It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, but now with an abundance of (government mandated) free time, I figured we should talk about the elephant we’re all trying to keep out off our collective rooms. Yes, you guessed it, I’m talking about the Coronavirus, COVID-19, or, as I will probably be referring to it after this point, the ‘Rona. Well, actually, this is going to be more of an excuse to talk about a few other things, but we’re going to start briefly with the virus.
Let’s get it.
The world is sick! Not in the way I normally say it, like a metaphor for some kind of philosophical or spiritual problem- it’s pretty literal this time. Don’t get me wrong, the metaphor parts are still true, but we’re dealing with some tangible pathogens this time.
I could spend the next several paragraphs talking about the actual virus and how you should stay home and all that good stuff, but several thousand people have beaten that horse to death many times over. Instead, let’s talk about something that I bet no one else will in regards to the ‘Rona- shamanism and the concept of the Wounded Healer.
I’ve talked about the Wounded Healer archetype/myth before, but a brief recap will probably be helpful-
In the past, things like getting bitten by a snake or struck by lightning were almost certainly fatal. They still are today, even with medicine, but imagine how much worse it would be without medicine. With that in mind, consider the unlikely occasion that a random kid in your village gets the plague, or eats some poison berries, and somehow survives.
The societies considered these people to be “self-healed,” and that they were fated to become a healer (oftentimes a shaman or medicine man) for the village. This physical illness or trauma was considered similarly to an “initiatory crisis,” or the thing that makes one a man, albeit a bit differently. It’s interesting to contemplate because in our society, we have fat nutritionists, and beyond that, it’s not a requirement for oncologists to get cancer before they start practicing. Now, I’m not saying you should get bitten by a snake before you get your MD, it’s more just food for thought.
Now, here’s my big crazy theory for the ‘Rona-
The global pandemic may serve as our initiatory crisis. However, no one is initiating us into anything, so far as I’m concerned, and realistically, I think it’s going to set the stage for things to get far, far worse. Before we get into doomsaying, let’s explore what I mean by the crisis bit.
There are a lot of things that you can get away with that are bad when things are good. A person may not realize they have asthma when they’re not being chased by tigers, for example. In the same sense, there are many things the world has been “getting away with,” so to speak, because of the relative state of good times. The economy was booming, people felt secure enough, and we were blissfully able to remain ignorant of the many glaring flaws in our society.
Then, everything changed when the ‘Rona attacked.
Well, not exactly everything, or at least not everything for everyone all at once. See, there’s a little thing called denial that most people live in, and no, it’s not the river in Egypt. Most people live in denial of the fact that stability in human affairs is not the norm, they do not acknowledge the fact that nature is ruthless, and they want to believe that our magical modern technologies are some kind of cureall deterrent against the big, bad, monsters that stopped existing when Captain America invented democracy, or something like that.
Any stability we have is fragile, and an exception to the rule. Systems break all the time, nations historically fall 100% of the time- people may say, “but what about the ones that exist right now?” This is like saying that because people are alive right now that the 100% likelihood of death for humans at some point is false. Barring some kind of Altered Carbon-esque immortality device (which is as implausible as it is that the writing in season two is anywhere near as good as the first season, but I digress), we would benefit from a certain latin phrase:
Memento Mori, or, remember, you will die.
As General Douglas MacArthur said,
“History fails to record a single precedent in which nations subject to moral decay have not passed into political and economic decline. There has been either a spiritual awakening to overcome the moral lapse, or a progressive deterioration leading to ultimate national disaster.”
Man, this is probably the kind of motivational content you’ve come to know and love from this site, huh? Sorry to be so negative, but things get worse before they get better.
...wait a minute. MacArthur said something about a spiritual awakening, right? That seems a bit unlikely with the way the attitudes in the country are going currently, although the alternative of “ultimate national disaster” seems pretty bad.
One of the things that’s really interesting, and, I’ll be honest, pretty ironically poetic, about this whole virus is the fact that the mortality rate is extremely low unless you have a comorbid, underlying condition. See, I think if the US (and by extension, the world,) really had its proverbial shit together, then it wouldn’t be as profound of a crisis as it is shaping up to be. A person who has 6 months of pay in savings and is employed in an industry where remote work is an option would likely have very little issues during the current crisis. However, most Americans, myself included (philosophy, contrary to popular belief, is neither glamorous nor high-paying), do not have any substantial savings, and many of us cannot work remotely (I’m fortunate in this case to be able to do so.)
In this sense, the virus at large is a lot like an individual person getting sick, losing their job, realizing that being overweight due to their having a desk job is probably going to kill them, realizing their insurance isn’t going to prevent the crippling debt that medical care is going to lead to, and their life falling apart as a result. I would go so far as to say that the proportion of things destroyed by this crisis in various countries is going to be a test case for how well or poorly prepared each country was. Obviously China is pretty messed up, we knew that, but America? We’ll see.
Now, I’ve been writing about how we’re philosophically sick for a long time now, well over a year (and talking about it for far longer, just ask the friends I’ve inflicted these rants on.) The thing is, most people not only do not care about anything philosophical or abstract in the slightest, they could not comprehend that information in a meaningful way even if they wanted to. The ability to abstract out vague concepts into future world events is not only -uncommon, it’s hit or miss at best. For example, King Dolt (and Nobel Prize winning economist, remember this part in a bit) Paul Krugman has said such heartbreaking quotes of staggering genius as:
“The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law' becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”
“To fight this recession (2001 dotcom bubble) the Fed needs soaring household spending.”
Eesh. My point here is twofold, that Krugman is a dolt (do I repeat myself?) and that even people who have supposed expertise have very little ability to predict future events. Well, not all people, but let’s get into why.
We’re going to start with some assumptions. First, all systems decay (this is based off the laws of thermodynamics, but, like all physics, it applies to human systems, too), second, decay is not reversible in a closed system, and third, as a system decays the things that made it work are deteriorated or stop working entirely.
For example, if you’re familiar with the people that founded the country, you’ll remember they were all brilliant, multi talented polymaths who were brave enough to fight a war themselves and able to build a system that, while flawed, was noble in its intent in a way that no other historical systems have ever been. Contrast this with modern politics and you’ll realize all three of my assumptions immediately, so I won’t go into detail there.
Now, what does this mean?
The system that we currently inhabit was built on certain philosophical principles regarding its operation. This is similar to why companies have things like mission statements and visions- whether most people acknowledge it or not, your WHY matters (re: Simon Sinek)- and your why is your philosophy. If we understand that all systems decay from their original state, that means we’ve lost some of our why. If we understand that decay is irreversible in a closed system, it means that we cannot fix the system without taking in something new from outside the system, whether that’s new ideas, new resources, new land (perhaps empires begin to die when they stop expanding?), as long as it comes from outside- a fire burns out without new wood.
Finally, as decay progresses, the things that worked stop working. Just like the progressive onslaught of a respiratory virus leads to lung failure, the surprise appearance of a pandemic lets us know that, aw shit, your country’s systems weren’t as good as you thought they were. This doesn’t just mean medical systems, mind you. This is how you get people like King Dolt Krugman winning a Nobel Prize in economics- this is what systemic failure looks like.
A systemic failure of your immune system would mean that your immune system either fails to recognize a virus or fails to fight a virus. If your economic system fails to recognize that Krugman is a dolt, you give prizes to people that encouraged the housing crisis. If your medical systems fail, the World Health Organization will tell you that there’s no evidence of human transmission of the Coronavirus in January (that’s true, they did, the tweet is still up.)
All systemic failure ultimately draws from the design of the system itself- it is impossible to predict all future circumstances adequately enough to plan for them, because of black swans. America could have likely survived for several hundred more years than it probably will were it not for the invention of things like the newspaper, radio, and broadcast television (look at the way politics changed for the worse as a result of each if you don’t believe me). We’re seeing the systemic failure from a novel stressor that it wasn’t designed to combat. (Notable that they’re calling it novel Coronavirus here solely for poignancy purposes.)
Here’s the most interesting thing of all-
In his book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (which is most definitely required reading, amazing work), Matt Ridley discusses why viral pathogens were essential to the development of life as we know it. (I actually do not know if the segments of this quote are in text order, because I don’t have a firsthand source from the book readily available, but it will summarize my point):
“The struggle for existence never gets easier. However well a species may adapt to its environment, it can never relax, because its competitors and its enemies are also adapting to their niches. Survival is a zero-sum game.
Sex, according to the Red Queen theory, has nothing to do with adapting to the inanimate world - becoming bigger, or better camouflaged, or more tolerant of cold, or better at flying - but is all about combating the enemy that fights back.
Biologists have persistently over-estimated the importance of physical causes of premature causes of premature death rather than biological ones. In virtually any account of evolution, drought, frost, wind, or starvation loom large as enemies of life. The great struggle, we are told, is to adapt to these conditions.
The things that kill animals or prevent them from reproducing are only rarely physical factors. Far more often they are other creatures - parasites, predators and competitors.
Because they are so short-lived compared with their hosts, parasites can be quicker to evolve and adapt. In about ten years, the genes of the AIDS virus change as much as human genes change in ten million years. For bacteria, thirty minutes can be a lifetime. Human beings, whose generations are an eternal thirty years long, are evolutionary tortoises.
Disease might almost put a sort of limit on longevity; there is little point in living much longer than it takes your parasites to adapt to you.
Sex is about disease. It is used to combat the threat from parasites. Organisms need sex to keep their genes one step ahead of their parasites. Men are not redundant after all; they are woman's insurance policy against her children being wiped out by influenza and smallpox.”
While that may be only a bit of a crash-course in a book I really think deserves to be read in full, it will serve to have conveyed the basic concept: the nature of our being is to adapt as a response to external threats- not simply the quiet, looming death of entropy, but the everpresent, ever changing threat of viral, microbial, parasitic, and all the other pathogens in the world.
Wait, so if people evolved the way they did to outrun viral evolution, and human systems are made of people, and we have a system that seems to be primed for failure, then does that mean…
The only way to survive is to adapt the system with external information (sex itself is literally the combination of two information systems, re: DNA) and hopefully get a new system that’s better equipped to survive.
Remember what old Doug said?
“There has been either a spiritual awakening to overcome the moral lapse, or a progressive deterioration leading to ultimate national disaster.”
If the “moral lapse” here is a move away from the system’s original philosophical basis, then the “spiritual awakening” is a new birth (meaning ingress of novel energy/information from an external source) is a redefinition of purpose (much like sexual reproduction synthesizes a new string of DNA from two old ones) by combining the best of the old system with something new. Otherwise, the system dies of (in this case) pneumonia, or “ultimate national disaster.”
Here’s the good news.
First off, despite the fire and brimstone of this article, I actually do not think that ‘Rona is the thing that does us in. We are obviously nearing some kind of systemic failure- American bureaucracy is cancerous, our culture is schizoid (in the sense of the latin root, “split”), and, as things go, I don’t see any ready made solutions. Systemic problems are fixed by prevention and curing the root of the disease, not by politicians, bureaucrats, and other people with ostensible “power.”
What I think is likely is that, as has occurred for the entirety of biological history, this virus will prompt some sorts of adaptations. We are going to be forced to change. The sudden realization that certain businesses are more “essential” than others is definitely a shock for many, and may prevent future endeavors into those less-essential fields in the future. If the stock market continues to tank, we may drop into depression, which will almost certainly lead to some kind of conflict as a means of escape. Strangely, we’re near where we were 100 years ago, and how much has actually changed? Socialism, Communism, Nationalism, and Facism all loom heavy in the air again as people are desperate for some old defeated gods to return. The things that tied us together have fallen apart, as Yeats warned:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
I think that the Coronavirus is not the thing itself that does us in. However, whether it’s the nearer consequences of it in the immediate future, or the new, more cautious and unstable world that comes in the next decade, we can say for certain that things will be different.
The question is whether or not we will adapt to survive the differences.