The Pandemic and the Paradox

The Pandemic and the Paradox

by Obi Kaufmann

03.17.20

Corvid: a member of the Corvidae (crow) family of birds which includes the raven, a mythological archetype that appears in pan-global mythology as often both a creator and a trickster.

COVID: a coronavirus disease

New language enters our popular lexicon: Coronavirus. Social Distancing. Shelter in place. Our minds react to the disturbance and we adapt, we rationalize, and we wrestle with our emotional core — a chief component of our inner-agency that has proceeded, largely unchanged since the paleolithic era. Psychic landscapes twist as opportunities and expectations crumble. Just like how the cupped, human hand can hardly hold a few tablespoons of water, we watch our projections of the immediate future slip through our fingers. Unexpectedly, might we also witness a new sunrise? From the complex, dancing landscape of possibilities, might we consider new modes of interfacing between human society and the natural world? Might we be building a new paradigm that rises from this uncertainty like a lightning bolt illuminating a shadowed path? If so, the truth of this paradox lies in our ability to imagine one story as representing two separate yet simultaneous truths. In this time of contemplation, we can afford to optimize the nimbleness of our minds, expand our inner worlds and conceive of fundamental course-corrections, many of which are long overdue.

Today is a couple of things. It is the first day of the order to shelter in place as given by county health officers across the San Francisco Bay Area. It is also a particularly gorgeous day in the middle of March, two days before the vernal equinox. We may be in the middle of what weather forecasters call a Miracle March when following a drier than normal February, Northern California receives enough precipitation to alleviate immediate drought concerns, assisting our snowpack towards an adequate, multi-year average. The rain brings a welcome extension of the seasonally thick blanket of green grass to the hills of the Bay Area, along with profuse wildflower blooms, and clear, long views through a local atmosphere scoured of its regular haze. In the more-than-human world, the world of the otter and the oak tree, it is a time of plenty. A time of uncertainty unfolds inside the inner (and the inter) world of humanity, the psychological space that our species shares, that threatens at once to become a time of full-blown panic and a time of fundamental revaluation.

We are in the grip of a pandemic. As I write this, there are nearly 182,000 people who have contracted COVID-19, a particularly potent virus, and over 7,000 have died worldwide. COVID-19 (an abbreviation, short for Coronavirus Disease 2019) is caused by what is popularly called the coronavirus, but what in actuality is a coronavirus[1]. A coronavirus is part of a large family of zoonotic viruses[2] (transmitted from animals to people) that share the same chemical structure and appear similarly when viewed under an electron microscope.

The pandemic represents a disturbance to the human ecology and while we fret, large swaths of the more-than-human world (for the moment) relaxes. A disturbance within any ecosystem is an event that not only alters the normal flow of energy within that ecosystem but presents an opportunity for new energetic processes to emerge. Just like how in California, a wildfire may be a progenerating catalyst for arboreal regeneration, a disturbance can be a reset that brings on a resurgence of life[3]. In the couple of weeks that we have toned down the industrial force of both our outer and our inner, human ecologies, the natural world has surprised us with some regenerative activity. It may be that because of this activity, the human lives lost by the pandemic might be offset by what is in effect, services reinvigorated. For example, in February, across the regularly polluted province of Hubei in China, there was a reported increase of 21.5% “good quality air days[4].” It is impossible to immediately extrapolate what this might mean for the health of people living in Hubei, but can you imagine if 20% cleaner air becomes a baseline? I realize that clean air days doesn’t necessarily correspond to air pollution fatalities — these numbers are subject to incredibly complex systems but nonetheless, 7 million people a year die globally from particulates in air pollution. 20% of 7 million means 1.4 million lives saved. Ostensibly saved by COVID-19. The argument that the trend might lead to this kind of outcome should not be dismissed out of hand.

In our attempt to slow the worst effects of the disease we’ve entered a period of sequestration where we’ve decided to shelter in place (at least in the San Francisco region, but it looks like such policy is spreading as quickly as the virus itself) and limit our interaction with the larger, outer-world — a world not only replete with potential, physical contagion, but also full of cognitive paradox and perhaps even, spiritual revelation. I don’t ever use the word spiritual, lightly. I find it to be a word that for the most part, is useless at best and meaningless at worst. My encounters with the mystery of existence tend towards the aesthetic — towards poetry and towards metaphor. When what is spiritual becomes metaphoric of the capacity of our imagination to transform one thought into another thought, I understand the poetic leap on an emotional, and maybe even a mythological level that unites my personal experience with a process that is as old as humanity and its ability to produce cohesion within society. When we are discussing issues of spirituality, we are discussing personal truths, not objective truths, although we may be discussing universal metaphors. When the two, distinctly different types of truth begin to bleed into one another we are faced with the opportunity to expand philosophical categories… always a dangerous business.

In a similar way to how spirituality, as a psychological process can evade easy categorization, the classification of a virus as either a living entity in its own right or not, continues to confound researchers[5]. A virus is a discreet bit of genetic material that has no conscious intention (i.e. the virus does not wish to do harm) but proceeds nonetheless with a ruthless, procreative agenda. Are not ecosystems subject to the same polarized nature: both living and not living? It is as if we, humans, are not readily able (on all scales of being) to apprehend any state other than the absolute state of this or that, inside or outside, me and you. I am reminded of the twentieth-century religious scholar, Joseph Campbell who in conversation, said “God is a thought, but its reference is to something that transcends all thought. (…) God is beyond the category of being and non-being, both is and is not…[6]

Whether or not you as an individual get or have this novel disease that has us all inside today, you are part of a generation-defining event that has captured (I want to use the word infected, but I will shy from it) part of your mind and part of your spirit. Today we move inside a paradox, finding ourselves more of this world and more removed from it than we ever have been before. What if we were to let go of the boundless drive we have for economic growth, even for a few weeks a year (preferably without a pandemic), to lessen our impact on the more-than-human world, such that in turn, it may serve us better? My work, the books I write and the art I make, are all predicated on two emerging premises: 1) that every feature of the natural world is alive — a perspective that only you (as a human of great creative potential) can know, as you are both a part of nature and apart from nature. And, 2) that consilient[7] theory between disciplines can lead to a greater ecological understanding between personal and objective truths.

[1] Center for Disease Control “Coronavirus” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/general-information.html

[2] World Health Organization “Coronavirus”  https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus

[3] Clark, James S. “Ecological Disturbance as a Renewal Process: Theory and Application to Fire History.” Oikos 56, no. 1 (1989): 17-30. Accessed March 18, 2020. doi:10.2307/3566083.

[4] CNN, Ivana Kottasová, “China’s coronavirus lockdown curbs deadly pollution, likely saving the lives of tens of thousands, says researcher” March 17, 2020 https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/17/health/china-air-pollution-coronavirus-deaths-intl/index.html

[5] Villareal, Luis P. “Are Viruses Alive? Although viruses challenge our concept of what “living” means, they are vital members of the web of life” Scientific American (2008); https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-viruses-alive-2004/

[6] Bill Moyers in conversation with Joseph Campbell “Ep. 2: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘The Message of the Myth’”June 22, 1988

https://billmoyers.com/content/ep-2-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-the-message-of-the-myth/

[7] “Consilience” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consilience#:~:text=