Can you hear it?
Like birdsong on the advent of spring, people around the world are beginning to sing for change.
Still scattered, but rapidly coalescing into a common melody, its key signature was just found graffitied inside an empty Hong Kong subway tunnel:
“We cannot return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem.”
Like drunkards waking up from a collective binge, many of us are shaking our heads and shuddering as we contemplate the mayhem wrought by our collective, all-too-human hubris, indifference, self-indulgence, and misplaced priorities.
How could we have been so blind? So self-centered and stupid?
Because you see, drunkards and junkies don’t binge with forethought. Prudence, I’m afraid, is not one of our strong suits. Yet, from the sound of it, it appears we’re finally waking up.
Our intuitive wisdom is making us sense that Covid-19 is not an isolated, temporary affliction, but symptomatic of a deeper sickness. The sickness of the human mind.
In the deathly quiet of isolation, people are clamoring for a new way forward. From balconies, windows and rooftops, many are shedding joyful tears and a collective sigh of relief as they witness nature quickly healing from the scourge of our rapacity, the blight of our addictions, the heavy footprint of our limitless appetites, the deep scars carved by our delusions, and the wounds inflicted by our untrammeled desires.
At last, we are singing due praise to the lowly delivery man and janitor, the migrant farm worker, the tireless nurse and teacher, the struggling artist, the dowdy cashier at the local store, our solitary postman — all the humble souls who so often went unrecognized, now our lifelines and heroes, while our once idolized celebrities cower inside their gleaming yachts and stately mansions sending us tone-deaf exhortations to image a world without possessions and corporate titans and politicians itch to rush us back to “normal.”
The kind of normal that accepts 7 million yearly deaths from air pollution as the price of doing business.
Or the one that buys-in to the perversity of planned obsolescence willfully ignorant of how much of our electronic waste ends up trashing and poisoning the world’s poorest regions.
The normal of opulence living side-by-side with the homeless and growing deaths from despair.
Where the deaths of schoolchildren to mass shootings are brushed off as merely collateral damage in an ideological struggle.
The normal that accepts a dying planet in the name of progress.
That kind of normal.
‘Enough!’ seems the message people are shouting from their balconies in a massive shakeup of values and priorities.
We are beginning to recognize the limits of human power and the sham of our preeminence. That we are but one of millions of species inhabiting the planet. We are discovering that well-being and peace of mind are not measured by stock indices or the size of our homes or bank accounts. That the world’s entire arsenal of war is useless. That so long as one link is weak, or broken, we cannot call a chain strong. That death does not discriminate and that security is an illusion. That for too long, we have allowed others to define our standards of success, tell us what we need, or dictate what constitutes “normal” and a life well lived.
It’s like a great awakening from mass hypnosis and an opportunity to purge.
Perhaps our last.
In 2013, Universal Pictures released ‘The Purge,’ in which the New Founding Fathers of America — a totalitarian political party — are voted into office following an economic collapse. They pass a law sanctioning an annual “Purge” during which all crime — including murder, arson, theft, and rape — is legal for 12 hours. A chance for people to unleash their darkest impulses and vomit their pain on the world.
The 2020 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a real life purge. Only this time, we are to remain indoors, there to raise a mirror to ourselves and come to terms, once and for all, with our complicity in the state of affairs.
If we are honest, we will have to admit that before Covid-19, we were already infected.
The affluenza virus we’ve spread across the world is coming back to haunt us, though its symptoms and effects were eating away at us way before Covid-19.
For long, we’ve been suffocating under hell-like wildfires, megadroughts, toxic air, poisoned waterways, contaminated food, dead bees, and the howls of the destitute and the displaced. We’ve been tumbling icebergs, bleaching coral reefs, felling forests, strip-mining mountaintops, exhausting the planet’s topsoil, and bringing death to countless life forms in Earth’s 6th mass extinction and, possibly, our own. In short, a serial gang-rape of the planet.
All along, Earth has been trying to make us change course by appealing to our intuition — the wise voice of instinct we share with our animal kin. Once intimately connected with nature, our feeling bodies have been warning us that our current path is unsustainable. Our increasing levels of stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, boredom, loneliness and feeling of utter meaninglessness are the language our bodies have been using to tell us something is fundamentally wrong in the way we live, think, relate, consume, and waste.
Under the eerie cloak of silence that has descended upon our loud, frenzied lives, we have the chance to listen and purge, to heal and recover so we may begin repairing the damage we have caused.
The Great Purge of 2020 is a call to self-revolt. To rid humanity of its delusions and irrational impulses. To arrest its godlike powers and bring an end to its assault on itself and the planet. Now that we know how helpless and powerless we truly are, it is also a call to humility. To admit we don’t have all the answers. To reorder our priorities, reconsider our values, and redefine ourselves as human beings, instead of human havings.
“To put the world in order we must put the nation in order. To put the nation in order, we must put the family in order. To put the family in order we must first set our hearts right.” — Chinese philosopher Confucius
Setting our hearts right begins by realizing our tenuous hold on life. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, let it be the shocking awareness of our mortality, not at some distant point in the future, but at any given moment.
At every doorstep, rich and poor alike, Covid-19 has placed a Memento Mori: a reminder that our precious life can end at any second.
“Let that determine what we do and say and think,” counseled Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, for there is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion, added Carlos Castaneda, centuries later. These profound truths should suffice to make us purge the flashy items in our bucket list and replace them with what truly matters.
With our priorities rightly ordered, we can keep setting our hearts right by cultivating the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity, defined by Roman statesman Cicero as: “A habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature consisting of four character traits: Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance.”
Prudence: also described as wisdom, is the ability to judge between actions. It’s that sweet spot, between stimulus and response, wherein lies our power to choose, as said Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. A prudent person, for example, doesn’t drunk-shop — a $48B affliction, in today’s world.
In Stoic philosophy, prudence is understanding what’s important in life and living accordingly.
No man can have whatever he wants, but he has it in his power not to wish for what he doesn’t have and cheerfully make the most of the things that come his way. — Marcus Aurelius
Justice: also considered as fairness, was considered by Aurelius as the source of all other virtues, one extending beyond Confucius’ Golden Rule: Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t like them to do to you. For the Stoics, the scope of justice must also consider our duty to our fellow beings. It’s “the principle which constitutes the bond of human society and of [the]community of life,” said Cicero.
The belief in the interdependence of everything in the universe — that we are all one — is perhaps the Stoics’ most radical idea.
“What injures the hive injures the bee.” — Marcus Aurelius
Once this pandemic ends, Aurelius’ admonition should make us refuse the self checkout line at the supermarket, for example, to protect the livelihood and cross smiles and small talk with Iris, who, for all we know, may depend on her cashier’s job to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments and help with her son’s crippling college debt. Post Covid-19, we will hopefully trade convenience for connection. Comfort for belonging. Choose to do without, to grow within.
Temperance: is the practice of self-control, abstention, and restraint of our irrational appetites. Greek philosopher Aristotle called it the “Golden Mean,” found between excess and deficiency. Excessive desires are nothing but symptoms of discontent and dissatisfaction. Temperance is the knowledge that abundance comes from having what is essential, of realizing you can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place, as said nurse and author Mary Ellen Edmunds.
Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? First, to have what is necessary, and second, to know what is enough. It is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more that is poor. - Seneca
Courage: also named fortitude, is endurance, inner strength, forbearance, and the bravery to confront and overcome your fears, prejudices, and misconceptions. The courage to face misfortune, to risk yourself for the sake of your fellow man. Courage to hold to your principles, even when others get away with or are rewarded for disregarding theirs. Courage to speak your mind and insist on truth.
I know perfectly well that death is invincible. Man’s worth, however, lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and courage. — Nikos Kazantzakis
With our hearts thus set right by the recognition of our unpredictable time on earth and through daily cultivation of a virtuous life, we must purge our cynicism to recover the idealism of youth. The ‘can-do’ spirit that dares imagine a better world even if it seems impractical or unrealistic.
Imagination sparks when we unclutter our minds from the adult affliction of common sense. — Physicist Brian Cox
For who’s to say certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs? asks 12 year-old Adora Svitak. “Kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things,” she says. “Kids can be full of aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry, or everything were free… kind of utopia. How many still dream this way and believe in the possibilities? In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility.”
The fact the current pandemic struck us on the advent of spring is profoundly symbolic and meaningful. As Nature unfurls her bounteous spectacle of renewal, she is beckoning us to do the same. Like Jesus on Golgotha, we are undergoing our own crucifixion — the chance to purge ourselves from the ego-cravings of the Self to be reborn in spirit. A precious opportunity to push the boundaries of possibility and bring about a new normal to the world.
I realize that weaning ourselves from our previous way of life will be massively disruptive. Recovering from affluenza will undoubtedly lend a death blow to many industries which (let’s face it) only exist to feed our addictions, temporarily assuage our insecurities, and prop-up our fragile egos. Going forward, it may indeed be the highest wisdom to elect to be a nobody in a relative paradise rather than a celebrity in a world that has lost all sense of values, as said Henry Miller. No guiding morality, I claim, can develop without a hierarchy of values.
Refusing to return to normal will be disruptive, surely, but I’m convinced that in its stead, novel trades, communities, cities, technologies, art forms, and life experiences will emerge which respond to our true needs, are focused on what matters, and in harmony with the whole.
That, anyway, is my song.
Those who insist on returning to “normal” would do the world a great favor by booking themselves a one-way ticket to Mercury.
I hear it’s pretty nice up there… 800 degrees during the day; minus 300 at night. Lots of rocks.