By Robert Chianese, March 22, 2020
Freedom is the Recognition of Necessity—Philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)
Ci Arrangiamo—Neapolitan Credo: “We Adapt to Survive”
How are you doing today? I ask this in all sincerity since I ask myself that every morning. What I am aware of is my increasing stress from various problems, namely fear of the approach of coronavirus, coping with my two surgical recoveries, worry about my two healthcare worker adult children and their children more likely exposed to the virus as they come home from work every day, and general fears about our economy’s collapse with the added crisis of the environment going through radical human-caused degradation. Quite a line up.
My personal health situation is pretty compromised when it comes to susceptibility to the virus. Both Paula and I are in our late 70’s, we’re both one percenters, and I am taking all sorts of meds to help my seven-month-old heart valve settle in and to heal my week-old shoulder replacement joint with all kinds of anti-inflammatories and painkillers.
However, we’re well supplied with food, an overabundance of media and TV channels, two print newspapers each day, and an attitude of mutual respect and support after many years of love, companionship, and marriage.
Still, the issue remains. How do we cope with this increasing stress load? How do we act and place ourselves in the larger world about to be overcome by a silent force that has no intentionality, which makes it even more fearful?
For me it is expressing my fears, acknowledging my worries, and opening up about my depression. How does one do that? Talking about it with family and friends. Opening up reveals a larger view of what really matters, so you can get moving again, riding the stress the way a surfer rides a big wave to zoom forward.
There’s so much in our heads in the morning and two papers to read, but I initiate talk about how we feel and what fears loom largest today. This morning I recalled my mother’s lifelong experience with physical pain and her stoic acceptance of it as she gave her attention to my brother and me. And of course our increasing worry about our two health care workers, our son working daily at Ventura’s Community Memorial Hospital with four reported physicians testing positive.
Paula’s family of aunts and uncles is now old and failing, so she answers phone calls from back east with trepidation. She has physical issues herself, with mild glaucoma, and a small cyst on her pancreas, which luckily hasn’t changed over four years. But there’s something about being a nurse, and a caretaker to me of course: her long career softens her anxiety and turns it into a “let’s see what’s going on there” attitude. Her usual attentiveness to our California family and young grandsons, her impulse to tend to them as a nurse and grandparent now on hiatus with self-isolation, are a stressors for sure.
What Others Endure
I recall students I had at CSU Northridge who were very physically challenged. The campus is the home of the National Center On Deafness, and deaf people often have other complications. Deaf students often took my classes because of my clear and loud articulation, a practice I perfected in communicating with my mother who was nearly deaf. Best speakers proceed at a steady pace, pausing where difficult concepts are expressed, and making sure keywords are clearly stated and repeated, while looking directly at listeners—not just to read lips but to set up the connections necessary for the two-step dance of send and receive. Gov. Andrew Cuomo should be a model for every public speaker.
Those students could break your heart. Cynthia took my classes because she could partly hear me, but she was afflicted with terrible problems. She was in a wheelchair with a contorted body and with hands she could not control, and nearly incomprehensible slurred speech. She had an amazing sense of humor despite that. When I asked her what she was going to do about her flailing fingers, she said cut them off, laughing.
Another student had an almost impossible physical disability. I never learned what it was but she walked around with a permanent brace under her right arm which kept it extended flat and perpendicular to her body. She was young, pretty, but with little chance I thought then for romance in life.
All this is about people coping with problems beyond their control. And giving up control is frightening. The virus forces us to face our limited control over our health and lives in general. But we can survive and much more. We can bear the burdens each of us feels; they can weigh and anchor us to the core of life itself.
Some authorities recommend short time out periods during the day, with a deep breath and a shift in focus that can reset our emotions. Also, I recommend deliberate confiding of fears and sharing what negatives we feel and how we are trying to cope with them. That can shift outlook and attitude.
The only other thing I can recommend is something slightly fancy. The humanities and the arts are primary sources of insight about the human condition. A fundamental theme I learned from literature is ultimate payback for a mismanaged life and a dysfunctional society. Though completely cultural, this thematic principal has the effect or force of something like a scientific law. Beyond society, the living planet will not tolerate abuse. In fact the coronavirus itself comes from human intrusion into secluded forests and habitats, where it dwells in animals who likely have an immunity to its effects. But then we chop the sanctuary down, expose its once-sheltered microbes, and tread into pandemic land. This connects our environmental crisis with our health one. Beating up on the planet sets up ecological retribution for us, not just drought, fires and sea level rise.
The ancient Greeks were obsessed with this principle of cosmic retribution. Oedipus’ mother hears a prophesy that her newborn son will kill his father and marry her, his mother. Distraught, she gives the baby to a servant to leave in the woods to die. But he takes pity on the child and gives it to a servant pal in another town. Oedipus grows up and he hears the prophesy that he himself is a plague on the city. As a responsible adult, he hurries to leave his parents and heads to another town. On the way he is met by an older man at a crossroads who demands he get out of his way. They fight and Oedipus slays him. He arrives in the town, now without a king and he solves a famous riddle and marries the widowed queen. He hears the prophesy again and banishes the prophet, claiming himself as the perfect wise one to solve the mystery. It doesn’t take much to figure out what’s next. His wife is his mother and the old man he killed is his father. He blinds himself for limited vision and wanders for years as a putrid outcast, a plague on himself and society.
Libraries have been written about what this all means, but primarily it shows that our insights and actions are limited simply by being human. Most intend well, but act with imperfect knowledge, much of it determined even before we are conscious, so that our pride in having perfect vision and the ability to solve problems usually brings a fall. This applies not only to the current occupant of the White House, but to all of us who would try to deny or escape or fight the workings of cosmic law. (I should add that the virus is not the comeuppance our body politic will ultimately experience. That could take the form of a revolution none of us would want.)
Understanding this provides what is called tragic wisdom: Inevitability rules the universe, the planet, and us. There is no transcendent rescue from it, another hard fact of life. You can’t bargain with it, seek safe protection from it, call on angels to shield you from it—in this case the virus, more generally whatever is to happen, also known as fate, declared good or bad depending how it shapes us.
Acceptance of this wisdom softens painful blows in life and makes one less prone to despair when confronted with threats to our sense of self and well-being. This outlook makes one more human and more in touch with cosmic process, a consoling compensation in itself. Asking, “Why me?” or complaining “It’s not Fair!” becomes pointless. Acceptance of inevitability is the humanizing insight that shifts us from despair to appreciation of our dynamic connection to the universe itself, our only home. The “slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune” get blunted by an emotional recognition of necessity, the real freedom from dread we seek more now than ever.