I don’t know how else to describe it except by saying I feel like things are on edge. It was something I felt again very powerfully this morning, the kind of depression that descends on you and leaves you heavily curtained in, with little room out for hope or optimism and in which all things are clearly delineated in that gloomy mood. For me, however, it has less to do with my own internal emotional workings than in an understanding of the world around me.
Maybe it’s just that ever since I was a kid I learned to look around me to explain what I felt inside. I found myself profoundly affected by events, relationships, politics and history around me. If it was a coping mechanism it seems to have worked.
In part, it worked because I always saw some hope or some inspiration in the world that could provide more stable answers and outcomes than I alone could possibly manage. This is why I think that government can be made to work and that we are much better off when it does than when it does not.
Right now it’s not coming close. And worse, yet, than the government finding itself overmatched by an invidious pandemic is the fact that institutions designed to help or at least to mitigate disaster have been dismantled, silenced, shamed and relegated to pariah status. How else to explain that we have as a country learned apparently nothing about implementing basic social measures of distancing, masking and taking precautions. We simply wasted three months. All of that sheltering in place was supposed to get us to a point where things would start to improve, if slowly. Instead, we just delayed the inevitable reckoning with the virus. Three months for naught, 120,000 dead and it’s not like we have “won” anything or secured any stable ground through that tragedy.
Science and medicine told us one thing and certain politicians mocked that for the inconvenience those measures entailed. Now it’s precisely those states that opened up early – or that never really closed at all – that are the scenes of the worst infection rates.
No one is immune to the effects, though obviously their impacts spread very unequally across society and they deepen the inequality that was already there. Unemployment, crippling debt, isolation, severe cabin fever and anxiety all cut deeply. No wonder therapists and psychiatrists report being busier than ever. And for those without access to such help, there is simply an intensified daily routine with too much responsibility for schooling kids, shopping and looking after parents, all while sleeping less than ever.
I don’t think there’s been enough attention focused on the emotional self-discipline needed to ride this thing out. All of us face our own stressors. It requires a considerable level of monitoring and mindfulness not to be overwhelmed on a regular basis.
In our heavily medicated society the temptations offered by mood stabilizers and other prescribed interventions are understandable, maybe even tempting. So, too, the fleeting emotional salve embodied in liquor, marijuana or more serious drugs. Personally, I prefer to address my anxieties by confronting directly what I can render open and public about them. I’m not naïve enough to think that all of my issues are caused by external circumstances. We all have a certain different level of predisposition to volatility. And while I can keep an eye on that for telltale signs I also think it helpful to look around outside my narrow self and see the context and times in which life chances and opportunities circulate. It’s my version of putting things in context.
It’s been quite the year in which to try to sensibly preserve one’s equanimity. It’s hard to believe that we started 2020 assuming that impeachment would be the big story. That quickly gave way to the pandemic, and after that, to a level of public concern over police brutality and deep-seated racism that has transformed our entire political culture. All of it has taken place under the shadow of massive unemployment and economic stagnation. No sector of the economy has been left untouched. Nor can any of those businesses look forward to a near-term future that resembles anything like the recent past. Sports, education, work life, shopping, eating out, theater: all of it is upside down and uncertain to return to a semblance of previous incarnation.
It doesn’t help the tenor of public discourse that a substantial part of the populace – perhaps as much as a fifth of those voices opinions and voting – seem determined to disavow basic elements of science, history and human respect for diversity. How else to explain the venom directed at medical experts, or the proliferation of reactionary symbols like Confederate flags and lingering racial stereotypes, or the way in which small, highly mobilized gangs of faux-patriots drape themselves in arms and pretend to defend freedom through threats of violence
For all of the unrest and “churn” evident today I take great solace in the ability of most people to be decent, empathetic and understandable. The civil tone of the vast majority of the Black Lives matter protests affirms that. I keep hoping that decency will come to prevail over some of those wedded to reactionary ideas of race, gender and culture. Of course without the rule of law applying equally to all none of this is possible. This, perhaps most frighteningly of all, is precisely what is under attack – with the fight being led from within precisely those courts and agencies (like the Department of Justice) that are supposed to guarantee equality before the law.
I can’t separate my own emotional volatility from the pubic volatility we face on many fronts. It would help if we had leadership that didn’t seek to exploit differences by trying even harder to divide us. Not that I believe that some homogenous national unity is possible. We are too complex a society for that. But it’s precisely the regard for the beauty and artistry of all those differences that gives me, and I hope others, a way to find solid ground rather than to teeter on the edge.