Thanks to the pandemic, we’re finding out who we are, in real time, on the internet. And what we are after, it seems, isn’t words that give us a shot in the arm and keep us going but the reassurance that some people have it worse than us. We want the full lowdown on dystopia, we want humiliation, we want shame, and we want epic failure of planetary magnitude.
We want a front row seat to the collapse of the empires we built, we are hungry for the shame we all feel but few of us would readily admit to.
We did this to ourselves, all this, Trump, COVID-19, the internet of outrage and we cannot look away from the aberrations we crowned. We still applaud the honesty of barefaced greed and general mediocrity milking the eyeballs of the most vulnerable with odes to the self. We are bad friends, we are bad partners, we are bad colleagues but we are proud of being honest about it.
And we will defend our right to eschew stepping up until the bitter end, word by word.
How can we possibly build bridges between one another when words have come to mean so little and are optimized for pity clicks? How can we use the internet as a lifeline when schadenfreude is a slew of robocalls urging us to cheer as our peers become human crash test dummies.
Again. And again. And again.
We spectate and feed on the vulnerability of others so we can numb our own and forget we’re next. We point the finger to show how others have failed us without taking responsibility for the role we played in our own demise and theirs.
And all throughout, we still brag we are being honest, we still brag we are being helpful, we still brag we are real even in surreal times.
Now that a pandemic has stripped us all of carefully curated appearances, personas, and pretense, we’re finding out what we’re made of. It’s a group project that also works on an individual level, a planetary slap in the face forcing us to take a long, hard look at our values, our beliefs, and our ethics.
America keeps focusing on money, not health, and much less mental health or that nebulous concept of society, loosely described as parallel individualisms, at least if the internet content we produce and consume is anything to go by. Despite facing chaos and pain of unprecedented proportions, some still can’t help trying to convince others they have it worse. Their trauma is worse. Their pain is worse. They could be the shittiest person on the planet but still expect validation for their honesty and we’re supposed to provide it? If it works for Trump…
Bluntness is a failure in a culture so inured to human pain it has to be staged and performed so we even begin to pay attention. At a time when an entire planet is hurting, this is not helpful as it allows hysteria to take root. Worse, it continues to blind us to our shortcomings and to how urgent it is to go the extra mile and make the extra effort. And hold out that hand even though we’re not very steady on our feet ourselves but never mind because no one is right now, not really.
Unless we turn solidarity into a proof of concept, we won’t make it, not even you, America. Especially not you.
Kicking people when they’re down isn’t the most appealing of human traits and yet here we are; some of us do it, albeit not always by malice. Fear manifests differently in everyone but lack of control over our circumstances doesn’t always lead to using empowering or even accurate language, alas.
Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum between unsettled and terrified and our position is never static.
Instead, we don’t what to cling to or how to keep going or even if writing about it could be doing more harm than good as COVID-19 becomes a global reality show. We belatedly realize we still can’t get enough of the misfortunes of others so those who typically make a living peddling woe is me tales have no incentive to stop; this is problematic.
Woe is us now but if all we focus on is death and destruction, it won’t do society or our collective mental health any favors. Pleas for thoughtful language and gentleness keep falling on deaf ears; people prefer to be comforted in their respective visions of dystopia they’re already accepting as an inevitable future. And the media is more than happy to provide as long as it pays.
If we were honest with ourselves and others, we would agree that words ceased to matter a long time ago, way before a presidential candidate tried to convince us otherwise. Now that we’ve finally been handed a chance to reclaim the internet as a force for good, we’ve been addicted to clickbait and social media marketing for so long we have no clue what heartfelt human communication looks like or even how honesty presents.
And many of us have forgotten how convey human warmth through words.
Gone are the days of drama as currency, this is the era of distress as default; we’re all overwhelmed by emotions we can’t parse. And sometimes, they lead to the kind of eery detachment and resignation that aren’t unlike the numbness of chronic depression.
Under the circumstances, feeling a little out of sorts is a natural reaction but one that also has the potential to incapacitate us. Unless we take uncertainty in our stride and move forward as best we can, COVID-19 will destroy many more lives than the ones of those who contract it.
If we keep finding the words, we have to trust they’ll see us through, if only because they help us process that which no one understands yet. Writing is how we make sense of chaos and confusion, by stepping back, surveying it, and articulating it. Your writing voice is likely as fragile as mine and everyone else’s at the moment but creativity is how we survive this, together.
Creativity is a universal and innate coping mechanism, and it’s not always conscious. Creativity goes beyond repurposing factories and production lines to manufacture essential equipment. Creativity is something we can all tap into and indulge in to the measure of our circumstances. Wherever we’re at, we need to acknowledge our helplessness, anxiety, and desperation or the complete absence thereof. Denial is also a reaction, albeit one that doesn’t get much attention unless it turns into defiant, absurd acts like licking things on the internet.
That’s us, in all our human glory, untethered, afraid, going a little stir-crazy with cabin fever and seeking solace in the oddest pursuits we hope will distract us from uncertainty. It’s getting harder to corral reality into words but it doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Now that we’re all in the same boat, why don’t we learn to speak human again so we might row together in the same direction, ideally toward hope and a more equitable future?
What if the pandemic were a prompt to develop better ways to be and do human online until we can catch up IRL?
If we could make words matter again, how would we use them to navigate the pandemic?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.