drown slower

This May piece from The Atlantic about American cultural and medical resistance to uncertainty and the importance of embracing it and, if not embracing it then simply dealing with it, in times like these rings pretty true.

Whether or not we have been infected with the virus, we’ve all been infected with the uncertainty it brings. The virus has forced the nation into what Keats called the great “Penetralium of mystery,” and it’s an uncomfortable and unsatisfying place to be. Granted, uncertainty is not where we want our scientists or our epidemiologists to dwell; we want them reaching after answers, pushing for vaccines. But the task at hand for those of us who are not scientists is to figure out how to remain patient enough in our uncertainty—until there is a treatment or a vaccine—that we can take care of one another and make wise choices as a society.

Though the piece was written in May, it may be of even more value now. If anything, the situation seems to have grown even more uncertain and we have now seen some of the consequences of this need for certainty. And, well, they haven’t been pretty.

From the beginning of this, I’ve had an almost allergic reaction to two ideas. And this reaction of mine has not always been pretty. It’s an overreaction, I suppose.

The first thing that sets me off is any mention of “returning to normal.” Someone, anyone, probably meaning nothing much by it, mentions “returning to normal” and I pretty much lose my damn mind. It’s not great.

And it’s not just because I’m physically nauseated by nostalgia and never liked Normal in the first place. Nor is it just because I think that desire to Return to Normal is incredibly misguided, deluded, and dangerous – a sort of root problem in how people are mismanaging this whole crisis and many other situations – an attitude that just leads to massive and avoidable problems. I mean, all that is part of it but it’s not just that. Be nice if it was just that.

I could probably keep my head a bit better than I sometimes do.

It’s more a gut level thing. Humpty Dumpty is an important part of my emotional constitution. My very bones know and accept that some shit, a lot of shit, is Humpty Dumpty. It’s fragile, it’s careless, and it breaks. It does not come back. It’s awful. It is what it is. And when that happens, there’s a lot better uses for all the king’s horses and all the king’s men than engaging on some ridiculous project to repair a shattered past. Why bother? So that The Egg can repeat his error?

Not everyone has this understanding or this feeling. Probably, not everyone even should. But the gulf between those who do and those who don’t is a wide one. Sometimes it feels like it can only be bridged by shouting. But it can’t. Not really.

The other thing that can set me off is this craving for certainty.

People demand cures, timelines, clear answers. This one simple trick and that incoming miracle.

I too like clear answers but sometimes, a lot of times, that answer is no, maybe, or I don’t know – nobody knows. And these are answers one needs to get used to hearing. A lot is not knowing.

A life spent in retail spaces has ill-prepared much of the public for this. One of my old bosses, The Chairman, once remarked how odd it was that customers would ask a question then get upset if the answer was “no.” “Surely,” he said, “if you ask a yes or no question, then ‘no’ is on the table.”

But in a public taught through dogma and daily practice that “the customer is always right” the mere existence of a demand is supposed to be enough to create a “yes.” “No” is an insult, “maybe” a dissatisfaction, and “I don’t know” an unthinkable. All are indications of total incompetence.

This is just not that world. A pandemic is just not that sort of situation. Not at all. Here, no, maybe, and I don’t know are exactly the clear and honest answers we often need.

It’s a hard adjustment for many to make – particularly Americans who are, well, frankly, Americans are a little spoiled by their interactions with a terrorized underclass of sevice workers or, as members of that class, absolutely inundated with disempowering pro-customer and pro-management propaganda – and often are a sort of combination of the two states. Don’t get the answer you like? Time to call a manager.

Pulling people out of that retail environment and putting them into this one is difficult. It’s a bit like throwing a fish onto land and shouting “EVOLVE OR DIE.” I suspect a lot of people feel like one of those polar bears whose ice has melted. A bit at sea. Needing some solid ground.

But, right now, there’s only staying afloat. Swimming hard at every mirage just makes you drown faster. For me, I can be content with drowning slower.

Maybe it’s because I’m a baseball fan. Then again, maybe that’s why I’m a baseball fan. God knows, I never understood those people who have a sense of the game rooted in triumph or even winning. Winning is weird. Unnatural. To be enjoyed but never expected. If you’re going to like baseball, you have to find something to like about losing. Most teams lose most of the time. It’s a long fucking season. Life is the same. Fail slower. That’s fine.

Or you can just root for The Yankees, in which case, fuck you. 😜

But we are almost a full year into this thing and I hope that, by now, some attitudes have or are finally ready to shift. I hope that some have given up on Normal coming back, that others have learned to deal with uncertainty, and that we’ve all stopped hearing no, maybe, and I don’t know as weakness, and that leaders have stopped believing that these are wrong answers. Often, they’re the only true ones. Uncertainty is certain.

Aside from that, the only certain things are the same as they always were. We owe each other and are owed a good and honest effort to learn and to do better. We need some fucking compassion and kindness. We need to do what we can to help each other. The only way out is through and the only way through is together. None of that is going to change. So we might as well get used to it.

I don’t like it either.

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