This is the view from my desk, out the window of the room where I am tapping out these words. Our bodies were just about recovered from the last strenuous session of countless lifts of shovels heaped with snow, a few days ago. Woke up a few days later to Groundhog’s Day, the movie. Got to say this for the snow, it’s beautiful this time. The last batch did not sit so perfectly on the branches of the trees.
It’s easy to forget, when you are faced with the forced lifting of something heavy, that this is not your life, or your fate. It’s a few hours, a day, a week, a month, a season. In the case of 2020, a year. In the case of the last four years, a few decades. Everything passes.
It’s easy to forget how odd and disorienting it is living through a deadly, airborne plague. It’s actually hard to remember once common things, like sitting in a room with a bunch of people you like but don’t see often, somebody cracking wise and everybody laughing. It used to happen all the time, the odds say it will happen again before too long.
It is not easy to remain philosophical during catastrophic times, though remaining philosophical is always a good thing to do. Yes, we are living in an age of worldwide insecurity, terror and rage — an age of terrible suffering on a massive scale. Yes, many millions around the world are freaking out, getting unreasonable, desperate, violent, authoritarian. The terror and rage is somewhat understandable, given the circumstances. This is a challenging epoch we are in, a bad patch, historically bad times. Unreasonableness has become the rule in many places. That doesn’t make it right, of course, but the reasons for it are pretty plain to see.
I usually chalk it up to the insatiable desire of a few entitled people, with the means and the power, to have, literally, everything. Pursuing this urge to have everything requires convincing millions that this arrangement — 1,000 for me, 1 for the rest of you suckers to share — is what nature intended. This convincing has never been easier to do than during this age of mass, instant “social media”. It may seem like a simplistic premise, but the unsatisfiable greed of those few in position to do either great good or terrible bad, explains much of the misery in the world.
I think of it like the old story of the fisherman’s wife and the magic fish, a parable about the inevitable misery that comes from an irrational, insatiable desire to have everything. A former girlfriend’s guru compared this unquenchable urge for ever more to a deer chasing a mirage of water as it dies of thirst.
The fisherman, a poor man, catches a remarkable looking fish. The fish speaks to him, telling him that if he shows mercy and throws him back that he will grant the poor fisherman any wish. The fisherman puts him back in the water, telling him this wish is too important to make by himself, that he must consult the wife. The fish tells him to go talk to his wife, promises to wait.
The fisherman talks to the wife, goes back to the fish. Tells the fish they want a beautiful house, with indoor plumbing and heat. The fish says fine and when the fisherman returns to the hovel there is a beautiful house, with indoor plumbing and heat. The fisherman and his wife celebrate.
Of course, it’s not long before the wife becomes dissatisfied with what now seems like a modest wish. “Go back to the fish,” she tells her husband.
When he returns it is drizzling. The fish agrees to turn the beautiful house into a magnificent castle. The fisherman returns to find the beautiful home is now a majestic castle.
It soon dawns on the wife that a castle without servants is not a very good deal. “Go back to the fish,” she says. Now it is raining hard as the fisherman conveys his wife’s request to the fish. The fish seems a little impatient but provides the servants.
You can see where this story is going, and where my analogy is going to go right after. Each request for more — soon it is power the wife wants, she needs to be a duchess, then a queen — is accompanied by worse and worse weather. In the end the fisherman is standing at the end of the dock in a raging hurricane, waves splashing around his legs, telling the fish sheepishly that his wife is no longer happy being the queen, she wants to be God. “Go back to your wife,” thunders the fish.
When the fisherman finally gets back home the wife is furious, dressed in her old rags in the original hovel.
We have people among us who are the fisherman’s insane fucking wife. Their voices are much louder, their breath much worse, than the rest of us. Depending on your prejudices you know who these people are. I am thinking of particular people, or corporate “persons,” owners of vast wealth who literally feel they are entitled to all the wealth in the world. This is a long discussion, perhaps, and this post, about remaining philosophical during challenging times, is not the place to make my case. If $100,000,000 is not enough to allow you to enjoy your life to the fullest, is $100,000,000,000 going to somehow help you in that regard? Just asking.
We have a certain amount of choice about certain things that torment us. We can exercise this choice to reduce the irrational urges we are all subject to sometimes. An undisciplined boy millionaire who craves respect and attention grows up to be a young adult “playboy” who brags in the media, like a comic book hero, about being the greatest winner in Gotham City. Then he needs to be at the top of the Forbes wealthiest list. Being rich and famous is not enough to fill his bottomless emptiness, of course. “Go back to the fucking fish, you fucking fucks,” he tells his lackeys. Being the president, of course, is not quite the same as being the king, or God. “Go back to the fucking fish, you worthless pieces of shit!” he thunders, as he sends a mob to decapitate the government he is about to lose control of.
It’s not just him, of course. There are a few thousand just like him. There’s a genius who makes $70,000,000,000 during a pandemic and tells his workers (and the independent contractors whose tips he steals) to suck it up and get back to work and if they don’t like the conditions — fuck off and die. There’s another guy who makes a similar bundle, stubbornly (and counter-factually) arguing that Americans are smart enough to decide for themselves whether one of the two major political parties is run by a cabal of Satan worshipping child raping cannibals. Just because millions of people hear this arguably extreme claim hundreds of times a day, on his platform, it is not, legally or morally, his concern. While literally billions of people live in desperate poverty, a shitload of the world’s wealth is in the hands of a fairly small group of super-wealthy guys who are unaccountable to anyone but the shareholders. We live in a hyper-competitive society that has only one true value — the bottom line.
People of good faith can argue both sides of this proposition about systemic unfairness, I guess. There is nothing inherently wrong, perhaps, with one person having more wealth than can be spent in a thousand lifetimes while millions of others live precarious lives, bundling ragged, hungry kids into their outdoor beds, while tens of thousands die deaths every year that could have been prevented, if only they could have seen a doctor, in the wealthiest nation in history. It is an abstract question of morality, perhaps, whether we just have to accept injustice as the way it is and has always been, no matter how vicious it sometimes is.
Those are arguments for another day. Discussions, really. If we are arguing about these general principles of fairness and mutual responsibility, the day is already lost. If Reason cannot guide us to be reasonable, it’s set and match. It may be set and match already, only time will tell, though the odds at the moment say that we won’t be meeting in a death camp (worst case scenario) but rather in a room full of people we like where someone will crack wise and we’ll all be laughing again (one of the better case scenarios).
To the extent you can, be of good cheer. Remember, this too shall pass. Here, it’s almost time to gear up and get to shoveling again, if only to dig out a couple of our feral cats trapped out back in this winter wonderland.