The emergence of this virus should remind us that uncertainty remains intrinsic to the human condition.
In the early days of collapse research, myriad questions about the future pervaded the collapse-aware community: When will collapse happen? How will it happen? Will it be fast or slow? Where is the safest place to live? How many people will die? How many people will live?
As attention turned from an exclusive interest in the collapse of industrial civilization toward climate chaos and the extinction of species, the same questions were asked again, but more desperately.
Today, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, these questions seem almost laughable because if the pandemic has proven anything it is that certainty is its most notable victim. Perhaps nothing is more unknown than the virus itself. Yes, a panoply of scientists can offer a few specific facts, but the virus seems to be what Winston Churchill described as “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Can any reality be more disconcerting for the Western mind, spawned from a scientific revolution that declared that the human mind can (and should) know or be able to figure out anything and everything?
This may be the single-most perplexing actuality of the virus which, like climate catastrophe and potential human extinction, catapults us instantly into an existential arena.
And now we sit with countless questions about the future: How long will this last? “This,” meaning quarantine, social distancing, the cancellation of much of our lives. What will be the consequences of a something like a nuclear bomb detonated in our local and national economies? What will happen when already-fragile food supply and distribution systems collapse? Will the healthcare system totally collapse under the weight of the Corona crisis? Will the educational system disintegrate as students lose interest in online learning and college-age students refuse to enroll in higher education because no one in their right mind would go thousands of dollars into debt for a degree in a field that may no longer exist? Will religion collapse because brick and mortar worship no longer exists? Will the criminal justice and judicial systems collapse because pandemic after pandemic renders incarceration lethal for everyone involved with it?
The absolute reality of these questions is that no one can answer them with certainty.
Question: So, will collapse be fast or slow?
Each collapse and mini-collapse presents an opportunity for creating a more just, equitable, and compassionate world. In fact, two months ago, who would have understood or believed this quote from the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook Group?
Quarantine has turned us all into bread-baking, skill-sharing, socialist gardeners who check in on the elderly, help neighbors in need, advocate for strong social safety nets, finally get why all humans deserve to be well-rewarded for their skill set regardless of how “basic” society views the job (hi, essential worker you are suddenly a hero) and understand that the well-being of one impacts the health of the whole? And y’all want to go back to normal?
I wish this were the whole story, but it isn’t. At the same time that these glorious responses are erupting, we have people in the streets protesting social distancing and stay-at-home orders because they consider getting their roots done, making numerous trips to Home Depot in a week, and drinking beer in a baseball stadium with 6,000 other people their God-given right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We even have a U.S Senator, John Kennedy, telling us that we’ve got to open the economy even though we know that more people will be infected by the virus. “When we end the shutdown, the virus is going to spread faster,” Kennedy acknowledged. “That’s just a fact. And the American people understand that.”
Really? We understand that the economy is more important than human life? This from a supposedly “pro-life” icon? Oh that’s right, the only human lives that matter are fetuses.
A friend regularly tells me that people are crazy. Although I know this to be true, I recently understood the statement on a deeper level after speaking with another friend who reminded me that the United States has weathered three major traumas in four years. In 2018 and 2019, the bone-rattling reality of potential near-term human extinction became a widely-acknowledged fact instead of the fever dream of mad scientists. In 2019 and 2020, we weathered the impeachment hearings and the trial of Donald Trump, in addition to the multitudinous Trump scandals with which we were already overwhelmed. And then, the pandemic.
Within four years, at least three colossal traumas.
So now it’s time to talk about trauma, or rather, trauma upon trauma upon trauma.
Dr. Gabor Maté speaks of the effects of trauma on the amygdala or fear center in the brain, noting that if people are traumatized in childhood, they experience the trauma of a pandemic in different ways. The more traumatized a person is, the more they tend to panic in the face of new trauma. One definition of trauma is, “Psychological or emotional injury caused by a deeply disturbing experience.” This does not mean that people are consciously aware of this. The majority of people traumatized in childhood do not recognize the fact, and few people in 2020 would readily name the pandemic as a trauma. In the minds of most Americans, traumas are explosive, highly visible events like September 11, 2001, not quiet, invisible viruses that can shut down countries and kill more people in a month than were killed on 9/11.
Renowned trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, notes that one definition of trauma is “being rendered helpless.” In the midst of this pandemic, unless we defy quarantines, we are rendered helpless to travel, shop, or socialize freely in the ways we prefer. Overnight, many peoples’ lives have changed dramatically, and they have no control over the external situation.
Even more frustrating is our collective “not knowing” when quarantines and social distancing will end. It is this very frustration and panic (and trauma) of not knowing the future that makes our experience more traumatic. Our experience is unique in modern history as nearly every aspect of industrial civilization has hit an enormous speed bump, and in some cases, completely stopped.
It is as if the Earth is shouting that we are not allowed to move forward and must “shelter in place” on so many levels. As noted above, we are now in the existential arena where we find that responding only logistically or in a linear fashion is futile. And then the words of the wise poet-elder, Wendell Berry, begin to sink in: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”
Amid all that we can and must do for the Earth and with our communities at this time, the real work, the real journey is inward. There is unequivocally nowhere else to go.
So where to begin—or how to continue?
Among other things, we may want to simply sign up to become students of uncertainty, or as the Buddhists say, “When you’re falling, dive.” This will require intention and practice. It does not require us to become news anorexics, but it does require us to temper our projections into the future as we practice staying present. This also gives us an opportunity to observe how attached we are to outcomes.
A few years ago I found it necessary to detach from individuals and groups that were constantly predicting near-term human extinction and rehearsing the data of extinction ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Years later, on social media, I see the same individuals rehearsing the same data or new data, prognosticating about the future horrors of climate catastrophe. Each time I notice these, I silently ask: Is that all you got? As if only the future matters and anyone who savors life in the present tense is a self-indulgent imbecile in denial of ecological cataclysm. News of our current predicament, such as a global pandemic, is met with, “If you think that’s horrifying, wait until you see what’s coming.” And why, exactly, do I need to know what’s coming? What if I don’t know what’s coming and don’t want to? Yes, I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but I’m also asking a real question. The same people who want me to know what’s coming and obsess about it as much as they do have no problem telling me that there is absolutely nothing I can do about it, and therefore, as they love to recite like a rosary of from hell: “We’re fucked.”
Fortunately, I can chew gum and walk. I am well aware of what’s coming, but I choose not to live there morning, noon, and night because I have a moral obligation to myself and to all living beings around me to live–not talk, but live a life of integrity, compassion, and service in the present moment. Addiction to death and “what’s coming?” What a brilliant way to hide from life!
The only sane response to the death of certainty is to practice being present to life from moment to moment. This does not mean ignoring the future or failing to connect the dots of the present with those in the future. What it does mean is committing to practicing presence while being awake to predicament.
A crucial aspect of practicing presence is attending to the body. By this I do not mean exercise, taking supplements, or getting the body in shape. While these are excellent forms of self-care, the focus should be on grounding one’s awareness in the body as opposed to mentally obsessing about the future. Author and body awareness teacher, Philip Shepherd, offers several practices for grounding in the body and refining our perspective of past, present, and future. I am particularly fond of his focus on the pelvic bowl, rather than the mind, as our emotional and spiritual GPS in troubled times. Also useful are Eckhart Tolle’s brief remarks on Stepping More Deeply Into Presence.
Trauma healing practices are available in many venues online. Collapse is calling us to heal our trauma wounds, but it is also calling us to help heal and serve the Earth community; however, the body must be our “basecamp” in turbulent times. As we learn how to ground in it, we develop discernment, rather than just accumulating more information about collapse and how it is shaping the present and the future. From our basecamp, we can more clearly hear callings to the kinds of service and community engagement that collapse is demanding.
Developing the skill of conscious grieving is becoming increasingly essential as the losses of collapse pile up alongside dead bodies and the carnage of economies and ecosystems ravaged by humanity’s destruction of the Earth. Very soon, my colleague and friend, Terry Chapman and I will be launching an online series “THE JOURNEY OF GRIEF:
HOLDING THE SPACE FOR WHOLENESS IN A BROKEN WORLD.” Our focus is on healing and utilizing personal and collective grieving as a crucial form of activism amid the heartbreak and helplessness of our uncertainty.
Edgar Morin writes, we now “have a chance to develop a lasting awareness of the human truths that we all know but remain buried in our subconscious, and which are that love, friendship, fellowship and solidarity are what quality of life is all about.”
Let us not waste this crisis.
 Senator John Kennedy, USA Today, April 16, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/04/16/kennedy-slowing-coronavirus-spread-not-worth-economic-costs/5143384002/
 “Uncertainty is Intrinsic to the Human Condition,” Edgar Morin, CNRS News, France, https://news.cnrs.fr/articles/uncertainty-is-intrinsic-to-the-human-condition?fbclid=IwAR0d9ccwPjMiWeuAqElI8ru8BBxV7J40n-a7X02vMqhXmTkXdit-8Z0J2OY