Sunday, February 28, 2021

Of viruses and convenience (rewritten)

[Added Jung quote 10 March 2021] 

Without pain, there is no awareness. People do everything, no matter how absurd, to avoid an encounter with their own soul. We do not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by becoming aware of the darkness. (Carl Jung)

Oh how we love convenience! Isn’t civilisation at root a process that removes the inconvenient from our lives and replaces it with more and more convenience? “I just want an easy life!” Civilisation: flight from the jungle, escape from danger, mastery of nature … a veritable factory for convenient things!

Yes, I’m being provocative; civilisation is much else besides, good and bad, and humans can and do romanticise everything, including Nature and The Wild. But because nothing is perfect and all human creativity produces unintended consequences, it’s healthy to take a critical look, especially when civilisation has turned decadent yet again and things are falling apart. 

Why do we repeatedly end up here? Partly, I argue, because we’re drawn, accustomed and then addicted to an easy life, a life filled with convenience. Once there were slaves. Today, there are smart phones and microwave ovens: modern slaves even the poor can afford. But they’re slaves that enslave, as all slaves do in the end. It’s part of the curse-blessing of Convenience, Divine Child of Civilisation.

It is also fantasy, an advertiser’s confection. Advertisers know what they’re doing. Check out the work of Vance Packard and Edward Bernays if you don’t believe me, or simply consider how much money is spent on advertising every year. Our fantasies and fears are the fields advertisers plough. Armed with the information they harvest, they create worlds we cannot help but desire, and associate those worlds with products. These products, we then believe, will make our lives better, even though they never do. We’re addicts blind to the obvious: the drugs don’t work. Failing to see this, glued glassy eyed to our gadgets and TVs because … well, what else is there, frankly … we remain hooked into the pursuit of The Next Best Thing but end up living vicarious lives of empty circularity.

Convenience is a powerful myth, immaculately conceived dark aeons ago by innocent seed planting and the taming of animals: the birth of the domestic sphere, the hearth, the fixed abode. Fast forward tens of thousands of years, and now, apparently, we save buckets of time thanks to washing machines and fridges, but choose to use that time for far less vital and meaningful activities, a set of things we might today call Netflix And Pizza and the jobs we have to do to afford it. How bestial civilisation has made us. We are dehumanised, stagnant machine beings programmed to want to consume whatever they’re selling, too numbed to notice how empty we’ve become. Then we’re enticed into causes like Black Lives Matter or The Environment, which act as vessels for all that repressed impotence-rage that grows and festers in the unexamined shadows cast by our emptiness. (Yes, advertisers and propagandists farm those fields too.)

Mature discussion has become almost impossible. We’re bitterly divided along an unknowable number of fault lines, squaring off, trench to trench, screaming redly into each other’s faces, refusing to budge because we know we’re right. We’re addicted to being right, too. Being right is a tasty morsel that somehow doesn’t quite assuage that odd, at-the-edge-of-our-vision hunger for something real and true; we keep coming back for yet further confirmation that we mean something to someone. We keep returning to Authority Figures who happily lead us by the nose for another empty circuit of the prison yard we’ve learned to call Freedom.

This is the bed we’ve allowed to be made for us, the bed we’ve helped make; again and again we choose convenience over tough struggle, over facing reality as it is, over growing up into genuine adulthood, taking responsibility for our actions and so ridding ourselves of the emotional triggers our rulers know and love. We’re a mess, an embarrassment to history. The Great They are right; we are useless eaters. We’re civilisation’s trash about to be taken out and forgotten. And we richly deserve it.

But then, as if by magic, the virus came. The virus! That thief of convenience yet uniter of all people everywhere who now understand: Yes, we’re at war; sacrifices must be made! We are given to believe that the cherished Old Normal is dead. Long live the New Normal! We shall build back better than ever before, create a world free from freedom this time, blissfully infantile, a good-breast-bad-breast, womb-like utopia-dystopia throbbing with threat and promise. It will stop history in its tracks to finally keep us safe in place, safe at home. We will suckle forever at its many teats content to own nothing and be paid pittance for our uncritical obedience: convenience’s logical end, its zenith and nadir, its mewling doom.

Except the virus is like a gathering storm that never quite makes landfall. It builds and builds in the offing, a non-stop miniseries of endless twists and turns spiralling off in too many directions. The screams and cheap thrills, the dashed hopes and broken promises, the not-quite logic of the measures meant to hold the virus back just won’t add up but keep mounting anyway. It is an overload of spectacle, an endless information tsunami forming to a crucible that fuses each of us to our bitterest foe: our selves. Disintegrated down to isolated individuals, family members set against each other, there’s nowhere left to turn but within. 

Within is the only place the work can be done, the work that could reignite history. Each of us must face this challenge one way or the other. Indeed, it is as an artefact of being human. We are always driven towards it, inexorably, by fate, by the way things are. Mostly we wriggle heroically to avoid it, but now we face an historical moment that has made this confrontation more pressing than ever. Deep in the intimidating shadows cast by the emptiness that is the fruit of meaningless lives are riches we can hardly imagine. 

Try not to yield to fear. Though alone with the work, which is as it must be, you are not on your own. I am rooting for you, you are rooting for me. Underneath it all, the emptiness and desperation are in fact born of something almost painfully beautiful: love of love. How else could meaninglessness be so bitter? 

Evil, the product of unchecked and wounded fear, insatiably perverts good to bad: fatherhood becomes tyranny; motherhood, smothering, devouring concern. Sensuality becomes pornography; friendship becomes social-media likes; wise governance becomes party politics; commerce, corporate greed and sociopathy; freedom and responsibility, narcissistic infantilism. 

Love, the product of true maturity and wise transcendence of fear, walks a very different path, a path created by the gentle desire for the healthiest possible outcomes. It has nothing to do with utopia, or romance, or escape from difficulty and tragedy. Love is a fluid, ever-evolving process of looking out for each other while encouraging, in everyone, true maturity, reasonable self-sufficiency and robust independence. That is the alternative that lies before us. It won’t be easy to set it in motion, but nor is it impossible. I like to think it’s unstoppable.

The virus is an anti-convenience, a shadow-projection called into being to shepherd us into ever smaller pens the so-called ‘elites’ would rather we occupy. But it must, by virtue of this very function, also force us out of our convenience zones toward the difficult work of growing up into true adulthood. Only a minority will do the work, but will then be on hand to help others through the challenges ahead should evil fail, as it must sooner or later through its inherent malfunctioning. The work begins when we awaken to our emptiness, intuit what must be done and no longer want to avoid it. 

Does evil possess sufficient finesse to neatly steer us all into those pens – with many falling along the way –, expertly deceive us such that we prefer what evil offers – prettily decorated conveniences masking steady moral decay – over walking the path toward true freedom and maturity? I don’t think so.

Let all that is not rooted in truth and love wither and fall away.