“Unrestrained machinery demoralizes society…and unless restrained will, ere long, involve this country in every horror and calamity attending the bursting of all the bonds that hold society together.”
– Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future, quotation from Luddite pamphleteer
Kairos (Ancient Greek): a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action : the opportune and decisive moment.
“…you have been beholding mankind and all creation with new eyes, since the gates of the city closed on you and on the pestilence. Now, at last, you know the hour has struck to bend your thoughts to first and last things.”
– Albert Camus, The Plague (fr. Father Paneloux’s sermon)
We Have Always Been Unsafe
Could there be any one not feeling unsafe as we ride out this pandemic in unnatural seclusion, unnaturally distanced social relations, disturbingly aware of the body count in NYC and other places, the bell tolling, tolling, tolling? Is it possible that knowing one is verifiably unsafe – closer to the way a Vietnamese peasant felt during U.S. bombing raids, or a Londoner during the blitz, or someone in Brooklyn today, hearing the constant sirens outside on the streets – may be the way for anxiety-driven Americans to learn how to reestablish safety – objective and subjective – as a basic right?
Recall that safety needs are the second step on Mazlow’s famous hierarchy of needs, after physiological needs (both being steps which educated liberals, ready for self-actualization, like to assume have been met ). Moreover, safety is a right we have relinquished for far too long, accepting “technical bribery” as substitute for conditions humans must have to feel safe and to demand conditions of safety for all. The diminishment of peoples’ capacity to act on behalf of the “social”at the same time the world has become objectively more unsafe, threatened with climate collapse, nuclear annihilation, toxified environment, privatized healthcare, etc., suggests it is time to restore a sense of safety “the world can neither give nor take away.”
Whether or not we see the plague as having been hurled at us by an angry God, it offers a chance to “Turn Back O Man,” to change our condition of basic insecurity to conditions that provide, if not objective safety (often impossible, but to say we could do way better is an understatement!) but the subjective kind, that’s within the power of human beings to attain, and to provide each other in community.
Most people I know have learned to live “above” their feelings of unsafety. Our society makes it easier for many – but not all – to do so. Recovering after a mental collapse in the 1990’s, I learned to identify when I am feeling unsafe. I am so familiar with “the drill” – the stabbing feeling in my gut, the grabbing after an obsession to match my terror – which I’d assumed I’d overcome until covid-19 appeared. I learned to deal with my terror obsessive-compulsively during my childhood – a good, “safe” lower middle class, suburban childhood that for me had terror at its heart. And no wonder. Besides the revelations of horror coming out of the recently ended War, there was the fact that the safety traditionally provided in communities and families, backed up in the certainties of faith – the social fabric – had been so shredded by the 1950’s that it was not possible to make children feel safe, which is to say, to know they were safe. The loss of subjective safety – replaced with anxiety – is an inconceivably damaging loss for human beings and humanity, that cannot be compensated for with material prosperity. Yet people continue on, existing as best we can above that moiling, churning bottom of fear – perhaps until now!
The pandemic that robs us of any illusion of safety (or of control) poses a question to everyone: can we be safe despite the fact our safety isn’t guaranteed? Is there some important art we have lost, known to our ancestors who lived without assured security, that we can relearn? Awful as it is, this period of forced seclusion may be the opportunity to come to grips with knowing we feel deeply unsafe, even terrified. And that this is not a new feeling, but a centuries-old one we’ve learned – not to our benefit – to live despite of.
Our world, with its horrific catastrophic threats, the future perilously uncertain, is the one we have built based in this effort to live despite the terror in our souls. The most radical, revolutionary action we can possibly take on behalf of our common humanity is to take back safety – if we are ever to achieve more “objective” safety such as universal healthcare – as both our human right and our human duty. We can relearn the art of feeling safe – which is, to be human, having the capacity to think, and to act beyond self-interest – amidst an objectively terrifying reality.
Its been generations since we who live in modern, liberal bourgeois reality have been asked to think in a profound way about our purpose as human beings, as religion once asked of pretty much everybody. I don’t argue traditional religion should not have been discarded, left on the ash heap with tribal superstitions, excessive guilt, etc. But being safe in an unsafe world is an imaginative act. If one is going to relearn it, one has to return to the source of both terror and safety, Good and Evil – that is, to the wholeness from from which religion sprung. If nothing else, the pandemic is, in its horror, also a “kairos” moment for delving into the nature of our fear so we can stop living as slaves to it.
For those of us who’re not the designated “heroes” actively saving peoples’ lives, nor “essential” workers, the crisis of the pandemic, so unwanted and disturbing, raises the long-evaded question of our human purpose: are we saving our lives so we can go back to the “normal” that brought us here, the conditions of industrial capitalist society under which we have learned divisiveness and mistrust to such a degree we are practically incapable of putting the common good first? Or, might we consider using it as an opportunity to enact a different, but valid heroism of healing aimed beyondsaving our lives, to saving our humanity, i.e., our capacity to think, create, and act on behalf of the whole? Unless we find the way to use this sequestration such that we may come out of it prepared to do our part in building a world that serves the good of all, to rescue the discounted hearts and the shredded social fabric after centuries of industrial capitalism – i.e., to be a different kind of hero – we will not escape the charge of “saving our own skin,” that is, of being weak and cowardly, less human. Some of us may be moved to put up yard signs saying “Thank U Essential Workers,” but we will not be essential workers in the task of moving our anthropogenic world off its catastrophic course.
A friend, Paul, tells me his girlfriend Patty, whom he lives with on weekends, has told him he must not shop in stores anymore. Her decision, (which of course he cannot comply with!) is based not upon the Governor’s directives, but upon her fears of exposure to covid-19 that have escalated, Paul tells me, as the crisis has lengthened. Though we know Patty to be unusually fearful about her personal health, I imagine this kind of unhealthy fear is burgeoning “virally” in the people sequestered around me, out of sight, underneath the news reports and banal media patter. The uptick in domestic violence – and drinking – is no doubt related; when unexamined fears get triggered, they have to find a target. Is there a way to turn unhealthy fear, i.e., neurotic self-involved fear, to healthy fear (that is, fear of a common threat that can bring us together to act on behalf of a larger good)?
Heroism for Sake of Humanity
The new “model” for heroism I’m suggesting – one for which sequestration provides “ideal” circumstances – is aimed at restoring the necessary conditions for whole individuals. These conditions, recklessly disregarded under industrial society – and not coincidentally inimical to capitalism! – are those of indigenousness, i.e., the rootedness, mutuality and reciprocity natural to stable community, stable relationships, and location in one place over time. The ground for such an undertaking is spiritual initiation, by its nature not private and individualized, like the spiritual-but-not-religious quest popular in secular liberal society, but communal.
The new heroism must, first, overcome a mistrust of relationships that goes very deep. Relentless fragmentation, divisiveness, shattered trust and loss of felt safety – the price paid for the privilege of living in industrial, techno-worshipping society – has resulted in the fear of being bound (by commitments) to others. Families, that traditionally provided the stable foundation of safety for human growth and maturation, by now having given over their function to the reassurances of TV and consumerism, have been transmuted into “step one” on the path to full enclosure in capitalist reality.
The degree to which community has become optional and relationships temporized, the increasingly exacerbated divisions between men and women, each justified in defensively hanging on to his/her “independence,” make lasting commitments more rare, and singlehood, not always by choice, more common. People have lost the old reasons to stay bound together and can’t think of another compelling one. However, because mistrust is passed on in families, trust can be re-won only in similarly small, intimate social units where the vibrations – the invisible spirits of connection – can unmistakeably be felt. In families we learned to repress our fear, and similarly, it is in the closest relationships where fear’s power can be undone.
Commitments in coupled relationships, the iteration of community at least theoretically available to everyone, makes them a genuine social space in which the partners can initiate themselves. If the new heroism is to come out of the pandemic seclusion, it will require (minimally) two adults willing to go through the perils of bringing two “othernesses” into harmony with each other. That is, each partner uses the crisis of relationship to be initiated into his or her depths – connected with the other, the imaginative ground within. The goal is entirely mutual: healing the connection with one’s soul in creative solitude can be completed only in the healing of the social relationship, and vice versa. This is the truth of interdependence.
My experience in this area of healing is limited to the othernesses of men and women within the commitment of marriage. Since each person in her/his true individuality is an other, I cannot rule out other possible combinations. If the pandemic has caught you living a single life by choice, recognize the capitalist context that makes such independence possible also effectively closes off the possibility of initiation, for which humbling interdependence is necessary.
That deepest layer in our souls where the fear resides and where we are vulnerable children still – under ego’s monotheistic rule – is immune to the voice of reason or the superior knowing of rational minds. It can be healed only when (two) people are willing to trust in imagination-based authority and in a process that is neither logical nor follows rational rules, but which is guided by an inward, innate, health-driven process. This way, the rightful condition of safety can be restored in relationship, not in escape from it. Here is an imaginative work of home-based heroic peacemaking, the firm basis for all other efforts to make a world safe for human beings.
Notwithstanding the valid fear of arrest and imprisonment in increasingly totalitarian neoliberal reality, most people, hesitant to “come down” into their humanity, will not “hit the streets” in social uprising. Without the imagination-based soul work, and shorn of the solidarity of community that makes us safe – a human right long ago sacrificed for the “good” of progress – we are left to the futile and damaging effort to feel safe against spirits that have become toxic in direct relation to our refusal to know them as real. Instead of our warrior strength, we’re left preoccupied with unhealthy neuroses and disabling addictions to “treat” our pervasive anxiety.
The needed medicine that can treat existential anxiety treats as real the “invisibles,” the “vibes,” between people – with their toxicity and their power to heal. Through standing our ground in relationships that feel unsafe (but not physically harmful!) we strengthen connections to our souls, to communal bonds and to our places. Individuals who are made safe by their own initiatory effort will defend these vital, life-giving interconnections against the top-down power structures that keep us divided and objectively unsafe. They will build positive, viable counter-culture that has the social good at its heart. In this way, though locked inside by the pestilence, we lay groundwork for a world safe not for profit-making, but for people.