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Isolating the Moment

April 20, 2020
What we know right now will remain part of our understanding forever, but whether we learn anything instructive from this moment is much less certain.

A decade from now, or more, there will be something like a consensus about what happened on Earth in 2020, and continued for who-knows-how-long.  How did a virus spread like smog from one corner of the world to another, sickening millions and killing many, many thousands (… so far), until the worst pandemic in 100 years forced the world into a voluntary financial crisis?  What could have been done to stop it? Who was to blame for the scope of such a calamity?

What we know now will remain apart from that future certitude, not only in memory but in habits and intuition. Many of us may never again crowd willingly into bars or concert halls or stadiums. We may be encouraged to resume our former ways of accoutering ourselves, of moving around and interacting with other people, but we’ll proceed cautiously. And some of us will never resume the old routines. If we’re asked why we do not readapt, we may or may not give a full explanation. We'll keep that "knowledge" to ourselves.

The full explanation would be that nearly everyone at this moment is isolated in the most thorough way one can be isolated. More important than the fact that we are physically cut off from nearly everyone outside of our domestic circles is that most of us are cut off from the infrastructure of associations (places of employment, schools, churches) that reinforce individuals’ sense of belonging in this life, and refresh our knowledge and experience in ways that give us skills and resources to proceed into the unknown future. Making the isolation even more complete is that, momentarily at least, everyone has been denied a clear vision of the future — not just the distant, dreamed-for future or the mid-term, planned-for future, but the immediate future. We see trends and hear anecdotes, but no one knows what the next day will mean for our personal futures. So, we live in these moments and we wonder what will happen. And when? No one knows. That is the most troubling isolation.

The concept of hubris comes to us from ancient Greek tragedy, wherein individuals’ excessive pride or defiance of supernatural powers would lead to suffering. The Greek civilization had myths and theories for explaining the unknown and unknowable questions of life. Even though today we may scoff at their mythology of the cosmos, what they managed to understand and impart remains reliable on the subject of human nature, it’s inclinations and weaknesses. And, because the Greeks appreciated that they were maintaining a “civilization” they made efforts to solidify their accumulated understanding. Human nature was a fundamental aspect of their education, their entertainment, their art, everything. Their civilization was a foundation for our own.

But in our post-modern age, examining the metaphysical or spiritual dimensions of problems is a strictly private affair – certainly not a public matter. It’s not that we don’t have access to that wisdom. As a society we flatter ourselves by sampling bits of custom or tradition, by adopting styles from the past or embellishing our lives with amusing details of life in another place or time.

Our society, which is less than a civilization by now because it has held on to so little personal knowledge worthy of sharing, is based on consumption. We are committed consumers of ideas and experiences, passing through but not settling in. Individual taste and proclivities are sacrosanct. So, why should it be that we find isolation so unsettling?

The trend lines driving us toward isolation have been clear for decades now, if only we’d been able to read them clearly. We have raised the standards for individual health, and congratulated ourselves for that, but we have no standard acknowledgement of human mortality — as any civilization would do.

We have increased the standards for individual welfare, but we have studiously avoided adopting a standard appreciation for the inherent value of individuals lives. We have embraced the utility of open communication and free trade, assuring ourselves that low-cost goods will be the guarantor of peace and security.

We’ve gained all these things without properly securing their permanence, and all are in question now. The Greeks knew how to explain this.