[This essay continues a reprise of pandemic era posts]
I admit it can be lonely living by myself in the desert, but these days everyone is lonely. I've been suppressing my telepathic sense so I don't have to hear duplicates of my own laments magnified a million times from L.A., but this morning I opened up just to check-in and was rewarded with a flood of anxiety pouring over the mountains.
The coronavirus pandemic with its shut-downs and quarantines is testing us in ways that are not acknowledged. Our deepest fear is that the institutions and people that structure our lives- family, friends, schools, banks, stores, all the "ties that bind"- are dissolving and will not come back. Science fiction writer Cixin Liu imagines a soothing existence: floating in space without ambition, direction, or definition. That's what's happening to us minus the soothing space part.
Society will return, of course, but we fear it will be in a form we won't recognize. Maybe, we think, we won't even be part of it.
There is a lot of guilt involved. Before the shutdown all we did was complain about how terrible everything was. Now we suffer from our own wish for change.
People wonder: Should I be angry about this and blame someone or something, or should I despair and accept my own culpability?
I get angry sometimes, depressed other times, and sometimes I just stare out the window at the mountains as if they had answers.
Last week I reached the level of internal chaos required to induce action. As I have in other crises (documented in these pages) I headed across the rocky sand in search of the beings who sustain my life out here. Often on such forays my goal is to find a particular one of them (full list: Betty the Coyote Creator Goddess, Jesus, Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster and Gandalf the Wizard), but this time I walked aimlessly, not sure what or whom I sought.
It couldn't have been entirely aimless, though, because I ended up at Betty's favorite creosote bush, and there she was, seated beside it. She smiled (a coyote smile is conveyed through suggestion) and spoke first:
Hello, Harry! I've been following your thoughts this morning, but I'm not sure I have any particular wisdom for you.
Why not, Betty, you're a deity. Doesn't that mean you know things?
I'm not saying I don't know things; I'm saying I'm not sure I can help you.
Just knowing things can be a big help sometimes. Please tell me something you know.
Betty gazed over my shoulders at the mountains and sighed. After a few moments she spoke.
Harry, the things that are scaring people the most are true.
Like the dissolution of your civilization. It's going to be scrapped and rebuilt.
Will it be an orderly process? Will people be taken care of and thoughtfully introduced into new roles?
We were silent for a while. I was at a loss for my next question, until I remembered the burning issue of the day.
Betty, I don't know whether to be angry at others for causing this situation, or to wallow in self-doubt and blame myself.
You might try a little of both, Harry.
They are both correct. People caused this collapse by not caring, not thinking, not doing. On the other hand, had you cared and thought and acted, the results would have been the same.
We entered another contemplative moment. I considered thanking Betty for her time and going home to my shack for a nap. Betty caught my drift and said,
Harry, collapse and rebuilding happen continually in the universe.
But why must it happen over and over to human society, Betty? Humans are supposed to be smart, smarter than animals or insects or anything else. Why don't we fix our society instead of letting the problems build up for years until only destruction can fix them? Do you know the story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian knot?
Yes, Alexander arrived in the town of Gordiam in the Middle East where he was shown an immense, tangled knot with a legend: Whoever could untie the knot would rule Asia. Since ruling Asia was on Alexander's mind, he tried to untie the knot. After sustained efforts he failed to untie it, so he drew his sword and sliced it in half, effectively untying it. Harry, why did you think of that story?
People secretly admire Alexander for slicing the knot, Betty. They think it shows his intelligence and fitness to rule.
It shows how humans often rule, for better or worse.
So instead of tying to solve your problems, you just slice everything into pieces?
I suddenly felt very tired and sat on a rock.
Betty, my anger comes from the idea that there are people who are manipulating things. They may not have caused the overall mess, but they have been monitoring it and finding ways to control it.
What is the goal of these manipulators?
Their goal is to make sure that the new society entails successful lives for them. Our conspiracy theories are about people secretly deciding who will live and prosper in the new order, and who will not.
We were quiet for a few minutes. Though it was soothing to be with a friendly soul, my thoughts soon settled on a vision of a hungry mob emptying the Family Dollar Store, which was not the relaxing mandala I had sought.
As if to save the day, Gandalf the Wizard from Lord of the Rings strolled towards us. He is the only fictional character among my friends, but in practical terms he's as real as a talking coyote.
Hi all, said Gandalf. Harry, I've been following your thoughts too, although I'm not telepathic.
If you're not telepathic, Gandalf, how can you follow my thoughts?
As far as I can tell, Harry, I've tapped into the first person omniscience of my creator, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Yes, but it's hard to maintain. Anyway, I'm not sure I can help you, Harry, but it might be interesting to compare Middle-earth's travails with yours.
At that point Gandalf and I heard a soft throbbing, like waves on a shore. It was peaceful, meditative, and seemed designed to help me and Gandalf peer into unknown corners. I looked at Betty to ask what the sound was, but she was sleeping, and the soft throbbing was her snoring! This, I figured, was blessed snoring.
Gandalf, I said, I recall that Middle-earth experienced a complete revolution, in which every society in that world was destroyed and transformed, yet the book is uplifting. In contrast, imagine that humanity's current situation is a science-fiction story. Most people would agree the genre would be Sci-Fi Horror. Why isn't Lord of the Rings, with all its death and pain, in the Fantasy-Horror genre?
I've thought about that, Harry. There is actually much more destruction in your world-story than in Lord of the Rings, because in your story, nothing of your lives survives.
What? Gandalf, did I mention that I came out here looking for solace? What do you mean?
Harry, you'll recall that at the conclusion of Lord of the Rings, what you might call "ethnic" or "racial," or even species related characteristics are not transformed at all. Sorry for the confusion in terms; Tolkien never made clear whether hobbits, elves, dwarves and people could cross-pollinate.
I recall some action between elves and people.
Yes, perhaps. At any rate, all these classifications of beings stay the same through the great wars of Middle-earth, so the aforementioned hobbits, elves, dwarves and people- not to mention wizards, orcs and demons- maintain their definitions at the end of the tale. Since friendships tend to occur between those with similar backgrounds, and since no one in Middle-earth changes their basic form, the destruction of everyone's societies does not bring destruction of their friendships.
I think I follow you, Gandalf. Are you saying that in my world, our current forms will change so much that our great-grandchildren will not know where they came from, or who we were?
Yes. The approaching process will entail scientific refashioning of civilization itself. Just as Europeans (with help from the Romans) forgot that they were Celts, Visigoths and assorted barbarians, the next people will forget they were you.
Gandalf, I assume you know how upset people would be to hear these ideas.
Of course, but Harry, you don't seem too upset about them.
I'm upset enough, but I'm also trying to think of something uplifting, which you and Betty apparently cannot offer.
At that moment there was a hitch in Betty's snoring, as if it were interrupted by a cough. We looked at her for a moment, then Gandalf spoke.
If it's good news you want, Harry, you need but ask. The reason Lord of the Rings is rated "Fantasy," not "Fantasy Horror," is that the friendships are so intense, so loving, and so successful that constant fighting with orcs is a small price to pay. At this moment you humans have friendships, but the friendships are based on the past, not the future.
Gandalf, did I hear you say you had good news?
The good news is an idea. That idea is: if you can get even a portion of your society to take the blinders off and talk about things as they actually are, you could revive the ancient art of friendship and survive.
Easier said than done, but it's worth a try, I said courteously.
Betty opened her eyes and gazed into mine, and a great warmth spread inside me.
Betty, that feels good, but it's just depressing me more.
Now what's wrong? asked Betty.
What's wrong is I'm making all this up! I'm not talking to a deity and a wizard. I'm sitting on my bed in my fucking room, flipping through a six- month-old Mad Magazine.
Gandalf intervened: Nonsense, Harry. Remember when Frodo and Sam were hiding in a cave outside Mordor and they speculated about how they could be characters in a novel?
Well, they were characters in a novel, weren't they?
So if they weren't real, why did you care about them?
Betty and Gandalf broke into raucous laughter, and I suddenly felt out of my league. With impeccable timing, Jesus chose that moment to enter the scene.
Hello Harry, Jesus said serenely.
Hi Jesus! I suppose you've been following my thoughts too.
Indeed I have. Would you like a bit of my wisdom?
Yes I would, though I've been wanting to discuss something with you....
Well, I don't understand some of the statements attributed to you.
For instance...the turning the other cheek idea, loving your enemies, etc.
You don't understand that?
No, I mean, I do understand the idea, but it's not what is happening in the world. In fact the opposite is happening. What's the point of you saying these things if no one does it?
Everyone loves their enemies?
Yes, they have to because your worst enemy is the person most like you.
There are many from international relations. The Cold War was the period of the highest tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S., while at that time they were more similar to each other- in terms of aggressively maintaining spheres of influence- than they were to other countries. Currently, with the struggle over Ukraine, Russia again has a common interest with the U.S.: to reinstate East/West antagonism as an organizing principle for earth's upper latitudes. It seems though that China, with its renewed imperial ambitions, is now in the running as the most similar to the U.S., so it's in the running as most popular enemy.
Then...should we love Russia and China?
Yes, the sooner the better.
Quiet reigned again. I picked up a stick and drew meaningless symbols in the sand. I wondered about Frodo and Sam. Did they know they were not real?
The intruding thought carried the unmistakable signature of Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster.
Hey Robert, I said dryly, are you joining the campaign to cheer me up?
Why don't you cheer me up, Harry, you're from the master race after all.
Calling humans the master race.
Jesus, Betty, Gandalf and I watched Robert trudge across the clearing. He settled on a stone between the creosote bush and my rock. He spat once, then continued his thoughts:
Harry, you are so anthropocentric! Do you ever stop to think about what's happening to other creatures around you, like, I don't know, gila monsters?
Sure, Robert, all the time.
I'll let that pass. I suppose you're wondering if I- the least prone of our group to hallelujah choirs- will be the one to cheer you up.
Stranger things have happened.
Ok then, Harry, here goes! Gila science interprets what is happening on the surface of our planet in a non-anthropocentric way: human society's chaos is not caused by humans.
It's caused by the earth. All the upheaval in human history is actually not human history. It's earth history.
Humans are by-products of the earth's growing pains.
Ok, I am totally cheered up now; thanks so much Robert.
Hang on, I didn't get to the good part: Humans are so talented at adapting to things, you could probably adapt to the idea that you're by-products rather than important beings like deities and talking lizards.
The sky's the limit. Once you are honest about your prospects, you can plan a decent retirement.
Robert, if you didn't exist I'd have to make you up. Well friends, thanks for coming. I think I'm overdue for my afternoon nap, so if you'll excuse me....
Just a moment, Harry, said Jesus, rising and walking over to me. He looked into my eyes, then touched my forehead with the tip of his index finger. Perhaps I had been primed by Betty's mystic gaze, because I felt an immediate dilation of my spirit, and I was immersed in a warm bath of the waters of joy. I'm sure Jesus could tell by my expression that I was not resisting.
What is happening, Jesus?, I asked.
Harry, you are in touch with your atoms: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, iron- all the vast crowd. They are not in despair, are they?
No, my atoms are joyful. Why is that?
They are part of earth's processes, going where they want to go.
What am I? Am I made of them?
You are a temporary construct of them.
Jesus, what's the good news in this?
Communicate with your atoms, Harry. Find common ground. Find how you can combine your needs with the needs of your atoms and the earth.
Jesus, people call those kinds of ideas mystical babble.
Who cares, Harry, that doesn't mean they aren't true.
Feeling somewhat restored, I said goodbye to my friends and headed home, hoping the warm glow from Jesus' words would last the trip. It did, and in fact I took the glow with me into my afternoon nap.
Pleasant dreams, readers!