What use are writers in a global pandemic?

 

If you were filling a spaceship with people who could found a human colony far from Earth, you would definitely pick my siblings. My family is jam-packed with health and education professionals.

And then there is me, the writer.

When I think of my sisters and brother on the frontline of the coronavirus, saving lives, I feel like I am seven years old all over again, trying to be helpful, but really just getting in the way. Because what use is a writer in a global pandemic?

The answer: perhaps not as immediately and conspicuously useful as a N-95 mask, but nevertheless crucial both during and beyond the crisis. Humans don’t tell stories just to make ourselves feel better. We don’t manufacture meaning purely to numb ourselves to existential terror. Stories are a core survival strategy of our species.

Martin Seligman, founder of the scholarly field of positive psychology, argues in his memoir that humans should really be called Homo prospectus, because we ‘metabolise the past and present to create the future.’[1] Seligman does not mean this in a fanciful way: he means it in a neurologically correlated, scientifically proven way. Humans narrate and re-narrate their past, and perceive present circumstances, through the lens of envisioned futures. Seligman dubs this brain process ‘the hope circuit’, which activates parts of the brain engaged with imagination, storytelling, empathy, and future orientation.

When we are unable to formulate stories which make sense of our past and present in light of our hoped-for future, we begin to lose hope: not only figuratively, but physically, at the level of our neurology. In order for the story-telling part of our brain to activate, we need what evolutionary biologist Gordon Burghardt calls a ‘relaxed field’ – a period in which playful imagination is possible because survival is, at least temporarily, guaranteed. In this state of relative peace, the brain can ‘rest’.[2]

MRI studies have shown that when the brain is in rest mode, the parts of the brain associated with storytelling and imagination are active.[3] In other words, we are daydreaming. When we look like we are doing nothing at all, our minds are busy with our most critical, defining survival adaptation: the ability to imagine the future.

But if we are constantly ‘on,’ we don’t get this much-needed time for our minds to work out what is going on. When we are in survival mode, adrenaline is our perennial companion. We are hyper-alert, on edge, like WW2 pilots high on amphetamines. Our brains are too activated to allow for the necessary narrativising which we need.

This, I believe, is the crux of my current hyper-levels of anxiety. I don’t have a story to tell myself about how this is going to end. I have no previous stories to guide me. About two weeks ago, as I entered self-isolation, I wrote,

I feel as though I am the cursor blinking on the blank page. I have no stories to tell me how this is going to end. The landscape is unfolding around me and like an early colonialist I don’t know how to draw the trees except with reference to the ones I remember from home. (Home itself, gone forever.)

Instead of ‘self-isolation,’ the Irish are calling the present requirement for quarantining oneself ‘cocooning.’[4] With one word, the Irish are telling a different story. Instead of wandering the empty and chaotic universe as exiles cast out from meaning as we are doing in my country, Irish people are right now wrapping themselves in cosy blankets of good faith and warming their hands at the hearthstone of shared experience.

All of this to say: stories change lives. Just thinking the word ‘cocoon’ makes my heart rate return to normal. Imagine how we would feel if we storied this period of our human experience through the lens of terror and wonder; dread and awe; despair and hope.

It’s paralysing to think that the human species might actually face extinction in our life time. But even if this is true, I can control my own orientation towards the past, present and future. I can decide to live in the long arc of history, beyond even the span of human existence, in what Jesuit priest Richard Rohr calls ‘deep time,’ what the Gay’wu group of women from North East Arnhem Land might call ‘the Dreaming,’ and Kabbalists might describe as the unfolding universe.[5] We can decide to live as though life is precious and meaningful – our own lives, as well as the phenomenon of life itself.

Rainer Maria Rilke, writing from a place of pervasive despair between the two world wars, ultimately determined that the poet’s role is to ‘praise’: both the unknowable and the knowable, both heaven and hell, both terror and rapture, and everything in between.

Oh, say, poet, what you do?

– I praise.

 

But what about the deadly and monstrous?

How do you keep going, how do you take it all in?

– I praise.

 

But the nameless and unnamed,

how do you keep calling out to them, poet?

– I praise.

 

Where does it come from, your claim to be real

in every guise and each mask?

– I praise.

 

And that the stillness and turbulence

know you like star and storm?

– Because I praise.[6]

 

I don’t know if life is actually meaningful. I am just a writer, seeking to live a life of meaning in the midst of a pandemic, trying not to let despair engulf me from one day to the next. Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg wrote that

It is hard to realise that this [earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realise that the present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.[7]

I took this same attitude for much of my adult life, not wanting to be seen as a fool for believing that life could be meaningful. But what Weinberg does not realise is that hope is a reasonable choice. Even the kingpin of atheists, Richard Dawkins,[8] acknowledges the logic that, if we live on a planet which is ‘friendly’ to life, then we also live in a cosmos which is ‘friendly’ to life. If it is reasonable to accept the possibility that the universe is chaotic and empty of meaning, it is also reasonable to acknowledge that the universe may have an orientation, a tendency, towards life.

We cannot know if this is true. Neurologically speaking, hope is very clearly a choice.

Seligman’s international reputation was initially launched by his research into learned helplessness. Many years later, Seligman modelled the best type of academic behaviour when he applauded scientist Steven Maier for disproving Seligman’s theory. Maier found that animals did not ‘learn’ helplessness. Instead, Maier and his team found that helplessness was actually the default reaction to unavoidable suffering. Animals whose actions averted the electric shock actually learned that they could change the future. The ‘hope circuit’ in the brain was activated when this occurred.[9]

Neurologically speaking, if we decide to live as though what we do matters: what we do matters. Once we choose hope, we activate the parts of our brain which make sense of our lives and motivate behaviours which will continue to create meaning.

Does this mean that life would be meaningless if we did not choose to make it meaningful, therefore demonstrating that life is actually meaningless (my brain is a fun place to hang out)? Gautama Buddha rather skillfully avoided a similar question when a student asked him about what happens to souls after death. Buddha is reported to have answered,

… it is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death, that a religious life depends. Whether these views or their opposites are held, there is still rebirth, there is old age, there is death, and grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow, and despair…I have not spoken to these views because they do not conduce to absence of passion, or to tranquillity and nirvana. And what have I explained? Suffering have I explained, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering have I explained. For this is useful.[10]

Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, addressed himself more directly to the question, arguing that the ‘will to meaning’ is an intrinsic trait of being human. He described modern humans’ existential vacuum in the aftermath of WW1 and WW2. Based on his observations in Auschwitz of how people’s survival sometimes seemed to turn on their ability to cling to meaning, Frankl explained that humans find meaning through acts of creation, a mindful and lively engagement with immediate experience, and one’s attitude towards life.[11]

Even at the brink of death, a person can find meaning in their lives. Six days before his death, the poet William Butler Yeats wrote,

I know for certain that my time will not be long…I am happy and I think full of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put it all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.’ I must embody it in the completion of my life.[12]

Literature provides rich examples of how humans make meaning right up until death. Leo Tolstoy’s classic character, Ivan Ilyich, the protagonist of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, lies on his deathbed in what can only be described as total and abject disgust with the meaninglessness of his life. But then, just before he dies, he realises that ‘…this could still be rectified,’ by being of service to his family, in the only way remaining available to him still: by relieving them of their pain.

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away […] he must act so as not to hurt them [his family], release them and free himself from these sufferings.

“How good and how simple!” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you, pain?”

He turned his attention to it.

“Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.”

“And death…where is it?”

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it.

“Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

 

What is the meaning of life, when potentially all of human life can be snuffed out by a pandemic – perhaps not this one, but the next, or the one after that? Buddha, Tolstoy, Frankl, Rilke, and even Seligman would tell us that we are asking the wrong question. As he draws to the end of his memoir, Seligman writes,

The human mental apparatus has evolved to solve survival and reproduction problems. It has not evolved to know the truth or to perceive ultimate reality. Human beings can know about only the tiniest edge of what is true.[13]

Whenever I lose myself in ruminations about the ‘point’ of life in the face of a pandemic, or a bushfire, or a flood, or a death in the family, I eventually find myself here, at this point: when I begin to ask myself what the point of it all is, it doesn’t mean that there is no meaning. It is actually a neurological cue that I need to get up and move my body to break down some of the cortisol and run off some of the adrenaline coursing through my limbs. I need to absorb myself in the forest and trigger the release of prolactin and oxytocin with dance, or music, or baking, or any form of creativity. I need to go out and be of intentional service: I need to help someone, even if my assistance is simply a text message, a wave, or a story. In service, I discover that meaning is actually something which unfolds, evanesces, transforms, and subsides, over and over again, rather than a set of facts to be discovered.

My siblings are doctors, nurses, teachers, hospital administrators.

I am a storyteller.

So I will tell you a story.

There was a plague. People didn’t think it could happen, because it didn’t fit with their story of being too busy to get sick. Thanks to globalisation, millions of people had the opportunity to watch a video of a man named Bill Gates explaining, in some detail, how a pandemic would happen. Thanks to globalisation, five years after Bill’s video, the COVID-19 virus spread around the world.

People responded according to the stories they told themselves. Some people got scared and bought a lot of toilet paper, whilst others entered into denial, insisting on visiting restaurants and shaking hands as if the virus was some sort of political ploy rather than a molecular reality. Lots of those people got very, very sick. Then they passed it on to others, who got sick and passed it on to others. That’s how a pandemic works. It’s all in the video.

The moral of the story? Here are mine:

 – Bad things happen to good people.

 – We know death is coming for us all. We just forget.

 – Community at a time like this is a verb, rather than a gathering.

 – Meaning is what happens when we help each other.

 

There are many stories unfolding in my brain. The one I choose to tell is this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] M. Seligman (2018) The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, Sydney: Penguin Random House, 351.

[2] G. Burghardt (2005) The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 81.

[3] C. Whitehead (2008) “The neural correlates of work and play: what brain imaging research and animal cartoons can tell us about social displays, self-consciousness and the evolution of the human brain,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 15(10-11): 93-121.

[4] S. Bowers (2020) ‘Cocooning Q&A: How does it work? Who must do it?’ The Irish Times 29/03/2020.

[5] R. Rohr (2011) Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, London: SPCK; Gay’wu Group of Women (2019) Songspirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country Through Songlines, Sydney: Allen & Unwin; D. Cooper (1997) God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism, New York: Riverhead Books.

[6] Untitled poem written as a dedication to Leonie Zacharias, in Rilke (1976 [1921]), Saemtliche Werke Vol. 3, Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 246.

[7] S. Weinberg (1993 [1977]) The First Three Minutes, New York: Basic Books, 154.

[8] R. Dawkins (2006) The God Delusion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 162, 169-170.

[9] M. Seligman (2018) The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, Sydney: Penguin Random House, 370-376.

[10] From Majjhima Nikaya, Sutra 63, as cited in P. Novak (2003) Buddhism, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 27.

[11] V. Frankl (1992 [1959]) Man’s Search for Meaning: an introduction to logotherapy, trans. by I. Lasch, Boston: Beacon Press.

[12] R. Ellmann (1948) Yeats: The Man and the Masks, New York: Macmillan, 285.

[13] M. Seligman (2018) The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, Sydney: Penguin Random House, 386.