Now that spring has reached the northern hemisphere, now that we northerners can raise our faces to the sun, pull our hands out of our coat pockets or, even, take off our coats, we tell ourselves once again that the task of living is indeed worth the effort. After all, birds are a-courting, yellow flowers humbly brighten road-sides, and nothing but nothing can dim the optimism of swelling and bursting buds on tree tops.
Sitting in a nearly empty subway carriage today, I longed for the pre-pandemic afternoon throng, the tired faces, the weary postures of people of all social classes on their way home from work. (Where I live, even the fairly rich use public transportation, if only because there is hardly any parking in the city. The extremely rich are probably driven to work by chauffeurs. ) Today, we were few and far apart, most of us dressed neither for work nor play, our expressions literally veiled by masks.
I wondered: Who are they? Have they been laid off?
What about you: Have you by any chance lost your job or been evicted from your house? Or are you working from home? Maybe you are what is called “a critical employee”, so that you have to brave Covid on a day-to-day basis. Whether you belong to the first, the second or the third category, I should stress that I do not belong to any of them. What I’m trying to say is that regardless of how life is hitting you, I am unable to imagine what it is like.
True, I am not without imagination, so I have a fair theoretical idea of what it means to inhabit categories 1 and 3, both of which involve professional activity coupled with social paralysis. Category 2, however, …
I was once poor, many years ago and for many years. Really poor. But then I got lucky, and the pandemic has left me high and dry. The strange thing is, however, that I am now unable to remember what it was like to be “really poor”. At least I know and will never forget that anybody, absolutely anybody, could be born into poverty, struck down by poverty, or slide into poverty through an amalgam of unfortunate circumstances. And I shall never ever forget that being poor is very expensive. To put it differently: Getting out of poverty requires money.
In Utopia for Realists (2016), Rutger Bregman cogently stressed that part of the problem “poverty” is the sadly prevailing fallacy that poverty is due to laziness or other kinds of good-for-nothingness. If you are, say, a Central American illegal alien working till your hands, lungs or feet bleed, you will be socially branded as lazy or at least delinquent, alcoholic or otherwise undesirable. Let me tell you, in case Rutger Bregman has not yet hit your bookshelf, that poverty is due to anything but laziness.
If the pandemic has struck you where it hurts, you will know what I mean. Maybe you have contacts that can lend you a hand. Maybe, on the other hand, you find yourself on your own. If that is the case, all I can say is, to quote Bob Dylan, “the times are a-changin”. True, wealth inequality has augmented during the past 15 months, BUT so has awareness of wealth inequality.
I did not take much note of the news of the conviction of George Floyd’s murderer – after all, we’ve all seen the video. What moved me to tears, however, were the images on the evening news of people sobbing in the streets. Sobbing for joy! I had not fully taken in, until then, that blacks actually feared Chauvin would be acquitted. Gosh! I mean, really: Wow. Can I even imagine what it must feel like to be a 24/7 walking and talking bullet target for so-called law enforcement? No I cannot.
Imagination is a strange thing: Under certain conditions, most of us are able to imagine unlikely situations and events. Some of us honestly fear that the air plane they are in might fall down, or that a sinister creature could be lurking in a corner or under the bed. Some fondly fantasise about the sweet scent of wood burning in a fire place. Oddly, however, few of us are able to imagine spending a cold night in a refugee camp, or even on the pavement, home to the homeless, in any one of our big cities.
The pandemic has left each and every one of us more or less imprisoned, alone or with household members, hence also far more emotionally vulnerable, perhaps also more sensitive. We are vulnerable not only to what surfaces from our own interiors, but also to what the few voices we hear tell us. From an anthropological viewpoint the past 15 months have been a tremendously exciting global experiment. Have our baseline attitudes changed?