As we experience the disruptions of a pandemic and uncertainties about the future, there is an opportunity to reimagine our current systems, ones which we have known to be broken for a long time.
We asked writer Kelly Bartholomeusz to deep dive into her experiences during COVID-19. From the second lockdown in Melbourne, here are Kelly’s musings about feeling versus acting, hope and navigating complexity, in building a better world.
It is now August, and soon I will need two hands to count the months that have passed in this dance between holding pattern and crisis response, between hope and dread. I’ve become intimately familiar with my home and its surrounding streets. I’ve seen seeds turn into plants and trees shed their leaves, slowly turning from green to red, from brown to nothing. I’ve watched the oranges that overhang the laneway ripen and disappear. At the park down the street, red and white plastic tape is knotted around the play equipment for the second time now. Two swings hang from a clown-like face, the incongruence of its manic smile and panicked eyes mirroring the feeling of knife’s-edge surrealness that permeates everything. This is a new experience for many of us, a murky period of prolonged uncertainty that is challenging our collective narrative of instant elasticity. We are all grasping for solid ground, unsure of how or where to find it. In the midst of this, there is also a glimmer of hope: that this crisis might be the catalyst that pushes us into a better world.
Since the pandemic brought entire countries to a standstill, there has been speculation about whether, following the crisis, we will retreat quickly to our “old ways” of corporate corruption and mindless consumption, or use the opportunity to forge a “new world”. It’s an interesting question and in many ways a worthwhile one, but I’m particularly struck by the way in which these alternatives are presented as a dichotomy: an outdated, greedy, capitalist reality versus a shimmering new utopia, which will only be won through the grit and determination of a “fight”. We’ve spent our lives being conditioned to view every challenge as a war or fight: against drugs, communism, terrorism, fascism, crime, climate change, bushfires. We’re all familiar with the fight and what it implicitly requires of us. Anger, fervour, sacrifice, devotion, stoicism. I’ve been wondering if this well-intentioned vision is equally limited by the language of the oppression and violence it seeks to address - a vision that, defined in opposition to a crisis, is still ultimately enacting it. Philosopher Bayo Akomolafe describes this as a “crisis of form”, an inability to see outside the dominant narrative, even in attempts to challenge it. “Activism is increasingly instrumental. It’s performing a form of power that is tied to the logic and algorithm of the status quo, which makes activism, even in its search for justice, a creature of the status quo. Which makes hope and justice, as ironic as that sounds, creatures of the things we’re trying to leave behind.” In our desensitisation to the language of the “fight”, we neglect to question what that language is obscuring. In fight, like in flight, there is no time to pause or reflect. In our fight against the “old world”, do we know what our new one looks like, or who we as individuals and communities would want to be within it? Perhaps the myth of the “noble battle” obscures the need for something nobler and quieter: slowing down to heal and to more deeply address the origins of our impatient, inequitable, insatiably consumerist societies.
Much of modern western life is designed to distract and fragment our inner worlds, leaving us disconnected from ourselves and our communities in ways that are painful yet difficult to name. Often, rather than pausing to reflect on our fraught relationships with ourselves and our environments, we cover over the anxiety and disconnection with more distraction. Society rewards this in myriad ways. Over the past months I have effectively been stripped of many of my distractions of choice, leaving me with the time and space to examine my mental reflexes and my relationship to the world around me. It’s been uncomfortable and surprising. I am learning about the shortcuts my brain takes to figure out what to think about things, often laden with assumptions and oversimplifications. I am beginning to understand how often thinking and acting are bottle corks for feeling, which is the work that I, like many others, most need to do. I’m starting to see how often I define my hopes for the future by what I don’t want, rather than what I do want. I’ve realised that many of the ways I am responding to the pandemic are not isolated thoughts and behaviours but the programming of past traumas, both personal and societal.
Our inner worlds and subtler feelings are slowly becoming more difficult to access, even inside our own homes. Technologically, we are living in a time of amplification and opposition. The architecture of the internet and social media has flattened the self into a series of outward gestures and projections, and elevated the value of a swiftly and decisively formed opinion. Opinions, particularly divisive ones, generate engagement that can be monetised by platforms. We are essentially being provoked, over and over, and we have been conditioned to respond to that provocation with performance. This performance is rewarded with attention and met with counter-performance. There is little vulnerability in a rigid opinion, no liminality, no fluidity. Interestingly, we appear to be equally disgusted and intrigued by predictions that we may one day live as computers, our thoughts and memories stored online. We seem less interested, though, in the ways in which the internet is becoming a part of us: the flattening of nuance and the devaluing of self-reflection, the reflexive need to loudly profess an opinion in order to validate oneself as relevant.
I’m guilty of all of this. I’m attempting to develop a new reflex, which is to look inward before I look outward: to find the root of my judgment or righteousness, which is often rooted in my own guilt, fear or shame. We all tend to think that we are better than the pack mentality, but history has proven this untrue. Many of the world’s most horrific human rights abuses have occurred with an astonishing degree of societal complicity. Though its outcomes may be less dangerous, this pack mentality exists even in our liberal communities. Essayist Jia Tolentino writes, “Having a mutual enemy is a quick way to make a friend – we learn this as early as elementary school – and politically, it’s much easier to organize people against something than it is to unite them in an affirmative vision.” Regardless of our intentions, it might be time for us to ask ourselves whether we want to operate in this space of amplification and provocation, and to think about the places from which this reactivity diverts our energy.
All good chefs emphasise the quality of ingredients as critical to the quality of the meal they produce. It is the unavoidable truth of pretty much everything: what goes in is what comes out, and there is no way to completely conceal this reality. There has, necessarily and justifiably, been a push toward the de-individualisation of our global problems, and a holding to account of corporations. Accordingly, we tend to see ourselves as merely bystanders at worst, and prisoners at best, of a corrupt system. But there are many ways in which we are active agents of this system, embedding its reach and solidifying its grip through our collective lack of reflection and imagination. It’s easier to complain about a politician’s latest statement than it is to pause and to fully feel the artifice of our lives: massive personal debt as the key to “stability”, long weeks of sedentary work that damages bodies, legally sanctioned extortion of resource-rich low-income countries, and the mass destruction of our environment for overindulgent lifestyles. It’s painful to deeply feel and process our world. It’s simpler to partake passively in this system and channel our grief into rage directed at public targets. Our systems shape the dominant narrative, but most of us retain agency over the extent to which we live within its confines. Can we successfully create a better world when we don’t like ourselves? Can we build an intelligent and generative society when we refuse to push ourselves beyond the socially condoned but creatively limiting attack-defend binary?
In the context of urgent social and environmental challenges, the idea of pausing can feel counterintuitive and self-indulgent. Why would we pause and turn inward when those perpetuating inequity and destruction will not do the same? In her book, Radical Acceptance, clinical psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach presents an illuminating metaphor. “In bullfighting there is an interesting parallel to the pause as a place of refuge and renewal. It is believed that in the midst of a fight, a bull can find his own particular area of safety in the arena. There he can reclaim his strength and power,” she writes. “This place and inner state are called his querencia. As long as the bull remains enraged and reactive, the matador is in charge. Yet when he finds his querencia, he gathers his strength and loses his fear. From the matador's perspective, at this point the bull is truly dangerous, for he has tapped into his power.” Though it’s another “fight” metaphor, it is illustrative of the role of the pause. In a sense, we are the bull: dragged into an arena, the terms already decided. But we can change the terms. When we talk so often about a different world, why does it remain an amorphous concept? Why don’t we seem to be able to imagine beyond tweaks to capitalist systems, removal of particularly despotic leaders and the largely unchanged continuation of our individual day-to-day lives? Is this a different world, or version 2.0 of our current one, a band-aid borne of a dissociative inability to imagine? If we truly felt the pain and artifice of our current reality, what would we allow ourselves to create?
With millions suffering around the world, it would be hurtful and naive to describe this period of enforced slowness as an antidote to society’s problems. It’s also important to remember that with many communities whose literal survival is in jeopardy, the post-pandemic stakes are not the same for all. But for those of us who have the material security and emotional space, we have an opportunity to pause; to meet ourselves and to find our querencia. By understanding the many ways in which we’ve been conditioned to operate, we can find more space to create. In creativity there is resilience and abundance, but while we operate on a fearful and reactive autopilot, our creations will always be tethered to the limitations of our existing frameworks. Addressing injustice is essential, but perhaps it can only be done meaningfully and sustainably when we are also exploring, in tandem, the ways in which we as individuals oppress and limit ourselves – the ways in which we buy into the reality we seek to shift. How do we begin to move away from the language and frameworks of violence in responding to challenges? How do we begin to define our future in affirmative rather than oppositional terms? How do we generate something that is not a watery reflection of our current world, but something we haven’t seen or been before? I don’t know the answers, but I know that we won’t uncover them until we first ask the questions.
Kelly Bartholomeusz is a writer, community development worker and communications specialist living in Melbourne. She enjoys swimming in rivers, learning about outer space and coming up with great(/terrible) band names. You can read more about her and her work at kellybartholomeusz.com.