We’re the most adaptable creatures on earth, at least among those visible to the naked eye, and yet we’re a pretty sorry lot. Even though we’ve unravelled the laws of nature as far as we can tell, have conquered most of the surface of the planet, its skies, and some of the space beyond it, we’re only really cozy at room temperature, a range of just a few degrees. If our own core temperature drops by that same margin, we sink into hypothermia and death. If it rises by as much, we have a fever and could keel over at the other end of the thermometer. We live in a thin patina of air trapped near the earth’s surface, a layer so thin that it’s about the same part of the earth as our skin is of us. We can go without food for about three weeks, without water for only three days, and without oxygen for less than three minutes.
Most of all, we cannot stay put for more than three seconds. We’re a fidgety bunch. We blink and we scratch and we pace around, and we have to open a fridge eleven times per hour. We’re normally quite happy to do this in the relatively small space of our homes, as long as we know that we’re free to go and open someone else’s fridge whenever the whim takes us. Tell us that we can’t, and we go mad. Tell us that a wall has been built around our city and we’ll dig our way out even though we have no real need to leave. If you want to stimulate private investment in space travel, tell us that an invisible, impenetrable barrier has been placed around the earth, and farmers will be launching themselves into orbit to attack this celestial sphere before the decade is out.
But why do we so hate to be locked in when we’ve always been that way? Each of us was born locked in, and will die that way, at the conclusion of a life sentence in the singular prison that is our head. Like a monk in a cell, we’re all alone in a little dark hole. We have never moved beyond it, and we never will. And yet we’re quite happy to be in there. It’s not as lonely as it sounds because inside our heads are an actor, a director, and a biased critic—a trinity that puts on a show that is so compelling as to literally defy imagination. To help us out there is what could be called the Einstein-Galileo effect, a condition that ensures that our heads will always appear to be the central head, with other heads wandering around them in strange orbits. Most importantly, we usually get to move our heads around as we wish, and take them on holidays and wherever else we want to have the illusion of going.
The moment we cannot do that, we start to fall apart. Even though untold freedom unfolds behind our eyes—dreams and nightmares attest to that—we’re not satisfied. No. We want to get out. Under normal circumstances, we’ll kill for a chance to not have to go to work, but tell us that we cannot, tell us that we have to stay home with the people we usually miss, and we’re not so keen anymore. Instead, we begin to miss other people. There’s a guy in the building where I work who walks with his head tilted to one side, as though he’s trying to hear a funny noise his foot is making. I can honestly say that I miss him now that I haven’t seen him for about six weeks or so. During this time I’ve also developed an abiding urge to drive to Utah. I want to be with people and I want to be in places. I want to smell things and touch them, and I’d rather pour salad dressing into my eyes than look at a screen for one more second.
Yet here we are, made to stay put by a virus I will not name because it’s been named enough. It isn’t quite alive—a virus is a reverse-zombie, and doesn’t have the common decency to be fully alive—and it’s so small that a single one at the center of our index fingerprint would be like a marble at the center of an area the size of Lebanon. Our collective reaction has been very much aligned with the first four of the five stages of grief—anger, denial, bargaining, and depression. If you’re like me, you’ve been stuck in depression for a while now. I punish myself. Instead of reading what I’ve never had the time to read, I stream shows and movies that make me feel right at home—127 Hours, The Lighthouse, and Money Heist, in which the masks are better. I scratch myself and I open the fridge every few minutes. And I wonder—as I’m sure you do too—how this will end?
I’ll put a symbolic dollar on the following: cure or no cure, we’ll beat it. We’re talking about it, and thinking about it, while it’s not even scratching itself. Its power is that it doesn’t know about us, and doesn’t care, but that will also be its undoing. We’ll beat it because we can make jokes about it. Jokes provide a kind of mental immunity that is at the heart of the human spirit. It helps to put things in their place, and it sustains our defiance. Instead of acceptance as the final stage of our grief, there will be defiance. If our distant ancestors could beat five mass extinctions, and our more recent ancestors could beat the Black Plague in the fourteenth century and the Spanish Flu in the twentieth, we can surely will beat this one too. On that day we will come out into the sunlight, blink, and scratch, and go and open someone else’s fridge.
See you V-day.