“When one is considering the universe,” Ella Frances Sanders observed in her lovely illustrated celebration of wonder, “it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.”
“Our life has become so mechanized and electronified,” said the Hungarian journalist and László Feleki “that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor?”
~ Oliver Sacks
I’m having a hard time comprehending the scope of the disaster we are (I hope) living through. In the U.S. more than twenty thousand dead, half a million sick ― the daily reports of the pandemic and the failure of our government to deal effectively with it are overwhelming. I’m also perplexed by the sheer idiocy of many Americans, many (so called) Christians, during this crisis.
Carl Safina uses the term, “psychic numbing”, that he applies to our reaction to the overwhelming loss of nature ― species, habitat, experience. Robert Macfarlane uses the terms, “species loneliness” for the intense solitude that we are fashioning for ourselves as we strip the earth of the other life with which we share it, “solastalgia”, for a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental damage, and “ecosystem distress syndromes”, for the unhappiness of people whose landscapes are being transformed by forces beyond their control.
In the midst of all this environmental and public health disaster, I find it hard to feel and express my anger in the face of my inability to change things. I’m left with a sense of helplessness, and a sense of confusion as to why more people aren’t fighting back, and a barely contained rage over the stupidity of people and our (so called) leaders. The lying, intentional misinformation and failure to accept the science at the same time that they contrive wild conspiracy theories drives me insane. What is wrong with those people?
Safina also noted, “If conservation and the environmental movement are remiss in anything, it is the inability to remember that mass statistics obscure real tragedies, and numbers numb us. Each species, individually, has scant voice to vocalize its tragic opera. But as troubles rise in chorus, they sing the woes of living things large and humble, no matter whether they darken skies or rustle grass or keep their peace among underwater boulders. Everywhere, trouble rumbles.”
As I sit at my socially distanced breakfast table, I try to think past the numbers to the real people. I know doctors and nurses that have put their lives on the line for us, as have a myriad of other workers in and out of health care. If every life is precious, why are “Christians” flocking to churches in violation of social distancing, much less benignly accepting the caging of children? And Republicans are advocating letting older people die of the virus, in order to keep the economy going. (Like the Eskimos reportedly sending old folks out on the ice floes?) Various macho people, male and female, believe that they are too tough to get the virus, but fail to realize that they are not too tough to pass it on to others who could die.
Environmentally, we face the same ignorance and apathy about the damage we do. Global warming, species extinction, habitat destruction ― “what does that have to do with me? Anyway, it’s too big a problem for me to solve. Someone else can do it.”
We’re not only numb, but we want things to be the way they were. Sam Knight notes there are terms for some of this. “’fernweh’ a German word that means the longing for a far-off place, and ‘hiraeth’ a Welsh concept that calls forth a yearning to return to the lost places of your past.”
Ah, the good ol’ days, when streams were clean, the air was fresh and we all got along. Dream on. Safina quotes Rebecca Solnit, ‘Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.’ “I would never presume to speak for Sister Solnit” says Safina, “but what I get from this quote is that Hope without action is like expecting a rock to float on water because you meditate.”
We have to tough it out. To get through this, it will take more that “laughing and weeping”. we need to be smarter, more active and do any little thing that we can. Safina notes, “Just as a small island in a wide sea is actual land and the tiny flame of a candle can truly burn you, it’s important to remember that even brief flickers of aliveness — and happiness — are the real thing.”
Sam Knight, Betting the Farm, February 17 & 24, 2020, The New Yorker
Robert Macfarlane, Underground, A Deep Time Journey, 2019
Carl Safina, Psychic Numbing: Keeping Hope Alive in a World of Extinctions, February 26, 2020, YALE E360