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Diving Back Into Our American Muddle

Diving into dark water
image credit: iStock/vernonwiley

I came across a story in The Washington Post recently about a nurse in South Dakota haunted by memories of patients who were dying from Covid-19.

From Jodi Doering’s Twitter feed:

The ones who stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real: The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA… all while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that “stuff” because they don’t have COVID because it’s not real.

I’m tempted to call the story heartbreaking, but it’s more like brain-breaking: how can people who are so sick that they have to be hospitalized still refuse to believe in the existence of the very disease that is killing them? How can they insist that they know more about their condition than the medical professionals who are working tirelessly to try to save them? And how can they scream at these workers and suggest that they should take off their protective equipment?

But then I’m reminded of an insight from The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett:

Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wrangle yourself out another to take its place.

And I suppose that a hospital deathbed is not the easiest platform from which to launch a dive back into that “foggy muddle” – a realization that helps me muster up some empathy for my fellow humans, no matter how much our worldviews may differ.

Scenes like these are reminders that we humans need meaning in our lives as much as we need our next breath. As Nietzsche explained (and as quoted by Victor Frankl and Yuval Noah Harari), “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Meaning does not arise from a vacuum, though. We humans are inherently social creatures, and not just in the sense of being friendly and helpful with family members and neighbors. As Harari points out, we humans have a unique and powerful capacity for flexible cooperation with strangers. But this cooperation is made possible only through a shared mythology: beliefs in “great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies,” as Harari puts it.

And so, while our various forms of social organization can be described from an exterior perspective in terms of their communications flows and organizational structures, they are perceived from an interior perspective in terms of myth and meaning. No wonder, then, that we hold on to our beliefs so strongly, because they are inseparable from the very sense of purpose that animates us and provides a sense of mission and direction to our lives.

And so, as we approach not only the end of the Trump presidency, but the unraveling of the Trump mythos, we have to ask ourselves: what will replace it? Trump came to ascendancy because he was able to tap into the resentments and disaffiliation of almost half of our population. These people will not suddenly feel reaffiliated into something larger than themselves just because Trump has left the building.

I’m encouraged that Joe Biden will be our next president. On the other hand, I find it a bit frightening that we had to turn to a politician in his seventies to find a national figure capable of unifying a majority of our population. And I say this, not because of any lack of confidence in Biden, but because our Democratic presidential primaries for 2020 started with the broadest possible field of contenders (not to mention a coffee magnate threatening to run as a centrist independent), and yet rather quickly winnowed the field down to just Biden. And it was not that other candidates lacked enthusiastic followers: instead, I think, the problem was that none of the others were able to project a convincing national identity that transcended the regions and issues from which they emerged onto the national stage.

If we learn anything from the Trump presidency, it should be this: it is not enough for a presidential candidate to be smart and capable and competent. It is perhaps even more important that he or she be able to project an identity that will bring a majority of Americans along as part of a common journey, towards a common vision.

I recently finished watching the first season of the Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso. If you haven’t seen it, the story is about an American college football coach (the title character) who somehow winds up in England coaching a struggling professional soccer club, with most of those around him working at cross-purposes. If you haven’t seen it, I can heartily recommend it to you.

I mention the show because I think we’re all feeling a bit like Ted Lasso these days: strangers in a strange land where no one around us seems willing to believe in the team we’re all supposed to be part of, and where those you are counting on for support seem more than willing to undermine your efforts at every turn.

And yet none of us really wants to be an isolated individual: we all want to be part of a larger team, and we all want to believe our shared goals have a larger meaning, and we all want to believe that our fellow team members are exerting themselves with as much energy as we are investing ourselves.

And so this is the pressing question for ourselves and for our leaders: can we dive back into that foggy muddle and come up with a set of ideas and beliefs and goals and actions and symbols around which we can all come together as a united team? Can we agree on a mythos to bring together brown and black and white, urban and rural, young and old, the advantaged and the disadvantaged? Can we create or reinvigorate a set of societal structures that will include all or most of us? Can we provide a sense of meaning strong enough to replace the one that Trump offered to his followers, and yet one that also works for the rest of us?

It’s a daunting task. But it’s the one we have in front of us. And, to quote another leader facing an existential crisis for his nation:

It’s no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.

And so must we all.

November 21, 2020