To overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, our culture needs to unlock a collective survival mode. Pre-modern rural life and extreme sports have in common the practice of channeling the fear of death into discipline and collaboration. What can we learn from the fringes of Modernity to spark the boost in collective consciousness we need to act in a coherent and coordinated way against the dramatic coronavirus global health crisis?
It ain’t right. COVID-19 has turned the world on its head. The economy at standstill, society in lockdown. Our basic freedom of movement taken away. Things out there are definitively not normal.
And it ain’t normal. COVID-19 has disrupted the normality of our lives without notice. Individuals, governments and societies are in shock. My brain is trying to adapt to the new online lifestyle of Whatsapp breakfasts and Zoom dinners. The re-normalisation process is so fast that I am starting to forget how normal life was. The more I think about it and more I am left wondering, what is normal?
Normal comes from the Latin adjective Normalis, of the Norm. The Norm in Latin is Norma, the carpenter’s square rule. For any given angle, the Norma will give you a 90° line. In geometry a 90° line setting off from any given line or plane is called a normal, whose points are equidistant from the original line or plane.
Subjectivity of Normality
The etymology of the adjective “normal” gives us an interesting insight on the subjectivity of normality. In geometry there is not a single normality but infinite different ones. In society the matter is somewhat less variable but a degree of discreet multiplicity still exists. Our normality depends on our habits, beliefs, lifestyles. But all of these are largely dictated by our culture, which is the narrative that social groups follow to seek order and meaning in life, which in turn, some people believe, is actually just a mix of chaos and chance. One way or another, we could say that normality is a subset of culture.
Why people can’t follow the rules?
Culture holds the secret code of human behaviours. And culture is key for understanding the spread of coronavirus and how to end the dramatic pandemic. Logic alone cannot solve the conundrum of why humans can get their act together and contain the viral contagion. So many of us are actively contributing to the viral spread, acting in complete cognitive denial. Are people just stupid i.e. lacking in computational power? Statistically, that is possible. Whilst, on the one hand, the divestment from quality public education has had a direct effect on the average level of critical thinking and capacity to ascertain facts from fiction, stupidity alone cannot be responsible for the irresponsible behaviour that is contributing to the pandemic. Seemingly intelligent people are acting in seemingly stupid ways. Beyond the vague dualism of stupidity vs. intelligence, I believe that it is actually our culture standing in the way of logic. So many of us are stuck with their individuality. We all learnt to believe that we are unique, exceptional and amazing. We need to celebrate our uniqueness and individuality with seemingly unique products and services. Also we are told to plow ahead in life, in a highly competitive environment, leveraging our very own creative, ingenious, entrepreneurial skills. COVID-19 loves all of that. What COVID-19 doesn’t like is humanity thinking as a coherent, united, coordinated organism. What COVID-19 will struggle to cope with is humanity as a super-organism with true collective intelligence organising defence and counter attack. To grasp the idea of humanity as a super organism, we need abstract, systemic thinking, an appreciation of complexity and above all, empathy and love. Unfortunately, those of us stuck in the narrative of individuality get very little of the above and pose a risk for all of us, regardless of the specific level of intelligence, education or income. How is the notion of humanity as a super-organism present in our cultures? Not enough, we could say, and in a rather mixed way as some cultures retain more collective consciousness than others. Capitalist liberal democracies are proving less effective in coordinating social response compared to less liberal or more community oriented social structures. The relevance of culture will provide an interesting angle to assess the data, once confirmed, on how Japan and South Korea are managing to contain the viral infection better than Italy or the US.
Still, before all of this is over and our social scientists will be able to study the pandemic phenomenon retrospectively we have a very urgent issue to resolve which involves re-inventing our culture and re-defining a new normal. If we could zoom in into the generic domain of normality we may see that, already within our culture, we have the germinating fractals of a promising new order. Whilst most people like an easy life and they find existential meaning in a reassuring routine, other people don’t mind a bit of hardship and risk getting a glimpse of their own version of existential meaning. I happen to belong to the second group.
Why the hell am I doing this? Sometimes I can’t help asking myself. Usually it happens when I’m hanging from a 300 metre vertical drop, with only a few spiders and birds staring at me, their answer being: “honestly, I really don’t know what you are doing up here”. Or it happens when a lovely holiday with friends turns into a struggle against Neptune, battling 4 metre waves with gusts of wind at 40 knots, with all the sails reefed down, trying to surf the crest of the waves and glide down the other side hoping not to damage the vessel my life, and the lives of my friends, depends upon. Or it happens after an intense “learning” session at my local dojo with a better sparring partner (most of my sparring partners are), whose fast and precise kicks and punches leave me concussed and confused, pondering on the fact that I truly don’t know what I don’t know. Rock climbing, sailing and martial arts are great fun. They facilitate the release endorphins and adrenaline. They are unequivocally dangerous. Beware of who says otherwise.
The practice of extreme sports brings risk management from the virtual safety distance of an Excel spreadsheet to the scary reality of survival. Being in close contact with life threatening danger triggers repeatedly our fear of death, which is among the most powerful ancestral instinct we possess. Fear, when correctly channelled, triggers our stupendously resourceful survival mode. Unfortunately, extreme sports don’t make you immune from COVID-19 but they help understanding the vital correspondence of causes and effects, of correct and incorrect action, of life and death. Crucially, they teach us that we aren’t unstoppable, unique and amazing as our mainstream consumerist culture has taught us. We are weak. We are fragile. We break and bleed very easily. Nature is unthinkably more powerful than us. A single movement in the rock crack and all the quickdraws and ropes are gone… And maybe we die. A drastic change in weather, perhaps made worse by our lack of experience, planning or action, and we fall overboard or our mast breaks, or the engine goes, or we run aground… And maybe we die. Against nature, we are infinitely weaker and we need each other. We need each other to complete the climb in safety or to sail the boat to harbour as much as we need each other to overcome COVID-19.
In all sport practices, whether extreme or not, discipline is essential. Interestingly, discipline is also essential in complex social structures or social super-organisms like armies and religious orders. But discipline is equally essential to hermits and lone travellers and people confined to isolation. Discipline blends together elements of risk management with insights of existential meaning. With a bit of luck, if we follow the rules, we can reach the summit and complete the sail, we can win the spar and overcome the virus. Discipline is all more effective when we have the cost for not following the rules clearly in mind.
The cost for not following the rules can be life. On a rock face, in the sea or in the middle of a pandemic. It is important to acknowledge the possibility of death and to channel the fear into discipline. Denying the possibility of death, ignoring the risk only increases the chances of a negative outcome and puts the people around us at risk.
It is rather unfortunate that our culture has made our relationship with death slightly dysfunctional. For most of our lives we simply ignore death. We do anything to avoid its image. We invest time and money in the artificial alteration of the signs of age and decay. We act as if the linear promise of endless economic growth and endless life could be achievable. We ignore the circularity of life and death and, as a result, we are poorly prepared for death’s inevitable occurrence.
Back to the Future
It wasn’t always this way. Pre-modern rural agricultural based societies faced death in various forms on a daily basis due to lower levels of sanitisation, poor healthcare but also because they were closely connected to nature and its ruthless food chain. Because of the fragility of human life, people had to stick together. Social cohesion was crucial to make it through the winter. Multi generational living was a no brainer in order to leverage everybody’s resources and maximise the chances of survival. Humbleness and fear of nature were natural instincts to inform a shared discipline of simplicity and hardship. Failure to conform and maybe people died.
COVID-19 is forcing individuals to embrace their belonging to the super-organism of humanity. On a daily basis we hear of neighbourhood help groups, online support, Whatsapp dinners, Skype breakfasts and balcony singing. We are instinctively drawn towards checking on one another. All those acts are the unquestionable evidence that when we drop the self delusional mask of Modern suprematism and anthropocentric linear growth we can re-connect to the super-organism of humanity. Alone we are fragile, easily breakable mammals. Together we give life to a bigger self, a powerful interconnected nebula of social cooperation, empathy and love. We can and must evolve our culture quickly, letting go of the illusion of endless humanist power and bringing back pre-modern values of collective intelligence and natural symbiosis. We must re-define our normality and act together against COVID-19. And when the pandemic is over we will have to hold onto the newly-gained value of collective humanity and understand, once and for all, that humans are a part of our biosphere. COVID-19 is a small, hopefully short, and definitively painful reintroduction to the fragility of mankind. Climate Change is the full story. Earth is a closed system and perhaps Gaia is watching us, giving us a last chance to evolve.
Stay at home and keep safe.