“It is hard to leave happiness for life.” ~ Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness
On the walnut tree, five young pileated woodpeckers talk to one another as they explore just how to do what woodpeckers do. They stand at odd angles—upside down, sideways, underneath an overhanging branch—and pipe softly back and forth. They’ll figure it out.
I sit in the afternoon sun and doze. It’s amusing how the things you really want to do when you’re older are the things you really didn’t want to do when you were younger—nap, sit in silence, do nothing, be alone. Stop trying so hard. I’ll figure it out. Or maybe not. Either way, along with everything else, I will be okay and not okay all at once, and that, itself, is both okay and not okay, worlds without end. It’s all a question of perspective — a parallax view. It’s indeterminate, entangled, and where we end up, where we materialize, has as much to do with the actions we take (and that our ancestors took before us and, in many ways, still take with us) as it has to do with whatever else is out there and in here.
Sometimes I feel very sad and sometimes I feel very peaceful and sometimes I confuse the two and can’t tell the difference and I’m not sure why that is. There are so many possible ways if reading this—each one cleverer than the last one—that I am unsure of where to turn. Because this is one thing I have learned: smart people tend to think smart thoughts are the best thoughts—the best arguments are the smartest arguments, the best thinkers is the smartest thinkers—but I’ve come to the working conclusion that “best” does not necessarily mean “most appropriate” or “most valuable” or “most honest” or, if you prefer language that blurs with the discourse of thought, “most considerate.” And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from kicking it on the fringes of the academia (after turning down an invitation to join), it’s that we’re probably not going to get very far if we spend our time trying to “out smart” all of our problems, worries, challenges, fears, and pain.
I think that finding comfort in sadness is, sometimes, one form of self-soothing. Here, I wonder about the possible differences between melancholy and mourning. To mourn, at least to mourn well—in ways in which we are told to mourn, in ways that smart people say fulfills the purpose of mourning—is to work through our sadness, so that we can be okay again, so that we can move on, so that we can feel happy again, so that we can feel at peace. To mourn is to grieve in such a way as to move beyond grief. Thus, for example, the recollection of a loved one who has died gradually transitions from being a memory that overwhelms us, that devastates or incapacitates us, to being one that, while occasionally causing us to feel sadness, becomes a memory that we recall fondly, affectionately, with gratitude for who they were and with acceptance of the life we now live very differently with and without them.
To be melancholic is a very different kind of thing. Even the language we use signals this. Mourning is something we do, it is an action word, a verb; but melancholia is a state of being, it is something that we possess or something that possesses us. It is, to use the language of Sara Ahmed, something that sticks. It’s sticky. But why is it so sticky? Because, I think, it’s soothing.
Another way of talking about things that are sticky because they are soothing is to say that they are addicting. As people are increasingly realizing, so-called “addiction” is really better described as self-soothing with certain substances, drugs, medicines, or activities, and self-soothing to such a degree that it causes other areas of a person’s life to be neglected. This is why people who are identified as “addicts” are also shown to be more (not less) sensitive than the average person (who, of course, is a statistical entity and not an actual human being). In other words, things are addicting if they provide us with a significant amount of comfort. The more pain we experience, the more we will be drawn to that which eases our pain and the more we will be willing to sacrifice in order to experience moments of respite and repose—no matter how fleeting or brief. That said, it is important to note that a lot of what we identify as “the harms of addiction” are not caused by the means of self-soothing (cocaine, heroine, amphetamines, etc.) but because that manner of self-soothing has been criminalized. Thus, once people begin to self-soothe in criminalized ways, other forces are brought to bear upon people, other self-reinforcing feedback loops are activated (increased surveillance, distrust, punishment, dispossession, and so on), and these only increase a person’s pain, thereby increasing their reliance on their preferred form of self-soothing, and so on and so forth. This is ironic. We are forced to take meds when we are kids and then forced not to take meds when we are adults. So it goes with the rule of law and all the hierarchies it justifies.
Melancholia, of course, has not been criminalized but it, along with many other affects, feelings, and emotions, has been stringently delimited and pathologized. This, too, is a process that both institutes and justifies certain uses of force, certain distributions of power, a certain moral code, a certain naturalized perspective, and all of the feedback loops that come with those things. Along the way, the language of melancholia—when it is or is not applicable and who is permitted to use or not use it—becomes controlled. I am neither permitted to formally diagnose myself as melancholic and, for that matter, my “symptoms” do not match those required for a diagnosis in the DSM-5. It’s just that sometimes I feel sad. And sometimes I feel sad when everything is going well. And sometimes I like feeling sad. And sometimes I want to feel sad. And sometimes it feels good to be sad.
It is this desire to linger in sadness, to move deeper into sadness, and to refuse to be easily comforted—in part, because the experience of sorrow is, itself, something that is soothing—that I associate with the melancholy of writers like W. G. Sebald or artists like Käthe Kollwitz. Again, there are a lot of ways that this experience could be read—one could talk about repression, catharsis, and loving one’s symptoms along the lines of Freud, Lacan, and Žižek; one could talk about how this relates to acknowledging the neglect, pain, and trauma one one’s inner child along the lines of Jung, Capacchione, and Bradshaw; or, along with a whole host of feminists, queers, and other oppressed peoples, one could talk about how there is, in fact, a lot that is worth mourning in our world (and our individual lives) and to bracket ourselves off from sorrow is dishonest and harmful to ourselves and others. All of these arguments are compelling in their own ways. Compelling and fun to think with … but I’m not trying to think my way through to so much as I’m trying to feel my way around in the midst of it. Of course, these two things are not so easily separated from each other but I hope that distinction makes sense to others—if not in your minds, then in your hearts (although, I know, I know, those things are also inextricably connected). Thus, when we try to feel our way around these things, we always come up against the limits of language and the ways in which language prioritizes making sense over sensation (which, of course, is why at least some poets are constantly playing with words and syntax—if I change the way I say things, can I make you feel what I feel in the way that I feel it?).
“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.” ~ Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
The walk to and from work is quieter these days. Six large crows are usually already up and about in the trees behind our house. They circle silently and settle in the branches of the cedars before calling to each other. I have always tried to be kind to crows—they recognize your face, remember who you are, and will tell other crows if you should be considered a threat or not—but when my marriage was falling apart I had to carry rocks in my pockets when I went to and from our basement apartment because the crows would mob me and harass me and once, even, hit me in the back of my head. So, I tossed rocks in the air when I walked on my block and they kept their distance. Generally, at that time, animals started having fear reactions to me. A friend’s dog, upon meeting me, peed on the floor and fled the room yelping, a friend’s cat refused to come out to meet me even when we shook the treat bag, and so on and so forth. It was a very strange experience—and the opposite of what I experienced as a young boy when stray animals used to come and lay down at my feet—and I wondered what they saw or smelled or felt when they were near to me. Was it me? Or was it the Angel of Death who was looming over me, calling to me, singing the sweet, sweet song the sirens sang to Odysseus? Odysseus survived because he was tied to the mast and his shipmates had their ears stopped so they could neither hear the sirens nor his cries to be released so that he could jump, and swim, and drown with tears of thanks flowing down his face. And me? I was tied to my children and they were tied to me and though the song was the saddest most beautiful one I have ever heard, I never jumped. I couldn’t drown them with me. Because this is the truth: that night on the Cambie Bridge, far above the water, when I sat on the railing with my wallet out of my pocket beside me—to make it easier to identify my body—the only reason I didn’t stop falling by flying to the water below was because I knew that children of parents who suicide are statistically more likely to suicide.
But the walk to work is quieter these days—not only because I no longer abide in the valley of the shadow of Death, but also because the human world has been reminded of its proximity to Death and steps are being taken to prevent the spread of this new death-dealing virus.
Viruses are pretty marvelous things. Part of what is marvelous about them is that they challenge our most basic understanding of what does or does not count as “alive.” They reveal that, at the end of the day, the lines occidental epistemologies and sciences have created between such basic distinctions as “the living” and “the non-living” are actually rather arbitrary and more pragmatic than anything else. That virologists feel the need to make this distinction between viruses and life explicit, precisely because they will repeatedly speak about viruses as though they have characteristics that we associate very closely with living things, belies their case. For example, in the introduction to his fascinating study of viruses as agents of evolutionary invention, Michael Cordingley says the following:
I will state explicitly that viruses are just matter with informational content and do not meet criteria to be considered living organisms. That these entities can trigger and regulate such complex cascades of molecular events is wont to be compared to human qualities, but strictly speaking viruses have no motives, needs, or strategies. This imbues them with a life that they do not have. Nevertheless, I will occasionally [and here he understates himself] make excursions into this dangerous anthropomorphic territory. I do so consciously believing it useful representational language to effectively communicate complex and nuanced concepts and context while maintaining the momentum of the narrative form.
Why does Cordingley (like almost all other virologists and microbiologists) find it necessary to make this assertion about viruses? And why does it seem that so-called “anthropomorphic” language does not simply crop-up occasionally in conversations about viruses—why does it seems as though it is impossible to talk about viruses without that kind of language? Well, for a few reasons. First of all, viruses are biological entities possessing RNA or DNA and they appear to be very concerned about their own survival—constantly evolving and adapting to different environments so that they can replicate and then sent their progeny out into the world. As a biological entity, they far outnumber every other kind of organism on earth. We have only recently begun to understand the microbiome and the abundance of bacteria that live on earth (and that, in fact, have been terraforming earth for billions of years), but even the number of bacteria is minuscule in relation to both the total number of viruses and the genetic diversity found in the virome (thus, for example, while one might find 1 million microbial organisms in a milliliter of seawater, that same milliliter will contain 10 to 100 million viruses—viruses outnumber other known microorganisms by a factor of 10 and, continuing to draw from the research cited by Cordingley, it appears that we still know absolutely nothing about 99.9998 percent of the metagenome of even the most common type of virus, bacteriophages). So viruses are biological, they contain DNA and RNA (in fact, they are little more than capsules of DNA and RNA that contain things like “sensors,” “keys,” or “grappling hooks” on their outer surface that are designed to attach to particular parts of particular cells, permitting the DNA in that capsule to then enter the cell to which they have become attached, co-opt the DNA or RNA of that cell and—notably—its ability to assemble proteins for amino acids via the ribosome, in order to reproduce itself and then send replicates out into the world. These replicates will be genetically slightly modified from the form of virus that entered the cell. The progeny will pickup DNA or RNA from the host cell, or from other viruses that have invaded the cell, or from alterations that took place in the genetic code during replication—and, in fact, many viruses have evolved to encourage that kind of alteration to take place far more frequently or commonly that it takes place in other more complex biological entities. In this way, viruses can find ways to either outsmart or get-along-better-with the host’s immune system. Viruses, in other words, have evolved for evolvability (just one of Cordingley’s brilliant terms). Not only this but viruses likely evolved prior to the emergence of prokaryotes and, in fact, may have been fundamental to the emergence of things that we do classify as living, even if they (the viruses) then co-evolved in a different direction.
So, yeah, viruses are pretty marvelous things.
Why, then, are viruses classified as “non-living”? Because they lack the ability to engage in self-sustaining cellular metabolism. Everything our scientists define as “living” has the ability to autonomously generate energy either directly from sunlight (as in photosynthesis) or by absorbing, consuming, digesting, and otherwise eating what Cordingley refers to as “energy-rich compounds taken in from their environment.” Therefore, over against live organisms, Cordingley negotiates various other definitions of how viruses are like living things but not living things and ends up defining viruses as follows:
Viruses are obligate parasites of cells, but act egotistically and without regard to the success of their host’s genome: they are egotistical, independently evolving infectious information.
He then further expands on this:
Viruses are obligate parasites of life-forms, dependent on them for energy, infrastructure, and raw materials; a definition of a virus as egotistical, independently evolving infectious information does not in and of itself require them to be life-forms. Can natural selection act on nonliving entities if we accept viruses to be such? The answer is fundamentally yes.
What, in fact, is operative here is a classic example of what Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to as a “language game.” A language game, Wittgenstein argued, is how we use language in order to make words and sentences meaningful. Meaning, according to Wittgenstein, is not something that exists “out there” in the world. Rather, it is the result of words being manipulated based upon prearranged rules. Meaning exists within the game and because of the game. Truth is the result of playing the game properly. Falsehood is the result of breaking the rules of the game. Nonsense is trying to speak about that which cannot be contained within the parameters and limits established by this kind of game. This is easily illustrated when we consider mathematics to be a sort of language game. We state that “1 + 1 = 2” is a true statement (regardless of the “reality” of any of the components of that statement or of the statement as a whole—which is why math can also deploy things like negative numbers or irrational numbers like the square root of negative one). We state that “1 + 1 = 1” is a false statement and, within the domain of math, we would also state that “7 is my favourite number” is a nonsense statement.
However, as Foucault reminded us, these games do not occur in vacuums or in neutral spaces—power dynamics, imbalances, and struggles are always involved in the formation, reiteration, naturalization, and calcification, of language games. Certain parties are invested in certain rules, certain parties have the power to enforce their rules and thus their truths and their moderators of the truth, and so on. Hence, Foucault’s infamous reversal of the saying “knowledge is power”—in fact, “power is knowledge.”
I think there are good reasons to question Wittgenstein and his influence on the relation between language, meaning, and whatever it is we refer to when we use the word “reality” (especially in light of Indigenous epistemologies, ethics, politics, and ontologies, as well as in light of the work done by quantum physicists like Karen Barad and interdisciplinary wanderers like Robert MacFarlane), but I think this way of thinking does help bring to light what is going on in the scientific discourse about viruses and what does or does not count as a life. Here, the primary issue is that viruses rely upon other biological entities—living things in this case—to produce the energy they need to live. Everything classified as living, again according to these same scientists, is able to do this on their own.
But here’s the thing—that’s just not a very good description of what we have learned about the complexities of life, the porousness of organisms and environments, and the fact that so many of us are holobionts—organisms that are made up of many other independent organisms, like ecosystems with consciousness What is that? An egosystem?
But, more to the point, it would be impossible for humans to live or digest food if we did not have the thriving and diverse microbiome that lives within us, upon us and, in many ways, makes us who we are. This is the case in many species and, perhaps most famously, has been extensively documented in research about so-called “lower termites” and their dependence on flagellates and their bacterial symbionts which live in the termites’ hindgut and enable the termites to digest cellulose, their primary food source. Others, like saprotrophic fungi, can only live if they are rooted in decaying organic matter (and because saprotrophic fungi break down wood—perhaps their most distinctive feature—they proliferate in forests). Slime moulds once taken to be fungi but now understood to be amoebas that can exist as both individuals or as component parts of superorganisms, take this to the next level—they derive their energy from eating microbes that, in turn, derive their energy from eating decaying plant matter. Thus, slime moulds rely not only on one additional organic environment in which to live but two. And, it turns out, these layers of dependence and inter- and intra-connectedness are involved with all of the so-called “higher” forms of life that we distinguish from supposedly “lower” entities lie viruses. Ecological evolutionary biologists like Sonia Sultan, as well as biochemists and molecular biologists like John Archibald or biochemists and animal physiologists like Margaret McFall-Ngai, have amply demonstrated that such mixing and blurring together of different life forms, producing new forms of life or making this or that form of life possible in the first place, are essential to life itself. The fact of the matter is that life forms are so interwoven with each other that virtually all forms of plant and animal life, to varying degrees and in different ways, are dependent on other life forms for the energy and raw materials they need to live.
(This does get more complicated within the microbial world. Lithoautotrophic bacteria eat electricity out of rocks in order to get energy, cyanobacteria eat sunlight, methanotrophic bacteria eat methane in largely anoxic environments, and other chemolithotrophs derive energy from nonorganic sources. Again, however, this leads me to wonder about the one-to-one correlation we establish between the words “organic” and “living.”)
Noting the existence of “superorganisms” (“a group of synergistically acting organisms of the same species”) and recalling my prior use of the term “holobiont” (“a community of synergistically interacting organisms of different species”), only further complicates simplistic understandings of life and what does or does not count as a living thing. Not only termites, but the termite colony is alive. Not only bees, but the hive as an entity, is alive. Not only the microbiota living in my duodenum is alive, I myself—including all the colonies of life that inhabit me and contribute to me being who I am—am alive. And, if this isn’t messy enough, it turns out the distinction between what we are as human beings and what viruses are as viruses is even more mixed-up than we first thought. Currently, it is estimated that eight percent of the human genome is made of viral fragments—portions of viral DNA that ended up becoming incorporated into our genetic code when we were infected. These viral fragments have actually had a profound effect on how we evolved. Mammals, for example, only became possible after our egg-laying, pre-mammalian ancestors learned how to create the protein syncytin thanks to a retrovirus infection the led to the incorporation of the viral env gene into their egg-laying, pre-mammalian genome. Thus, the more we learn about viruses the more we learn that they may aid as much as they hinder, help as much as they harm. Just as we have learned about bacteria, we might eventually conclude that viruses are not only threats to life but, in fact, absolutely essential to life. Perhaps. Regardless, once we recognize the existence of superorganisms and holobionts—and it’s hard not to now—then we are faced with all kinds of other fascinating questions that are not so easy to answer: If I am an ecosystem with consciousness, is a forest alive? Is a lake alive? A mountain? A planet? Or, on a smaller scale, a rock? An atom? Where, exactly, does life stop? This, too, is ironic: the most advance science of the 21st-century is coming around to truths that Indigenous peoples accepted for thousands of years before our kind of science even existed.
Because of this, asking questions about what does and does not constitute a life, becomes a surprisingly troubling exercise for those who have been raised within the discourse of occidental scientism. Exploring life from this perspective makes it hard to accept the rugged stand-alone, individualism that is especially prominent among Neo-Darwinists like Cordingley, especially when they seek to say what counts as a life and what does not. Over against advances made in several areas of evolutionary science—from developments in epigenetics that have led to a resurgence of interest in Lamarkism to many of the other areas mentioned already—Neo-Darwinists are essentially the fundamentalists who double-down on every single statement made by their founding father (prominent Neo-Darwinists include Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough… although Attenborough might be old enough to be a plain old Darwinist… I think maybe he sailed with Darwin on the HMS Beagle?). But this is not the only troubling question thinking about viruses and definitions of life brings to the mind of the reader. They also raise a question fraught with a whole different field of mines—the question of when life begins.
Part of the problem with the rugged, stand-alone, individualism that Neo-Darwinists bring to their understanding of life is that they tend to think of the virus as being in its “purist” or “most genuine” form when it is floating independently in the air, circulating in the blood stream, populating a droplet of saliva or ocean water, but not yet living within another biological cell. In such a state, as a capsid housing genetic material, the virus is essentially dormant and inactive and, if it does not encounter a cell whose membranes and defenses it can penetrate, it will deteriorate and cease to exist in that form. More colloquially, it will die (although again, from Cordingley’s perspective, it is anachronistic to talk about the possibility of a non-living thing dying). In such a state, it is hard to see how a virus counts as living—although, once it has entered a host cell, it rapidly and brilliantly does all kinds of things we associate with the living. And yet, it seems to me, the way in which we say that viruses cannot be alive, because of the way they are outside of other cells and because of their distinct (but, as I think I explained above, not actually entirely unique way of getting the energy and materials they need to live) hold viruses to a different standard than we hold others things that we consider to be living. We count fig trees to be alive. But fig tree seeds can also survive for thousands of years and then, if planted in the proper conditions, grow into a living tree. So is the fig seed a living thing? Well, yes and no, perhaps. Similarly, fungal spores can survive for almost infinite lengths of time, in all kinds of harsh environments (which is why, for example, radiotrophic fungi were able to grow on the outside of the Russian space station, Mir). Are the spores themselves living? It’s hard to answer that question well. And, just to complicate things further, what about arctic frogs that freeze multiple times in winter (with their hearts stopping for several days or weeks at a time), that then “return to life” in the Spring? Are they dead or alive in the winter? And what about Tardigrades? Tardigrades (or “water bears”) can exist in desiccated states of suspended animation, with their temperature dropping almost all the way to absolute zero or rising to one hundred and fifty degrees Celsius, and they can exist in this state for decades before “coming back to life” when the proper conditions return. So, yeah, it turns out that lines between “living” and “dead” and “living” and “non-living” are not so easily maintained. As with so many other things, maybe it is more of a spectrum than a binary.
(You can see why even asking questions like these is politically explosive: if I eat I fig seed, did I end a fig life? If I cook a frozen frog that has no heartbeat, did I take a frog life? If I destroy ten million viral cells, did I take ten million viral lives? And … yes, the question everyone is thinking now … if I terminate a human zygote, did I take a human life? In my opinion, this partly demonstrates why the question of “when does life begin?” is a non-starter in the debate around the bodily autonomy of women. If, as I have begun to believe, everything is alive, then it’s not a question of taking or not taking life—this kind of exchange happens all the time. Life forms move in and out of each other. They annihilate one another. They absorb one another. They merge with one another and create a whole new form of life—e.g., prokaryote + mitochondria = eukaryote (here, 1 + 1 = 1, as John Archibald observes)—and they also support one another, care for one another. When in a balanced ecosystem, all contribute to the greater flourishing of the greatest possible variety of life and this is why the oldest land-based ecosystem—the rainforests—are also where the greatest diversity of life is located, whereas the youngest land-based ecosystem—the arctic—has much less diversity. In the midst of this, we always are inevitably choosing some forms of life over other forms of life. If I take plant life to live, I take plant life to live. If I take animal life, I take animal life. And regardless of it I take plant life or animal life, everyday I end the lives of more bacteria than the number of human beings who have ever lived. To live without participating in this give and take of life is impossible—we are all, already and inescapably, killers. The question, then, is how we find our way in the midst of this give-and-take of life in order to encourage the greatest flourishing of the greatest diversity of life. With this as a central value, abortion makes a lot of sense.)
All that to say, it seems to me that, while viruses may be in a limbo or liminal state at certain times (like seeds, like zygotes, like fungi, like arctic frogs, like tardigrades), there are other times when they are very much alive. Here, Cordingley’s Neo-Darwinist position betrays him—he is adamant that viruses are not living while also being equally adamant that they are “egocentric” and “selfish.” This language, is intrinsically associated with life. To be egocentric requires an ego. To be selfish requires not only a self but a self that is interested in itself. To try and avoid this conclusion, Cordingley urges us to be cautious about committing the error of anthropomorphic thinking. On the one hand, this is an appropriate caution given the ways in which such thinking has worked to hide, obliterate, oppress, or violate difference. Anthropomorphic thinking frequently ended up being a means of universalizing and naturalizing the middle-to-upper class, cis-het, White, European, Christian dude-bro (i.e., the MUCCHWECDB). The perspectives and experiences of the MUCCHWECDB are then taken to be the default position for how everyone and everything else is supposed to experience the world. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the solution to this is not to suggest that things like feelings, altruism, hope, memory, intention, planning, coordination, and reciprocity are distinctive characteristics of humans or animals with “more evolved” central nervous systems. After all, as we have learned in great detail in recent years, plants do all of these things without the aid of anything we would recognize as a brain. I wouldn’t be surprised if microbiologists started coming to similar conclusions about bacteria in the very near future. And virologists, despite their beliefs, are already finding themselves compelled to talk about viruses in this way. Here, I think their stated objections to anthropomorphism are misleading—they posture as though they take this approach due to a humble respect for difference but, in fact, this approach is still rooted in an anthropocentrism that refuses to believe that such “lowly” forms of life as viruses could have feelings or intentions.
But the problem is bigger than this. Despite their disavowal of anthropomorphisms, words like “egocentric” and “selfish” are presented as non-negotiable descriptors of the way things are. These words describe characteristics that we take to be fundamentally associated with life, with people, and with certain types of people. In fact, what better words exist to describe the naturalization and universalization of the character of the middle-to-upper class, cis-het, White, European, Christian, dude-bro? In other words, despite their protestations, Neo-Darwinists are actually continuing the colonizing work of their social Darwinist forefathers. The solution to this problem is not to purge all reference to thought, intention, affect, or feeling from our study of non-human beings. It means fundamentally shifting our perspective. We are not being anthropomorphic to suggest that viruses could have intentions, make plans, or feel feelings; rather, when we talk about human beings feeling feelings, making plans, and having intentions, we are recognizing that we, ourselves, are omnimorphic—when it comes to things like feelings, it is not that other things are like us, it’s that we are like everything else.
What, however, was my overwhelming feeling after I finished Cordingley’s book? That to be infected by a virus is a marvelous thing. By which I mean, to be infected by a virus is both astonishing and wonderful (wonderful meaning that which inspires wonder or awe). Which is not to say that being infected by a virus is “good” (I have lost several friends to viruses like HIV and HCV) and it’s not to be glib about the sufferings of others; it simply means that here, even in the midst of all this sickness, I find myself saying wow.
“The symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.” ~ Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
I think now would be a good time for us to have some conversations about fear. A lot of people are very frightened and, I think, have felt that way for a very long time. In fact, they have been so frightened for so long that any kind of additional disruption or increased perception of threat or uncertainty makes them feel overwhelmed. And overwhelmed people tend to do things that hurt others and, though they know they hurt others and though they hate themselves for hurting others, they feel as though they cannot act otherwise (social workers like to say that “hurt people hurt people” but it is also true that “frightened people frighten people”). This then further adds to the way in which people feel overwhelmed and so an increasingly harmful cycle is initiated.
When this occurs it is easier for those who feel more secure to look at those who are afraid with perplexity or disdain. “What is wrong with these people?” they ask themselves—as they hire more security guards for their businesses and ensure that their home security systems are working properly. The rich look down on the poor who fear that they (the poor) might lose their lives. Much less rarely, do the rich observe of their own fear of losing even a signel coin from their treasure-hoards is one that is just as strong as the fear felt by the poor. But, whereas the poor fear for their lives, the rich fear for a stagnation in the growth of profit margins (yet the poor are the ones presented as irrational).
But, as for me, I’ve been thinking a lot of a verse from Matthew’s Gospel. Having described the ways in which Jesus and those who gathered with him were working to counteract the illnesses that came with the colonization of Palestine (Fanon avant Fanon) and the mass dispossession of the rural poor in order to create surplus wealth for the elite few (Marx before Marx), and having shown that notions of uncleanliness and sinfulness are, more often than not, tools deployed by the powerful to colonize the subjectivities of the dispossessed (Foucault avant Foucault; Mad Pride before Mad Pride), Matthew then writes the following:
Having seen the crowds (the multitudes of the sick, the dispossessed, the colonized, the frightened), Jesus was moved with compassion for them because they were weary and harassed, they were distressed, cast out, abandoned, and left for dead, like sheep without a shepherd.
(I know I’m being a bit creative with my interpretation so, if you care, here’s the Greek: Ἰδὼν δὲ τοὺς ὄχλους ἐσπλαγχνίσθη περὶ αὐτῶν, ὅτι ἦσαν ἐσκυλμένοι καὶ ἐρριμμένοι ὡσεὶ πρόβατα μὴ ἔχοντα ποιμένα.)
What does it take for us to look out on the crowds today and, instead of sneering, instead of scratching our heads, instead of distancing ourselves from them, what does it take for us to be moved with compassion? And if it sounds absurd to feel compassion for people swarming the toilet paper aisle or punching each other out for hand sanitizer, then it shows just how far we are from this. After all, it’s not as if the crowds in Jesus’s day were all saints and virgins… and if you’ve spent any time with sheep, you’ll realize that, um, sheep have issues.
The compassion Matthew describes Jesus feeling isn’t rooted in the condescending paternalistic gaze of those who throw alms or put change into “kindness meters.” It is a deeply existential feeling. The Greek word, ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, literally means that Jesus was moved in his bowels (the Greeks though that feelings like love and pity were located in the bowels). Jesus feels the distress of the crowds in his guts because, he’s been there, he’s one of them. He gets it. Consequently, because he is and has been one of the sick, one of the dispossessed, one of the colonized, one of the frightened, one of the harassed, distressed, cast out, and left for dead, he feels compassion for others who share in that experience.
Fuck me, friend, we’re gonna do our damnedest to get through this together.
And, for awhile, they did find their way through it. Thus, for example, they shared their possessions with one another so that, on more than one occasion, in a crowd where people only claimed to have a few loaves and even fewer fishes, there ended up actually being enough food for everyone. It’s amazing what resources become available when people stop hoarding things to themselves and lying about what they have. Some would refer to this kind of practice of material generosity and mutuality as a miracle. Or, to pick another example, those who were considered to be too disfigured or disabled to be counted in the company of the righteous and #blessed, well, it turns out that it was actually the socio-religious structures of society that were disabling them. In and of themselves, they were perfectly fine. So the hungry were fed. The sick were healed. The poor, for a brief moment, heard news that was good news for them, just for them, finally for them. But, yes, the moment was brief. Jesus was killed by the local elites who had sold their own people in order to benefit from colonial rule, and the movement associated with Jesus’s name quickly became another tool of imperialism, conquest, and Death. And, when the people of that religion looked upon the crowds—harassed, and weary, like sheep without a shepherd—they were quick to find reasonable, and moral, and just reasons to abandon them.
But, here’s the thing: being moved with compassion is intimately connected to taking action to change the circumstances that produce suffering in the first place—in fact, it is this orientation around compassion that sets it apart from the paternalism of charity or pity. Compassion is an action-oriented thing and, if we are not moved in this way, we tend to abandon others to “their fate” (which, far from being inevitable, is the result of many of our choices—not the least one being the choice to retreat from doing compassion). And here we are, all of us full to overflowing with reasons to disregard the sufferings of others—to place their fears and hurts and losses on the compassion scale and judge them wanting—and to then mock them, punish them, laugh at them, and then forget about them, when their suffering pushes them beyond what can be borne.
This, then, leads us back to Sara Ahmed’s suggestion that sometimes we are left with a choice between happiness and life. Recognizing that happiness, and the pursuit thereof, has often been premised upon the creation and exclusion of an unhappy other (queers who cannot be happily married, angry black women, feminist killjoys, and so on), Ahmed argues unhappiness is often the product of oppression and abuse. Furthermore, learning that there are good reasons to be unhappy, learning about the unhappy underside of the pursuit of happiness, is not something that is prone to make us happy. Thus, for example, those who reject the myth of the happy housewife are not necessarily going to be any happier just because they refuse to limit themselves, make their happiness dependent upon meeting the needs of men and boys, or acclimatize themselves to gilded cages. Happiness, for many people is premised upon making themselves smaller and smaller (until they all but disappear). Life, though, is expansive, and dynamic, and marvelous and difficult and, sometimes, very, very sad. In fact, there is much to feel sad about in our world and, if we are moved with compassion, there will be a part of us that is always sad (even if there is also another part of us that is always astonished, always saying “wow,” and “thank you,” and “I wouldn’t trade this for anything”). So, finally, I think we can see why sadness can, at times, be a form of self-soothing. Sadness is one of the ways in which we love both ourselves and others.
And, look, here’s the last thing I want to say about that Jesus story. As of today, social workers are freaking out that people who are infected may come too close to them—“Plexiglass!” they cry. “We need plexiglass! Plexiglass and PPEs and screeners and I don’t want to answer the door and I don’t want to talk to those people and FUCK OFF DON’T FUCKING TOUCH ME, YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT!”—but at the local drop-in for sex workers (a drop-in run by current and former sex workers, a drop-in barely acknowledged by the city and barely holding on as social services close and more and more folx come to them for help), people are crying because they can no longer hug their friends, quickly snuggle on the couch, and love each other up, before going out to work.
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