Monday, May 4, 2020

COVID 19 and community

What complicated feelings pandemics arouse.  Even while you are frightened about the many unknowns created by COVID 19, you probably have a mental or literal list of things you'd like to change once the pandemic is over.  My own list includes a living wage for front line workers who have kept society ticking along: people who have unloaded the groceries and stocked the shelves, people who clean our grocery carts, people who clean the grocery stores and pharmacies we all depend on, the cashiers who now tell us to 'stay safe.'  I want us to realize that it's the artists and creators--creativity itself--that have often given us the delight and hope to continue on, and I want our newly recognized value of their work to be supported, financially, by all of us.  (More about that next week.)  

I want  us to be seduced by the return of nature in our newly-quiet cities.  Then I want us to realize that if a country can cooperate by closing itself down, it can cooperate in the task of addressing climate change.  I want the regulations around long-term care facilities to get a major overhaul as we recognize what those wise and caring lives mean to us.  I want us all to think about time differently--about how our time doesn't just belong to our employers, but to our families and to the people who matter to us.  Our mortality should remind us that our time belongs, in the first instance, to us.  Time to reflect.  Time to be.  Time to create.  Time to create living, feeling connections with others and with ourselves.

What I really want is for intrinsic values to rule.  It's so much easier to know exactly where you are--and who you are--if you can measure that by the money and power espoused by extrinsic values.  How much easier it is to comprehend the meaning of life, the meaning of the good life, if you can point to some figures or a corner office.  This is the myth that's been sold to us by neoliberalism.  Neoliberalism argues that we are all freest if we simply let the market do what it does while keeping government out of the way.  The market should control everything from the price of infant formula to the salaries of CEOs.  But it assumes that the freedom we seek is freedom to be a single-minded employee and a good consumer.  The person with extrinsic values believes in the individual, and even, as George Monbiot argues, espouses a kind of Darwinian narrative:  the deserving are successful.  The deserving become wealthy or relatively powerful.  

Kiran Misra has written an insightful article for The Guardian that reveals the cost to ourselves of the  neoliberal myth, of working hard to maximize someone else's profit.  (Link below.)  She, along with her generation, who do not have the financial security I for one enjoyed, is being encouraged to use the downtime from the pandemic for something she calls "the hustle," an effort to learn new skills or suss-out new part-time gigs.Yet psychologists and economists report that if our goals are extrinsic, there is never enough money.  Do you ever wonder why millionaires need to be billionaires?  Or do you wonder whether Donald Trump is a happy man?

George Monbiot, in his Out of the Wreckage, offers some straightforward definitions:  "Intrinsic values, in their purest form, are expressed as compassion, connectedness and kindness toward all living beings, including oneself.  Extrinsic values are expressed as a desire for self-enhancement, through attaining, for example, status or power."  These values aren't often manifested in their purest form.  For example, I write because I write.  I am a maker who wants to make something beautiful (not pretty) and insightful with words.  I write because I want a conversation with my readers; I want to pose a perplexing question about what it means to be human and to get as far as I can in exploring it so the reader and I can undertake this exploration together.  All intrinsic, seeking compassion and insight into my characters, in connecting with my readers.  But I'd be lying if I told you I didn't care a whit whether my work was read or reviewed or recognized in some way.  (Notice I didn't say anything about money!  My humility is still intact.)

Were I to forced by circumstances to efficiently define "extrinsic" and "intrinsic"--I here imagine Luke Skywalker hanging from that delicate pole beneath a spaceship, or a climber of Mount Everest edging towards a cliff, or just someone living through (albeit comfortably) a pandemic--I'd say extrinsic focused on self and stuff while intrinsic focused on connection and community.  And here I come to one of the paradoxes of COVID 19:  our isolation has brought us together.  We've been brought together by a world-wide emergency that can only be addressed if we stay apart.  The shooting rampage in Nova Scotia revealed how much we value connections:  people were worried about those who had to grieve alone, without touch or hug.

I think about all the ways we have tried to reach out, to create communities in our isolation.  The people in Italy singing together from their windows or sharing an exercise class from their balconies.  The hearts we put on our windows to thank the health care workers and the front line labourers are an attempt to express a sense of community.  The concerts people have put online.  My favourite quilt magazine, Quiltmania, has organized a block-a-thon:  you can make a 10-inch block in pinks or reds and mail it to them.  They write "Every day, healthcare workers around the world are working tirelessly to fight the Coronavirus, risking their lives and sacrificing time with their loved ones.  Here at Quiltmania, our hearts are set to unite our large quilting/patchwork community around a project to give thanks to our healthcare workers for their extraordinary work caring for the sick.  The blocks will be assembled for hospitals around the world."  I think of orchestras playing the lovely "Nimrod" variation of Elgar's Enigma Variations together via Zoom.  I've missed some things, surely.  Please--in an act of community--add them to the comments below.

One of the world's experts on pandemics, Frank M. Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society, was interviewed by Isaac Chotner for an essay in The New Yorker.  (That link is also below.) Snowden observes that "epidemics are a category of disease that seems to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today." Those 'moral relationships' have shown up in the actions of governors who have "opened" their states, despite the fact that the number of cases continues to rise.  It shows up in everything Donald Trump has done--from minimizing the pandemic because he didn't want to rock the stock market to praising his  own actions because he wants to get re-elected.  The individual in all his extrinsic glory.  But those moral relationships also show up in each individual who practices physical distancing out of care for the vulnerable.

The central argument of George Monbiot's wonderful book, Out of the Wreckage--written well before a pandemic that can become an opportunity for change if we let it--is that the signal thing we need at this historical moment, when neoliberalism has been re-named "late capitalism" in a recognition that it's not working, is community.  A British author, he has seen the rise of the "ministry of loneliness" that the British government has created, as well as the increasing number of doctors in England who give out "community" prescriptions to patients whose symptoms might be addressed by a meaningful connection to others--in a choir, in an art class.  Many of these doctors have an employee, often an artist, whose job is to make these careful recommendations.  The later chapters of Monbiot's study focus on the nuts and bolts of organizing communities that strengthen social ties enough to have an impact on their societies--from the practice in Rekjavik of considering citizens' proposal to improve the city's infrastructure--and implementing many of them, to Germany's Federal Agency for Civic Education. 

Monbiot, who is more familiar with politics in the U.K. and the U.S. than with Canada, notes that we can depend neither on our jobs nor on our governments for our well-being, so we must rely on community:  "By reviving community, built around the places in which we live, and by anchoring ourselves, our politics and parts of our economy in the life of this community, we can recover the best aspects of our humanity.  We can mobilise our remarkable nature for our own good and the good of our neighbours.  We will no longer walk alone.  We will no longer work alone.  We will no longer feel alone.  We will restore our sense of belonging:  belonging to ourselves, belonging to our communities, belonging to our localities, belonging to the world.  In turn, we will develop a politics and an economy that belong to us.  By rebuilding community, we will renew democracy and the hope we invest in it.  We will develop political systems that are not so big that they cannot respond to us but not so small that they cannot meet the problems we face.  We will achieve something that, paradoxically, we cannot realise alone:   self-reliance.  By helping each other, we help ourselves."

At this moment, we can so clearly see and feel our longing for community and connection.  And I believe, as well, that we have an opportunity to challenge the way our world has worked:  how we have altruistically sought, through physical distancing, to protect the vulnerable, and how the vulnerable are nevertheless still with us, whether they are in personal care homes or homeless shelters; whether they are alone in a house or apartment, afraid, depressed, anxious; whether it is our planet itself.  Reach out.  Demand change.

The photograph was taken by Veronica Geminder and initially contained in our manuscript.  Because the woman is recognizable, University of Calgary Press strongly suggested removing it.  But it was taken a dozen years ago, and I've missed this remarkable woman, and so honour her here.

How Pandemics Change History

Being productive

Quiltmania's solidarity quilt blocks

No comments:

Post a Comment