The indivisible grayness of COVID (or: how can we go back to work without going back to the way things were?)

I read this article in WIRED today, sent to me by the lovely and thoughtful Laura, and found much of it resonating. It’s becoming more and more common (thankfully) to discuss the use of this weird COVID time to reevaluate our lives. Many people now have recited the adage “don’t waste a good crisis,” myself included, and while our brothers and sisters on the front line continue to wage war, the rest of us have what is for the first time looking like a finite window to get out of this thing whatever lesson we’re going to take from it.

But despite the increasing frequency of the question on my Zoom calls the world over, a clear answer eludes us.

What lesson are we supposed to learn?

As David Foster Wallace examined in his famous commencement address This Is Water (which I have never quoted more in daily life and therefore surely has never been more relevant), we all live in a society which, far from objective, actually has very real and influential opinions about how things ought to be. We’re all swimming in water with uniquely American characteristics to which we conform with minimal question and about which, were we asked about it two months ago, we would have been completely blind.

From where I’m sitting, COVID has given us the opportunity to step out of the water for a moment. And looking back, we can now see those characteristics clearly, in all their unnecessary, manufactured usefulness/manipulation (depending on your perspective).

As they told me in AA, “the first step is admitting there is a problem.” It seems to me that, increasingly, we now see problems wrapped within the water in which we’ve been swimming, but the specifics around those problems differ drastically depending on our perspective.

Albert Einstein famously said: “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” So before we jump to solving anything, perhaps it’s worth examining what problem is actually worth solving.

From one perspective, we see the economic toll this has taken on the economy, and we feel personally impacted via our work and the accompanying trappings (finances, savings, maybe purpose for some of us). We have less money, less security (or at least a less sustainable illusion of it), and generally it feels like we just need to get everybody back to work to return things to normal.

Harvard Business Review focused on the question:

Millions of Americans — especially those who have been most impoverished by the forced shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic — want to return to work. But with the Trump administration now urging Americans to stay at home until May 1 and the likelihood that a vaccine against the disease won’t be widely available for 12 to 18 months, how can we safely make that happen?

Or stated more colorfully by perhaps the most successful entrepreneur alive Elon Musk:

“To say that they cannot leave their house and they will be arrested if they do, this is fascist. This is not democratic, this is not freedom, give people back their god damn freedom…Free America Now!”

From this side, we’re being held back from living the productive lives we want, and exercising our freedom to move about, have experiences, work hard and buy stuff. I empathize. I would like to leave my house, play basketball and make money. I like money. And I also own a business, which is facing literal death due to the shutdown of schools and sports which no broken PPP program has yet addressed, which would have an immense impact on people through loss of income. We need to get people back to work. I’m on board.

But from the other side the same crisis looks vastly different. We see the way we’ve been living our lives in constant busyness, convinced unquestioningly that if we just hustle harder, or wake up earlier, or self optimize more, we’ll finally be safe, secure and happy. But:

The idea that hustling can save you from calamity is an article of faith, not fact—and the Covid-19 pandemic is starting to shake the collective faith in individual striving. The doctrine of “workism” places the blame for global catastrophe squarely on the individual: If you can’t get a job because jobs aren’t there, you must be lazy, or not hustling hard enough. That’s the story that young and young-ish people tell themselves, even as we’ve spent the whole of our brief, broke working lives paying for the mistakes of the old, rich, and stupid. We internalized the collective failures of the ruling class as personal failings that could be fixed by working smarter, or harder, or both—because that, at least, meant that we might be able to fix them ourselves.

The cult of productivity doesn’t have an answer for this crisis. Self-optimizing will not save us this time, although saying so feels surprisingly blasphemous. This isn’t happening because you didn’t work hard enough, and it won’t be fixed by optimizing your morning routines and adopting a can-do attitude. After the quarantine, after we count the lives lost or ruined, recession is coming. A big one. For millennials, it’s the second devastating economic calamity in our short working lives, and we’re still carrying the trauma of the first. This time, though, we know it’s not our fault. This time it’s abundantly clear that we didn’t deserve it. And this is exactly the sort of crisis that gives people ideas about overturning the social order.

In writing this it’s tempting to try to polarize this paradox — to analyze which type of people see the crisis in which terms, and segment them into clean buckets. It’s tempting to say, “so which is it?”

Is it political, meaning one’s perspective correlates to her leanings, either republican or democrat? Is it generational, as the writer seems to allude, and we’re really talking about a culture war between the old and rich and the young and used? Is it the one percent versus the proletariat? Something else?

It’s so tempting to try to create these buckets because understanding it makes it feel a bit more under control. Even though we haven’t yet been able to fix partisan politics, the fact that we can talk about it in terms we mutually understand feels like progress. We want to feel like we’re making progress here, too.

But it also makes it easier to stop thinking. Creating buckets of thought in this way clarifies the right way of seeing things, and creates an Other–a group of people who hold the Wrong View. It separates a gray area into black and white components and, with the view-holder obviously vindicated as correct, empowers us to think only of how to convince those on the other side, rather than wrestle with the ambiguity of the actual problem.

Near as I can tell, the problem presented by COVID, and the accompanying lessons offered, are, like politics, uncomfortably gray. Focusing our efforts on understanding and solving for the gray seems infinitely more worthwhile than repeatedly pointing out the fact that within the gray are black and white components, and trying to solve for which is superior.

It is difficult for me to believe that any human can believe something that is 100% false, with no truth or value to it whatsoever. Nothing in life is that binary. It seems as though both must be true, to one degree or another, and the question really comes down to: what must be so, such that the core of both viewpoints can be considered true, on their own terms? What is the greater whole, of which each viewpoint is a part?

One way of phrasing it might be: “How can we go back to work, but not back to the way things were?”

I wonder if that’s not the problem worth solving.

And I don’t think I’m the only one.
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