CHARLES EISENSTEIN examines our current world in COVID-19 crisis, and looks at the questions we need to ask ourselves so that we can move forward into a new society. Here we offer excerpts from Charles’ essay.
You can read the full story at https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/the-coronation/.
For years, normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter, waiting for a nip of the black swan’s beak to snap it in two. Now that the rope has snapped, do we tie its ends back together, or shall we undo its dangling braids still further, to see what we might weave from them?
COVID-19 is showing us that when humanity is united in common cause, phenomenally rapid change is possible. None of the world’s problems are technically difficult to solve; they originate in human disagreement. In coherency, humanity’s creative powers are boundless. A few months ago, a proposal to halt commercial air travel would have seemed preposterous. Likewise for the radical changes we are making in our social behavior, economy, and the role of government in our lives. COVID demonstrates the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important. What else might we achieve in coherency? What do we want to achieve, and what world shall we create? That is always the next question when anyone awakens to their power.
COVID-19 is showing us that
when humanity is united in common cause,
phenomenally rapid change is possible.
COVID-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice. When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future.
We might ask, after so many have lost their jobs, whether all of them are the jobs the world most needs, and whether our labor and creativity would be better applied elsewhere.
We might ask, having done without it for a while, whether we really need so much air travel, Disneyworld vacations, or trade shows.
What parts of the economy will we want to restore, and what parts might we choose to let go of?
And on a darker note, what among the things that are being taken away right now – civil liberties, freedom of assembly, sovereignty over our bodies, in-person gatherings, hugs, handshakes, and public life – might we need to exert intentional political and personal will to restore?
For most of my life, I’ve had the feeling that humanity was nearing a crossroads. Always, the crisis, the collapse, the break was imminent, just around the bend, but it didn’t come and it didn’t come. Imagine walking a road, and up ahead you see it, you see the crossroads. It’s just over the hill, around the bend, past the woods. Cresting the hill, you see you were mistaken, it was a mirage, it was farther away than you thought. You keep walking. Sometimes it comes into view, sometimes it disappears from sight and it seems like this road goes on forever. Maybe there isn’t a crossroads. No, there it is again! Always it is almost here. Never is it here.
Now, all of a sudden, we go around a bend and here it is. We stop, hardly able to believe that now it is happening, hardly able to believe, after years of confinement to the road of our predecessors, that now we finally have a choice. We are right to stop, stunned at the newness of our situation. Because of the hundred paths that radiate out in front of us, some lead in the same direction we’ve already been headed. Some lead to hell on earth. And some lead to a world more healed and more beautiful than we ever dared believe to be possible.
I write these words with the aim of standing here with you – bewildered, scared maybe, yet also with a sense of new possibility – at this point of diverging paths. Let us gaze down some of them and see where they lead.
I heard this story last week from a friend. She was in a grocery store and saw a woman sobbing in the aisle. Flouting social distancing rules, she went to the woman and gave her a hug. “Thank you,” the woman said. “That is the first time anyone has hugged me for ten days.”
Going without hugs for a few weeks seems a small price to pay if it will stem an epidemic that could take millions of lives. There is a strong argument for social distancing in the near term, to prevent a sudden surge of COVID cases from overwhelming the medical system. I would like to put that argument in a larger context, especially as we look to the long term. Lest we institutionalize distancing and re-engineer society around it, let us be aware of what choice we are making and why.
COVID-19 is like a rehab intervention
that breaks the addictive hold of normality.
To interrupt a habit is to make it visible;
it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice.
The same goes for the other changes happening around the coronavirus epidemic. Some commentators have observed how it plays neatly into an agenda of totalitarian control. A frightened public accepts abridgments of civil liberties that are otherwise hard to justify, such as the tracking of everyone’s movements at all times, forcible medical treatment, involuntary quarantine, restrictions on travel and the freedom of assembly, censorship of what the authorities deem to be disinformation, suspension of habeas corpus, and military policing of civilians. Many of these were underway before COVID-19; since its advent, they have been irresistible.
The same goes for the automation of commerce; the transition from participation in sports and entertainment to remote viewing; the migration of life from public to private spaces; the transition away from place-based schools toward online education, the decline of bricks-and-mortar stores, and the movement of human work and leisure onto screens. COVID-19 is accelerating pre-existing trends, political, economic, and social.
While all the above are, in the short term, justified on the grounds of flattening the curve (the epidemiological growth curve), we are also hearing a lot about a “new normal”; that is to say, the changes may not be temporary. Since the threat of infectious disease, like the threat of terrorism, never goes away, control measures can easily become permanent. If we were going in this direction anyway, the current justification must be part of a deeper impulse.
I will analyze this impulse in two parts: the reflex of control, and the war on death. Thus understood, an initiatory opportunity emerges, one that we are seeing already in the form of the solidarity, compassion, and care that COVID-19 has inspired.
The reflex of control
At the current writing, official statistics say that about 25,000 people have died from COVID-19. By the time it runs its course, the death toll could be ten times or a hundred times bigger, or even, if the most alarming guesses are right, a thousand times bigger. Each one of these people has loved ones, family and friends. Compassion and conscience call us to do what we can to avert unnecessary tragedy. This is personal for me: my own infinitely dear but frail mother is among the most vulnerable to a disease that kills mostly the aged and the infirm. …
Whether the final global death toll is 50,000 or 500,000 or 5 million, let’s look at some other numbers to get some perspective. My point is not that COVID isn’t so bad and we shouldn’t do anything. Bear with me.
Last year, according to the FAO, five million children worldwide died of hunger (among 162 million who are stunted and 51 million who are wasted). That is 200 times more people than have died so far from COVID-19, yet no government has declared a state of emergency or asked that we radically alter our way of life to save them.
Nor do we see a comparable level of alarm and action around suicide – the mere tip of an iceberg of despair and depression – which kills over a million people a year globally and 50,000 in the USA.
Or drug overdoses, which kill 70,000 in the USA, the autoimmunity epidemic, which affects 23.5 million (NIH figure) to 50 million (AARDA), or obesity, which afflicts well over 100 million. Why, for that matter, are we not in a frenzy about averting nuclear Armageddon or ecological collapse, but, to the contrary, pursue choices that magnify those very dangers?
Please, the point here is not that we haven’t changed our ways to stop children from starving, so we shouldn’t change them for COVID either. It is the contrary: If we can change so radically for COVID-19, we can do it for these other conditions too. Let us ask why we are able to unify our collective will to stem this virus, but not to address other grave threats to humanity. Why, until now, has society been so frozen in its existing trajectory?
The answer is revealing. Simply, in the face of world hunger, addiction, autoimmunity, suicide, or ecological collapse, we as a society do not know what to do. Our go-to crisis responses, all of which are some version of control, aren’t very effective in addressing these conditions. Now along comes a contagious epidemic, and finally we can spring into action. It is a crisis for which control works: quarantines, lockdowns, isolation, hand-washing; control of movement, control of information, control of our bodies. That makes COVID a convenient receptacle for our inchoate fears, a place to channel our growing sense of helplessness in the face of the changes overtaking the world. COVID-19 is a threat that we know how to meet. Unlike so many of our other fears, COVID-19 offers a plan. …
What is truth?
Because COVID-19 seems to justify so many items on the totalitarian wish list, there are those who believe it to be a deliberate power play. It is not my purpose to advance that theory nor to debunk it. … The one thing I have learned through the course of this emergency is that I don’t really know what is happening.
I don’t see how anyone can amidst the seething farrago of news, fake news, rumors, suppressed information, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and politicized narratives that fill the Internet. I wish a lot more people would embrace not knowing. I say that both to those who embrace the dominant narrative, as well as to those who hew to dissenting ones. What information might we be blocking out, in order to maintain the integrity of our viewpoints? Let’s be humble in our beliefs: it is a matter of life and death.
The war on death
My 7-year-old son hasn’t seen or played with another child for two weeks. Millions of others are in the same boat. Most would agree that a month without social interaction for all those children is a reasonable sacrifice to save a million lives. But how about to save 100,000 lives? And what if the sacrifice is not for a month but for a year? Five years? Different people will have different opinions on that, according to their underlying values.
Let’s replace the foregoing questions with something more personal, that pierces the inhuman utilitarian thinking that turns people into statistics and sacrifices some of them for something else. The relevant question for me is: Would I ask all the nation’s children to forego play for a season, if it would reduce my mother’s risk of dying, or for that matter, my own risk? Or I might ask: Would I decree the end of human hugging and handshakes, if it would save my own life? This is not to devalue mom’s life or my own, both of which are precious. I am grateful for every day she is still with us. But these questions bring up deep issues. What is the right way to live? What is the right way to die?
The answer to such questions, whether asked on behalf of oneself or on behalf of society at large, depends on how we hold death and how much we value play, touch, and togetherness, along with civil liberties and personal freedom. There is no easy formula to balance these values. …
The mantra “safety first” comes from a value system that makes survival top priority, and that depreciates other values like fun, adventure, play, and the challenging of limits. Other cultures had different priorities. For instance, many traditional and indigenous cultures are much less protective of children, as documented in Jean Liedloff’s classic, The Continuum Concept. They allow them risks and responsibilities that would seem insane to most modern people, believing that this is necessary for children to develop self-reliance and good judgment. I think most modern people, especially younger people, retain some of this inherent willingness to sacrifice safety in order to live life fully. …
Understanding the self as a locus of
consciousness in a matrix of relationship,
one no longer searches for an enemy
as the key to understanding every problem,
but looks instead for imbalances in relationships.
The war on death gives way to the quest to
live well and fully, and we see that
fear of death is actually fear of life.
I asked a friend, a medical doctor who has spent time with the Q’ero in Peru, whether the Q’ero would (if they could) intubate someone to prolong their life. “Of course not,” she said. “They would summon the shaman to help him die well.” Dying well (which isn’t necessarily the same as dying painlessly) is not much in today’s medical vocabulary. No hospital records are kept on whether patients die well. That would not be counted as a positive outcome. In the world of the separate self, death is the ultimate catastrophe.
But is it? Consider this perspective from Dr. Lissa Rankin: “Not all of us would want to be in an ICU, isolated from loved ones with a machine breathing for us, at risk of dying alone – even if it means they might increase their chance of survival. Some of us might rather be held in the arms of loved ones at home, even if that means our time has come. … Remember, death is no ending. Death is going home.”
When the self is understood as relational, interdependent, even inter-existent, then it bleeds over into the other, and the other bleeds over into the self. Understanding the self as a locus of consciousness in a matrix of relationship, one no longer searches for an enemy as the key to understanding every problem, but looks instead for imbalances in relationships. The war on death gives way to the quest to live well and fully, and we see that fear of death is actually fear of life. How much of life will we forego to stay safe?
On the other side of the fear,
we can see the love that death liberates.
Let it pour forth.
Let it saturate the soil of our culture
and fill its aquifers
so that it seeps up through
the cracks of our crusted institutions,
our systems, and our habits.
… The assumption that public policy should seek to minimize the number of deaths is nearly beyond question, a goal to which other values like play, freedom, etc. are subordinate. COVID-19 offers occasion to broaden that view. Yes, let us hold life sacred, more sacred than ever. Death teaches us that. Let us hold each person, young or old, sick or well, as the sacred, precious, beloved being that they are. And in the circle of our hearts, let us make room for other sacred values too. To hold life sacred is not just to live long, it is to live well and right and fully.
Like all fear, the fear around the coronavirus hints at what might lie beyond it. Anyone who has experienced the passing of someone close knows that death is a portal to love. COVID-19 has elevated death to prominence in the consciousness of a society that denies it. On the other side of the fear, we can see the love that death liberates. Let it pour forth. Let it saturate the soil of our culture and fill its aquifers so that it seeps up through the cracks of our crusted institutions, our systems, and our habits. Some of these may die too.
What world shall we live in?
How much of life do we want to sacrifice at the altar of security? If it keeps us safer, do we want to live in a world where human beings never congregate? … COVID-19 will eventually subside, but the threat of infectious disease is permanent. Our response to it sets a course for the future. Public life, communal life, the life of shared physicality has been dwindling over several generations. Instead of shopping at stores, we get things delivered to our homes. Instead of packs of kids playing outside, we have play dates and digital adventures. Instead of the public square, we have the online forum. Do we want to continue to insulate ourselves still further from each other and the world? …
To reduce the risk of another pandemic, shall we choose to live in a society without hugs, handshakes, and high-fives, forever more? Shall we choose to live in a society where we no longer gather en masse? Shall the concert, the sports competition, and the festival be a thing of the past? Shall children no longer play with other children? Shall all human contact be mediated by computers and masks? No more dance classes, no more karate classes, no more conferences, no more churches? Is death reduction to be the standard by which to measure progress? Does human advancement mean separation? Is this the future?
The same question applies to the administrative tools required to control the movement of people and the flow of information. … For the first time in history, the technological means exist to realize such a vision, at least in the developed world (for example, using cellphone location data to enforce social distancing; see also here). After a bumpy transition, we could live in a society where nearly all of life happens online: shopping, meeting, entertainment, socializing, working, even dating. Is that what we want? How many lives saved is that worth? … After thousands of years, millions of years, of touch, contact, and togetherness, is the pinnacle of human progress to be that we cease such activities because they are too risky?
Life is community
The paradox of the program of control is that its progress rarely advances us any closer to its goal. Despite security systems in almost every upper middle class home, people are no less anxious or insecure than they were a generation ago. Despite elaborate security measures, the schools are not seeing fewer mass shootings. Despite phenomenal progress in medical technology, people have if anything become less healthy over the past thirty years, as chronic disease has proliferated and life expectancy stagnated and, in the USA and Britain, started to decline.
The measures being instituted to control COVID-19, likewise, may end up causing more suffering and death than they prevent. Minimizing deaths means minimizing the deaths that we know how to predict and measure. It is impossible to measure the added deaths that might come from isolation-induced depression, for instance, or the despair caused by unemployment, or the lowered immunity and deterioration in health that chronic fear can cause. Loneliness and lack of social contact have been shown to increase inflammation, depression, dementia. According to Lissa Rankin, M.D., air pollution increases the risk of dying by 6%, obesity by 23%, alcohol abuse by 37%, and loneliness by 45%. …
Even in diseases like COVID-19, in which we can name a pathogenic virus, matters are not so simple as a war between virus and victim. There is an alternative to the germ theory of disease that holds germs to be part of a larger process. When conditions are right, they multiply in the body, sometimes killing the host, but also, potentially, improving the conditions that accommodated them to begin with, for example by cleaning out accumulated toxic debris via mucus discharge, or (metaphorically speaking) burning them up with fever. Sometimes called “terrain theory,” it says that germs are more symptom than cause of disease. As one meme explains it: “Your fish is sick. Germ theory: isolate the fish. Terrain theory: clean the tank.” …
As the statistics I offered earlier on autoimmunity, obesity, etc. indicate, America and the modern world in general are facing a health crisis. Is the answer to do what we’ve been doing, only more thoroughly? The response so far to COVID has been to double down on the orthodoxy and sweep unconventional practices and dissenting viewpoints aside. Another response would be to widen our lens and examine the entire system, including who pays for it, how access is granted, and how research is funded, but also expanding out to include marginal fields like herbal medicine, functional medicine, and energy medicine. Perhaps we can take this opportunity to reevaluate prevailing theories of illness, health, and the body. Yes, let’s protect the sickened fish as best we can right now, but maybe next time we won’t have to isolate and drug so many fish, if we can clean the tank.
There is an alternative to the paradise of perfect control that our civilization has so long pursued, and that recedes as fast as our progress, like a mirage on the horizon. Yes, we can proceed as before, down the path toward greater insulation, isolation, domination, and separation. We can normalize heightened levels of separation and control, believe that they are necessary to keep us safe, and accept a world in which we are afraid to be near each other. Or we can take advantage of this pause, this break in normal, to turn onto a path of reunion, of holism, of the restoring of lost connections, of the repair of community and the rejoining of the web of life.
We can take advantage of this pause,
this break in normal,
to turn onto a path of reunion, of holism,
of the restoring of lost connections,
of the repair of community
and the rejoining of the web of life.
Do we double down on protecting the separate self, or do we accept the invitation into a world where all of us are in this together? It isn’t just in medicine we encounter this question: it visits us politically, economically, and in our personal lives as well. Take for example the issue of hoarding, which embodies the idea, “There won’t be enough for everyone, so I am going to make sure there is enough for me.” Another response might be, “Some don’t have enough, so I will share what I have with them.” Are we to be survivalists or helpers? What is life for?
On a larger scale, people are asking questions that have until now lurked on activist margins. What should we do about the homeless? What should we do about the people in prisons? In Third World slums? What should we do about the unemployed? What about all the hotel maids, the Uber drivers, the plumbers and janitors and bus drivers and cashiers who cannot work from home? And so now, finally, ideas like student debt relief and universal basic income are blossoming. “How do we protect those susceptible to COVID?” invites us into “How do we care for vulnerable people in general?”
That is the impulse that stirs in us, regardless of our opinions about COVID’s severity, origin, or best policy to address it. It is saying, let’s get serious about taking care of each other. Let’s remember how precious we all are and how precious life is. Let’s take inventory of our civilization, strip it down to its studs, and see if we can build one more beautiful.
As COVID stirs our compassion, more and more of us realize that we don’t want to go back to a normal so sorely lacking it. We have the opportunity now to forge a new, more compassionate normal.
Hopeful signs abound that this is happening. The United States government has unleashed hundreds of billions of dollars in direct payments to families. Donald Trump has put a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. Both these developments embody the principle of caring for the vulnerable.
From all over the world we hear stories of solidarity and healing. One friend described sending $100 each to ten strangers who were in dire need. My son, who until a few days ago worked at Dunkin’ Donuts, said people were tipping at five times the normal rate – and these are working class people, many of them Hispanic truck drivers, who are economically insecure themselves. Doctors, nurses, and “essential workers” in other professions risk their lives to serve the public. …
As Rebecca Solnit describes in her marvelous book, A Paradise Built in Hell, disaster often liberates solidarity. A more beautiful world shimmers just beneath the surface, bobbing up whenever the systems that hold it underwater loosen their grip.
For a long time we, as a collective, have stood helpless in the face of an ever-sickening society. Whether it is declining health, decaying infrastructure, depression, suicide, addiction, ecological degradation, or concentration of wealth, the symptoms of civilizational malaise in the developed world are plain to see, but we have been stuck in the systems and patterns that cause them. Now, COVID has gifted us a reset.
A million forking paths lie before us. Universal basic income could mean an end to economic insecurity and the flowering of creativity as millions are freed from the work that COVID has shown us is less necessary than we thought. Or it could mean, with the decimation of small businesses, dependency on the state for a stipend that comes with strict conditions. The crisis could usher in totalitarianism or solidarity; medical martial law or a holistic renaissance; greater fear of the microbial world, or greater resiliency in participation in it; permanent norms of social distancing, or a renewed desire to come together.
What can guide us, as individuals and as a society, as we walk the garden of forking paths? At each junction, we can be aware of what we follow: fear or love, self-preservation or generosity. Shall we live in fear and build a society based on it? Shall we live to preserve our separate selves? Shall we use the crisis as a weapon against our political enemies? These are not all-or-nothing questions, all fear or all love. It is that a next step into love lies before us. It feels daring, but not reckless. It treasures life, while accepting death. And it trusts that with each step, the next will become visible.
The time of Reunion is here.
Every act of compassion, kindness, courage,
or generosity heals us from the story of separation,
because is assures both actor
and witness that we are in this together.
Please don’t think that choosing love over fear can be accomplished solely through an act of will, and that fear too can be conquered like a virus. … Fear, along with addiction, depression, and a host of physical ills, flourishes in a terrain of separation and trauma: inherited trauma, childhood trauma, violence, war, abuse, neglect, shame, punishment, poverty, and the muted, normalized trauma that affects nearly everyone who lives in a monetized economy, undergoes modern schooling, or lives without community or connection to place. This terrain can be changed, by trauma healing on a personal level, by systemic change toward a more compassionate society, and by transforming the basic narrative of separation: the separate self in a world of other, me separate from you, humanity separate from nature.
To be alone is a primal fear, and modern society has rendered us more and more alone. But the time of Reunion is here. Every act of compassion, kindness, courage, or generosity heals us from the story of separation, because is assures both actor and witness that we are in this together.
I will conclude by invoking one more dimension of the relationship between humans and viruses. Viruses are integral to evolution, not just of humans but of all eukaryotes. Viruses can transfer DNA from organism to organism, sometimes inserting it into the germline (where it becomes heritable). Known as horizontal gene transfer, this is a primary mechanism of evolution, allowing life to evolve together much faster than is possible through random mutation. As Lynn Margulis once put it, we are our viruses.
And now let me venture into speculative territory. Perhaps the great diseases of civilization have quickened our biological and cultural evolution, bestowing key genetic information and offering both individual and collective initiation. Could the current pandemic be just that? Novel RNA codes are spreading from human to human, imbuing us with new genetic information; at the same time, we are receiving other esoteric “codes” that ride the back of the biological ones, disrupting our narratives and systems in the same way that an illness disrupts bodily physiology. The phenomenon follows the template of initiation: separation from normality, followed by a dilemma, breakdown, or ordeal, followed (if it is to be complete) by reintegration and celebration.
The coronation marks the emergence
of the unconscious into consciousness,
the crystallization of chaos into order,
the transcendence of compulsion into choice.
We become the rulers of that which had ruled us.
Now the question arises: Initiation into what? What is the specific nature and purpose of this initiation? The popular name for the pandemic offers a clue: coronavirus. A corona is a crown. “Novel coronavirus pandemic” means “a new coronation for all.”
Already we can feel the power of who we might become. A true sovereign does not run in fear from life or from death. A true sovereign does not dominate and conquer (that is a shadow archetype, the Tyrant). The true sovereign serves the people, serves life, and respects the sovereignty of all people. The coronation marks the emergence of the unconscious into consciousness, the crystallization of chaos into order, the transcendence of compulsion into choice. We become the rulers of that which had ruled us. The new world order that conspiracy theorists fear is a shadow of the glorious possibility available to sovereign beings. No longer the vassals of fear, we can bring order to the kingdom and build an intentional society on the love already shining through the cracks of the world of separation.
These excerpts are reprinted with permission from the author.
Article by CHARLES EISENSTEIN
May 31, 2020
May 31, 2020
May 31, 2020