, etc., stay hidden – and thus unexamined – for years, decades, lifetimes. Because we do not know them, have not confronted them, are largely blind to them, they are obvious buttons and levers to those who understand how they operate us from within. Psychologists, public relations experts, propagandists, behavioural programmers, etc., know what they’re doing; humanity has been developing these dark arts for millennia. Indeed, their skills are pivotal in keeping society cohesive (see the Dunbar number). As Edward Bernays – one of Freud’s nephews – put it: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” 

An acceptable devil’s bargain? For a while, yes. But change is the only constant. We reap what we sow. Patterns repeat with merciless regularity. Pema Chodron: “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” 

In fear, we tighten defensively against threats, keep them at bay, refuse them entry into our lives; we all know we shouldn’t invite in the charming vampire. But what if he has something to teach us? What if the emptiness that haunts our every ‘success’, that turns to ash every societally ordained milestone we check off our todo list is there because we choose safety and convenience over threat and danger? What if that emptiness is a siren song to fate summoning the very danger we so fearfully avoid?

All great stories are great precisely because danger and threat break through somehow, turn lives on their heads, force change on ‘innocent’ heroes and effect real soul growth. And we love heroes for overcoming those challenges, for winning some new, mature composure. But no one can grow vicariously; if these convenient growth fixes in novels and movies are all we’ve got, we’re treading water in our lives, building emotional-psychological debt as the felt presence of that dread emptiness looms larger and larger.

This goes for all of us, always, individually and collectively, in groups of every size; society, being about safety and convenience, tends to seal us off, perpetually tempts us away from challenge and hard work. As modern technologies become ever more pervasive, deliver ever more convenience, automate more and more labour, they become a network of powerful attractors seducing us into ‘safe’ isolation. But we are barely needed any more, barely noticed, barely there at all. All we have to do is consume. How convenient.

Lost to the swirl of this extreme, everything Out There becomes a virus. Everything that threatens to expose us to our own immaturity, our fragility, our incompetence, our fear, our emptiness … is a virus that must be defended against. It feels like life and death, but it’s just life doing what it must do; drive change. Change has been recast as virus. Or is it that virus has been recast as danger, or fear of change? In our growing fear, we form fractious alliances, groupings passionately engaged in making sure the threats stay Out There, or are eradicated; there’s safety in numbers. But our friends tend to be unreliable. Groups dissolve, things don’t work out as expected; people see things so differently. Lines are drawn. We scream across them, red in the face, certain in our fearful convictions, certain our enemy is wrong. There can be no compromise!

Our desperation for order, for safety, for being on the right side of whatever war, produces more and more chaos, hatred and fear. Everything is a virus now, and we are alone, vulnerable, spent. Stop and look around. We are destroying diversity, crushing open exchange, sealing ourselves off from the messy richness of life. But life will not be mocked; it will shed its tail and begin again. Every 20 minutes a species goes extinct.

What way out but back? But back is not our way. The challenge is to grow up, to leave our comfort zones ever forwards into life, just as always. Too much convenience has hidden this truth too well from view.

Humans are genius at ignoring the obvious, genius at adding too much of their noisy mind-clutter to the mix, then experiencing their buried fears reflected back at them as Monsters Out There. If we know this pattern describes us to some degree, if we feel that emptiness trailing in its wake, it is the old wisdoms that offer the way out. 

Be mindful. Notice how you are, how your triggers operate you. Be willing to be wrong. Discern the impact of your behaviours on your world. Clear your mind of all ideologies and beliefs so that you can learn humbly from life. Life is feedback, rich and true: viruses, bacteria, ‘enemies’, ‘bad luck’, ‘failure’, ‘success’ … all of it. If we want the healthier route out of this civilisational impasse, we must prioritise growing up: confronting and overcoming our fears. And each of us needs the support of others as we take this work on, even though the real work can only be done by us as individuals. 

This is the nature of the bifurcation point that confronts us, that presents us in intensified form the choice that confronts us every second of our lives: retreat into our comfort zones and earn inwardly collapsing disease, or strike out courageously into life’s challenges, earning wisdom and building health as we go. The former is the fear path, the latter that of love.

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