It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine — R.E.M.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine — R.E.M.


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

In the time of COVID-19 we see fellow humans stocking up on toilet paper and hand cleanser, and too many trying to capitalize on the crisis by re-selling. But we also see humans rising to new ethical heights, choosing to self-distance and self-isolate for the sake of neighbours and friends. We see national leaders in total denial for political reasons and others creating financial packages to soften the blow for their people. There’s the usual cancel-culture nonsense on Facebook, the shaming of those who are deemed to be veering from consensus. But even more are deepening into compassion for how vulnerable we are as a species. Many are choosing to see the upside of this, the potential awakening of our species. Others exploit it in support of misanthropic assumptions. The best of times, the worst of times.

An invisible virus has brought humans to our knees, and life as we know it to a standstill—let’s call it a Sabbath, a time when humans take a pause and a sober second look at how we are proceeding.  The future seems to depend on whether we’ll decide collectively stay there, (on our knees, that is, and at rest long enough to allow humility to shape our choices as a species from this point forward). The root of humility is humus—to be of the earth. In the context of this global awakening the illusion that we are separate from each other and the earth is collapsing. The virus travels the globe without a passport, visiting the rich and poor alike (alas killing predominantly the poor and the aged). But even this rallies the spirit to justice.

In short, we are living in apocalyptic times. The word means “an unveiling or revealing”.

Geek alert.

New Testament scholars came up with a really big name for Jesus’ brand of apocalypse: sapiential eschatology. I’ll wait while you sound it out. 🙂 (Like I did when I first read it)  It means the ending of one world (actually a worldview) and the beginning of a new one because of subversive wisdom. Jesus did announce the end of a world, but it was a world where greed triumphed over justice, and violence over ethics; he announced an end to hoarding wealth and calling the wealthy to account for how they held so tight to their kingdoms; he proclaimed a year of the jubilee, a Jewish idea that anything we think belongs to us should be returned to the commons every 50 years or so. What was he smoking! Or maybe he slipped some funny fungi into the wine?

What new kind of world, new human, new wisdom could be birthed from this crisis? Well, that we are part of one, large organic process rising and falling together. We are that process in the shape and consciousness of humans. But so is COVID 19. This single, differentiated organism paradigm is why the language of “threat” may not be helpful. It’s a balancing act and if we are out of balance, we’re going to get sick.

Neither this virus, nor the gazillion of other viruses on Earth, are out to get us. It is not “attacking” us. That language just scares us. It sends us scurrying to Cosco to clean out the shelves and keeps us stuck in Human 1.0.  We co-exist with viruses, and bacteria, and fungi and over millions of years we figured out how to live together. It’s going to take awhile to figure out how to live with this one. The birth of ecological intelligence in humans represent a possible massive upgrade to the Human. We cannot function independent of the ecosystem any longer. When we encroach on the ecosystems of animals, their viruses are going to jump over to our domain. And we’re going to get sick. But what incredible intelligence is at play between our immune systems and viruses! While we’re waiting for the symbiosis to kick in, yes, wash your hands. And grieve for those who have died and will die.

As a psychotherapist, my version of the new human includes a trauma-aware human —a species that is aware of how trauma affects our nervous systems, and causes us to collapse into helplessness, over function, or freeze in the face of perceived catastrophe. The best thing that we could teach ourselves is how to relax and breathe. We’re not in control. And that’s okay. We can still relax. And make better decisions. We’re all going to die. That’s okay and we can still relax. And make better decisions.

Have you noticed how different experts, from epidemiologists to micro-biologists, weigh in on the virus? I mean their tone.  Some convey calm and perspective, and some convey fear. It doesn’t matter how many letters one has behind her or his name. If a nervous system is on high alert, the same information is going to be communicated in ways that frighten or calm.  Trauma affects both how information is conveyed and received. We can’t control how it’s being transmitted. But we can be mindful of how we are receiving the information. Do we revert to denial and convey a false calm? This is not relaxation, it’s how we learned to respond to trauma. Do we get on a soapbox and self-righteously demand that everybody must do more? This is not taking responsibility, it’s dealing with trauma by readying ourselves for a fight. Do we find ourselves collapsing, feeling helpless and hopeless? Ask yourself if this where you typically go in the face of a challenge. Again, it could be your your learned default in the face of violence or neglect when you were young. None of this is our fault. But it is our responsibility to bring it to awareness and calm our nervous systems down.

I’ll bring this to an end. But I’ll leave you with a meditation that my wife came up with and that we’re doing these days. This is the shortened version. The name “corona” means crown. Imagine a crown of light surrounding first you, then your family, then your home, then your city and then the whole planet. Rest in the light, in the light that you are and in the light out of which everything, including this virus, arises. Breathe, 2,3, 4, exhale 2,3,4. Oh, and wash your hands. 🙂

Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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