March 15, 2020
IT WAS INEVITABLE: Society was due for a course correction. We’d settled into our accepted state of idiocracy, whining about our moron leaders while sipping our over-priced coffee drinks. Their delusions of nationalism were destined to bite all of us on the ass. Brexit, “America First,” Polish nationalism, and all the rest. Build a wall and crime will fall, they said. They were too stupid to know that germs don’t recognize man-made boundaries.
In less than two weeks the fantasy of “national borders” was laid to waste by the creeping, then accelerating, coronavirus. We are the world, sneezing and coughing together, engaged in a collective fear that our inherent sociability is killing off our elders, one nursing home at a time. Our anti-science president thought he could employ his jingoism by placing his executive power in front of this “foreign virus” (his words). COVID-19 laughed at his hubris. It was already here, spreading like a kerosene fire.
So here we are, in lockdown, trying to “flatten the curve,” riding out the pandemic in our under-stocked bunkers, socially distancing ourselves from our neighbors. Thank the gods for Netflix and chilling. (We now know what will come after Gen Z, the Coronials. See ya in 9 months, babies!) What does this mean for our society, as food servers run out of grocery money and Trump thinks of another way to help his rich friends, again? (“Fed to pump in more than $1 trillion in dramatic ramping up of market intervention amid coronavirus meltdown”) It seems like once they closed down Disneyland, we were racing to a complete social collapse. At least my gym is still open, for now.
In times like this, people crave togetherness, something more than posting memes about empty toilet paper shelves at Costco. Older readers will remember how after 9/11 there was a strange sense of unity that fell over the country. We were all bonded by our grief and needed to be together, hugging strangers and lending handkerchiefs to wipe away others’ tears. Ah, those were the days. How can we accomplish this same cathartic social ritual with three feet between us at all times? I want to hug my elderly neighbors who are already “socially distanced,” but will that kill them?
Our founding sociologist, Emile Durkheim, asked, over a hundred years ago, why we need religion. In a time of growing scientific explanation, it seemed like religion was less and less required to make sense of the world and yet people were still flocking to churches, synagogues, and mosques. What he found made a lot of sense. People’s need for religion didn’t have anything to do with needing “God,” but needing each other. We needed a sense of community, from the Amish to Zoroastrians. We needed to be in one place together, breaking bread and engaging in rituals that gave us a sense we were connecting the sacred mysteries and the profane reality. Religion gave us the social cohesion needed grease the wheels of a functioning society. As a kid who grew up in the Bible Belt, you never asked where someone was on Sunday mornings. They were at church, with their friends.
In the twenty-first century, social media has given us much of that sense of community we used to find at our various worship services, but it’s still not the same. Even with online shopping, online dating, and online education, there is still an innate desire to be in a room together. Maybe it is tied to our tribal origins, the rule by consensus. Checking in with each other by taking stock of body languages. “Yeah, I get the feeling people don’t want to go the Chili’s after work.” We need to be reminded of the flesh and bones of us, that we are not a series of illuminated screens.
So how will we get through this? My intellectual mind understands that limiting social contact will slow down the spread of the virus and put this thing in the dumpster with the swine flu, the bird flu, and various monkey-born illnesses. But my emotional mind wants to take my family out for dim sum to support our suffering Asian community and later grab a drink at my local bar in hopes a few shots of whiskey will immunize me. (Guilty of doing both this week.) Facebooking and ordering delivery just doesn’t cut it. Will my very human need to be in the world (and putting my money where my asymptomatic mouth is) extend this nightmare and maybe take out a few humans in the process? How can I be the needed citizen of the world and also stem the economic collapse in my little part of the world?
Durkheim believed that even horrible things can be functional for society. Maybe COVID-19 is functional as a great reset for the human race, to remind us that borders and nations are luxuries that quickly fade when we realize we’re all in this germ factory together. I’m wrapping my arms around the world. And then washing my hands.