It has been over a month since we began to socially distance ourselves from the public life in Fort Worth. As I have gone on walks, most notably to see the interstate highway from an overpass that leads to Arlington Heights High School, I am simultaneously amazed and repulsed by the amount of cars on the highway. While there are noticeably fewer vehicles on the road, going from place to place, it is amazing that there are cars out there at all, save for the employees considered “essential,” either by the state government or any businesses with heavy ties to industry, or to direct-to-consumer ventures like Amazon, UPS, or the United States Postal Service.
This crisis has had a debilitating effect on what remained of the social safety net. Though of course as a reader of history, you likely well known of the neoliberal turn of economics, taking place since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which sought to dispel unions (the famous protestors of the Air Traffic Controllers), the gradual accumulation of wealth by older generations (the “okay boomer” movement paraded by my students), and the dual long con of the stagnation of wages, and the precipitous incline of inflation, consumer product prices, housing costs, and medical care.
But what may be our finest hour is in the recent protests. In many southern and midwest states, including our most rugged Texas, protesters are going out and fighting Governor Greg Abbott on stay-at-home measures, despite the fact that he and other politicians like Ron DeSantis, are alleviating their measures much sooner than experts recommend. While school for me remains online-only until the end of the school year, this will not stop businesses from eventually opening, and for beaches to have, according to CNN, Florida citizens “flock” to them, totally flouting the hard work that we spent so much time putting in.
What is going on here? You cannot protest a virus, so is there a deeper truth? Largely the answer has to do with the fact that America relies on individual liberties, whatever the cost, and the act of placing ourselves in the unenviable position of solitary confinement, much like the prisoners in maximum security. Our unitary goal of individualism in the face of imminent communal danger may turn out to be our downfall. While we have numbers of case-fatality ratios smaller than that of Italy and Spain, the number is slowly growing to supersede them. I was hoping for the United States to do what it did during World War II, which was to ration, make sacrifices, and dedicate themselves to a cause. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
The poor have already been dealt a heavy blow, and it is only likely to continue. Reports from the medical professionals on the front lines say that obesity is turning out to be a major cause for hospitalizations among young people contracting the coronavirus, and death in those older. Whether it has to do with visceral fat, meaning the kind that lines our organs, or it has to do with obesity being some ancillary category, where it simply highlights a lack of physical education, I do not know. Still, I find the time and energy to have a drink of whiskey and kahlua and half and half. It’s the blitz here, and when we do not have alcohol delivered, we spend our time rummaging through the pantry.
The combination of having my school work happen online and for my future goals and aspirations to take place on a computer as well (through writing), have not been easy. At one point last week, the amount of task switching from YouTube video of Ray Dalio discussing the economic future of a post-coronavirus world, combined with grading students assignments, combined with responding to their emails, as well as writing whatever it was I was working on, gave me such a bout of anxiety that I could not focus on anything, let alone the book I was reading
Enough was enough I thought, and so I turned to the very thing I thought I would NEVER do: meditation.
For years, I had heard of some impressive public intellectuals engage in meditation and speak to its benefits in attention and cognition. Yuval Noah Harrari mentioned it in his recent book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” as his final chapter. I skimmed through it and largely rolled my eyes. Ray Dalio described the benefits in such a polyamorous way that I scoffed at a YouTube video from IMPACT THEORY when he said that it allowed him to run his think tank.
But it wasn’t until these recent events and my appalling reaction to them that I took seriously the notion that I was no longer in control of my thoughts. And now I can see, while doing Vipassana mindfulness meditation, that perhaps I was never really in control in the first place. Our attention, and what our mind experiences, really is the only gateway we have into the sensory perceptions of this world, and it startles me now that I have seen the benefits, that we do not give this education to the young.
For many years I had instead gone to church, where we were encouraged to read stories and parables of the past, ultimately highlighting just how horrific and warped the past of humanity really was. Our lives, unfortunately are not stories, and the disdain I have for my church going days was that I had wasted many hours, when instead I could have wisely used that time developing the SKILL of mindfulness.
I always thought meditation was hippie and granola, a sort of Eastern trick that encouraged spirituality above all else, and it was some unifying principle that suggested that trees were rocks and people and by the time the sermon was over, the sound of the door slamming at the back of the temple was from me sprinting in whatever shoes I had put back on.
But Sam Harris is an atheist, and he is a neuroscientist and public intellectual who I had come to trust. He does not stoop down to partisan lines, and is equally cutting of both liberal and conservative, of both democrat and republican, and because of his dedication to empirical truth and science, I trusted him to guide me through meditation to see whether it was bullshit or not.
With only five days of the meditation app from Sam Harris on my phone, I have come to see that it is decidedly not bullshit, and is a sort of cure for boredom, for an unexamined life, and I can tell that I will benefit immensely from it in my creative work, and my careful attention to the people who surround me.
I have learned, however, that I am very bad at meditating, but like Harris says, it really is a skill, and it will take time to develop this skill into a cutting instrument. I will keep you posted.
This coronavirus is going to test each person and their willpower beyond anything else. Many of my students are watching Netflix ad nauseum, checking their phones like little rats in a Pavlovian experiment. They are slaves to their own bodies.
But there are others out there, the Isaac Newtons and the Shakespeares, doing the artistic work needed and using the time wisely.
What a strange time, but also what an equally exciting and fresh time. It opens up hitherto unknown barriers in the psyche, and it causes us to question our most deeply embedded intuitions of the world. I hope our country chooses wisely. I need our country to choose wisely.