Natural Disasters aren’t Supposed to be Pleasant

I know this is a silly title, but I’m genuinely concerned that a large number of people out there might not fully understand the concept of a disaster. They just don’t seem to get that major historical events like novel plagues are inherently inconvenient, and that living through them (or not living through them, as the case may be) sucks ass. These folks seem bizarrely indignant at the idea that a worldwide pandemic should affect them in any way. They also seem deeply annoyed that it just… Keeps happening. It’s one thing, apparently, to interrupt their busy schedules for a few weeks, but they just can’t be bothered to keep dealing with an uncomfortable reality in the long run. They’re really losing patience with all these efforts to prevent further death and destruction, and they express it in the strangest of ways.

For example, I have heard with my own two ears, and seen with my own two eyes, grown-ass people saying shit like: “You can’t live in fear.”

I am here to inform you that you absolutely can live in fear, particularly when there is something very real to be afraid of. That’s exactly what fear is for. It is a useful and appropriate response to danger. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have it baked into the very cores of our highly sophisticated head-bacon. Fear is so effective at keeping organisms alive, in fact, that nature probably went a little overboard with it, because being a perpetually anxious rabbit with some bald patches from nervous over-grooming is way better, from an evolutionary standpoint, than being a confident rabbit with a sleek and fluffy coat who doesn’t think wolves look all that tough.

Being afraid and/or anxious is a healthy response to danger, and pandemics are dangerous. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

Another reaction I’ve been seeing that deeply baffles me is: “Well, you can’t just let life grind to a halt.”

Once again: Yes, you absofuckinglutely can. Normal life cannot just go on in an area affected by a natural disaster. If life can continue unaffected, pretty much by definition, there is no disaster. In this case, the whole world is being affected by this disaster, and it is particularly bad in the United States.

Normal life cannot just go on, and the expectation that it should do so is causing a secondary plague of mental illness beyond anything I could have previously imagined. People are tearing themselves to shreds trying to keep up the appearance and productivity of normal life under extremely abnormal circumstances, and it is horrifying. It is breaking people. Good, kind, generous people are currently being crushed under the absolutely inhumane expectation that life should just go on right now.

Not only that, but this response in particular seems to show a total lack of awareness that delayed gratification does exactly what it says on the tin. It is delayed, not canceled. Very young children are expected to struggle with the concept of putting something fun off for a later date – because later truly does feel like forever when you’re five years old – but the average adult is generally expected to have had enough experience to understand.

For those who have apparently missed this fairly vital step toward maturity, here’s the deal: We have to wait. We don’t know exactly how long, because some things are beyond human control and because a lot of people have already behaved very badly and made it all worse. Probably, at this point, another six months to a year. If we wait, and we don’t go about our business as usual, then we all get to hug and kiss and play as much as we want. If we don’t wait, and quite a few of you already haven’t, some of those people we want to hug and kiss and play with will probably die.

That’s it. That’s reality. They’ll die.

Or, you might die.

You could also live, but survival doesn’t necessarily mean you go unscathed. You might live with permanent damage to your lungs that makes every breath a painful struggle. You might live and spend the rest of your life feeling exhausted and weak. You might live with permanent neurological damage. You might live and suddenly have a stroke a while later, because of a case of covid19 that you barely even noticed at the time. You might even live long enough to develop a conscience, which would honestly suck for you if you’re behaving like an ass right now, because there won’t be anything you can do about it by then.

This isn’t a plea for decency, because we’re kind of beyond that. It’s more of an observation. It’s an exploration. It’s a rant. If I weren’t so incredibly numb to the horror right now, I’d be screaming, because this is all so goddamned awful. The direct risk of covid19 is bad enough, but then there’s this highly unpleasant realization that I just keep coming back around to.

There are people around us all, people who we love and trust and spend our care on, who themselves care so little about the rest of us that they refuse to educate themselves about and follow the most basic of precautions during the most deadly and widespread pandemic in living memory.

A gloomy tree silhouetted against a gray sky.

The Thrill

Halloween is theoretically a spooky time, but let’s be real, it’s all just fun. People enjoy the little thrills, but mostly it’s an excuse to be creative and silly. Those thrills aren’t even really fear, they’re the excitement of being allowed to look at and celebrate things that are still slightly taboo. We’re not supposed to talk about death too lightly, except right now, when we can hang human skeletons and cute little ghosts from our trees. They’re even selling adorable little fake dog and lizard skeletons in every shop, although most of the time people might think it’s a little weird that I keep real ones in my office.

The most exciting things in life are often the things that have the capacity to be a little scary. That’s why we like roller-coasters, painfully spicy food, kinky sex, and sharing our artistic work in spite of the fairly legitimate terror of rejection and/or mockery. The people who seem to enjoy themselves the most fully are the ones who manage to do what they do in spite of the fear, even learning to embrace the fear, rather than because they had no fear to start with. It’s no fun without the thrill, or maybe there’s just less of a sense of triumph if we didn’t have to push through some discomfort to get to the goal.



Writing days this past week: 3

What You Don’t Know You Know

English has a lot of rules that most native speakers know on an instinctive level, but could not explain to a non-English speaker. Order of adjectives is one of those rules, and it’s pretty neat to see how it works. If the order of descriptive words in a sentence is jumbled, it will just sound weird and confusing. The average person could correct the order so that it sounded right, but they likely couldn’t tell you why it was wrong in the first place. Sometimes the order matters, and can change the meaning of the sentence, but often it’s just a particular flow that we’ve all learned through exposure.

The key thing is, most people were not aware that they were learning it, and don’t know they know it until it is pointed out to them. Obviously, not everyone speaks the same way, and I’m not making any argument for the virtue of these types of grammatical rules. I’m just saying that this is an extremely pervasive thing in the English language. It is part of us, and most of us aren’t aware of it.

That’s why it makes such a great example of how prejudice works. If you can know how to order your words according to rules you never knew you learned, you can learn a whole lot of other things without ever being aware of them on a conscious level. Not all of these things are harmless, and many are not based in fact, but they are taught to us all the same, in a million subtle ways.

It’s easy to get angry and say you’d never choose to be racist, but the thing is that you never chose to order your adjectives the way you do, either. It is simply the way speaking is done. In fact, there’s no possibility of choice being involved if you aren’t consciously aware of learning something. You do not need to be a grammar snob to follow the basic rules of English every time, and you don’t need to be a hateful person to experience the instinctive fears and prejudices that are a part of our collective culture. Choice isn’t involved until someone makes you aware of what you believe, and the consequences of what you believe, and that’s not a pleasant experience.

It’s tempting to rely on your conscience to alert you to these sorts of issues, but that’s no good. Consciences aren’t magic. They’re actually pretty terrible judges of what is wrong and what is right. They’re much better judges of what is familiar and what is foreign. They’re formed on the same instinctive level as language, at around the same time. It happens when we’re children, and what we learn is generally reinforced for the rest of our lives by our environments. A person can be loving and generous, and also harbor terribly harmful beliefs about others. The only way to change that is to be willing to handle the shock of having those beliefs challenged. It will often feel, not just uncomfortable, but wrong. Incorrect. Against the proper order of things.