a few weeks ago, a few friends of mine were sitting in our apartment discussing the news around COVID-19 — at the time, in the American mainstream, the issue was still a mere rumbling, a trickle of ominous but still-remote stories about Italian hospitals and Iranian patients and the occasional reminder to “wash your hands and cover your cough.” back then — in those naïve days of early March — none of us present knew anyone who had been personally affected by the disease (that would change less than a week later). our lives still proceeded with minimal disruption.
yet we had noticed that stores were selling out of hand sanitizer, that some offices were encouraging employees to work from home, that healthcare experts were appearing increasingly on national news to issue warnings that jarred our stubborn sense of immunity. murmurs about travel restrictions and school closings were beginning to rise, a subtle unease leaking into the air.
adding up the signs, one of my friends asked, with a furrowed brow, “so, is this like, an apocalypse?”
i smiled, probably chuckled a little, and asked if, rather than “apocalypse,” he had meant to use the word “epidemic.” he nodded, “yeah i guess so,” he said, although he was perhaps just being polite.
i’ve thought about that exchange many times since. in the moment, i took his remark as a sort of verbal typo — of course he didn’t mean “apocalypse” — that was not a word used in literal, adult discussions. for me, the term is inseparable from the Biblical book of Revelation, the “end times” narrative, an account laden with symbolic images of cosmic upheaval, supernatural destruction, and Final Judgement.
so of course it doesn’t apply here, right? if the heavens aren’t being split open, if “angels of woe” aren’t ravaging the earth, if the moon (or is it the sun?) hasn’t turned blood red — then apocalypse is not what we’re experiencing.
so my thinking went.
until i recalled that the root meaning of the word “apocalypse” (ἀποκάλυψις or apokalypsis) is simply: “to uncover, reveal, expose.”
so, antichrists and demon armies aside, a literal apocalypse is merely an event in which a hidden object, reality, or truth is revealed.
suddenly, my friend’s words feel — dare i say it — prophetic.
because, so far, this has all felt like a vast revelation, a global exposure — of truths we have too long, too often, covered over.
the truth is, despite the sense of control and certainty that “normal life” can afford, beneath the veneer of the familiar lies a universal, difficult, reality: we are, and have always been, vulnerable, fragile, tenuous beings.
it’s a truth we love to cover over, that from the day of our birth, we are lurching through a deadly world, balancing the abstract notion of our mortality with the immediate business of living, loving, and getting things done. somehow, on most days, we’re able to focus our attention on anything other than the myriad threats to our existence, carrying on blithely, valiantly, in these incredibly penetrable bodies. and, remarkably, in the midst of this peril and uncertainty, we spend vast amounts of time planning and working towards a future we believe we can anticipate and control.
or a while, for some of us, this game of make-believe seems to work, and our mastery of circumstances appears to hold. lives are built and dreams are achieved in this way — these are Useful Fictions we’re enacting, and it is not wrong, i’d argue, but still incomplete.
in the end, a too-blind faith in these Useful Fictions does not serve us. inevitably, these narratives of control will be thrown into relief by something we cannot master, and could not have seen coming. these events puncture us, cutting through the structures and personas that provided a temporary sense of certainty, identity, control.
these are our private, personal apocalypses — a sudden illness or death, a trauma, the loss of employment, a dashed dream. (i should note, too, that for those who are marginalized for some reason, such as race, gender/expression, sexual orientation, economic status, nationality, immigration status, etc, this sense of exposure is far more common, and continuous).
what makes this moment so unique, though, is the way we are undergoing such an unmasking together. seemingly overnight, our individual scripts have been interrupted, forcing us all to confront what we’ve so earnestly avoided seeing: the wildness at the heart of life, and the utter limitations of our understanding and power.
to experience this revelation on a global scale is surreal. there are mega-stories, Useful Fictions we share, that have served us in some ways, for some time — our belief in government or social systems (to the extent we have it), our faith in science and technology, our narratives around our own exceptionalism — and the earth quakes as the myth of our mastery falls so many millions of times over.
and yes, while this virus is “novel,” new, and many people are using the word “unprecedented” these days, what is being uncovered has always been waiting for us: the knowledge of this world as wild, ourselves as fragile, the future as unknowable and the present as bizarre and so much bigger than the solitary glimpses we’re given.
confronting our limitations and vulnerabilities can be harrowing, painful work. in the West, certainly, our culture does not serve us here — the emphasis is always on upward motion, forward progress, the extension of technology and human ingenuity in limitless directions, as if total mastery were possible with enough willpower and wit (and money). as a civilization, we’ve blatantly ignored the natural rhythm of life and death, growth and decay, refusing to acknowledge that the scales must be inevitably balanced, and the capriciousness of fate.
we live and die by the stories we tell, most of us have not rehearsed well for something like this.
so take very good care of yourself as you’re walking through all this. some of us are facing phantoms — unresolved wounds or personal demons that we’ve so far eluded through busyness or distraction. these experiences deserve utmost respect and compassion. sometimes, we must turn our gaze away from certain things, at least for a time, for our own preservation or sanity. the word apocalypse also hints at this — part of the word, “kalyptein,” comes from the root to “conceal, save, or protect.”
if you’re feeling overwhelmed please don’t suffer alone. dare to take one more step in self-disclosure: reach out for help. (perhaps start here). support yourself with compassionate words and actions — remind yourself that any emotion is valid and can serve you, even while some emotions require large amounts of time and attention to process. tend to your heart, your body, and your mind however you’re able, and know that you may need a lot more rest, a lot more nurturing, than usual. this is not selfish. this is survival, this is finding a way to ground ourselves in a worldwide tumult, and it is a generous and valuable thing to do, and you deserve it.
in my case, i have realized that, for me, this strange, indefinite season will only be endurable from a position of surrender. by “surrender,” i do not mean cynicism or fatalism or apathy, but rather, acceptance — acceptance of the unknown as being simply that: unknown. acceptance of my own position in all this: tiny in relation to the global suffering, tiny in my own capacity to help, but also irreducibly present, here and now, a part of this communal reckoning. and acceptance of the conditions of my life, as they arise, moment by moment: one day hopeful, even productive, another day topsy-turvy, dark, and bleak.
i’m realizing that, if there is so much i cannot control, i can at least release myself of the maddening pursuit of certainty.
in this moment, it makes less sense than ever to resist reality, to make this more difficult by imposing expectations and judgements on what is an unprecedented and unscripted experience. the best i can do for myself, and those around me, is simply show up with all the sincerity and authenticity i can muster, and begin each moment from a place of openness. “it is what it is,” — and it always has been. nowadays, i am more convinced than ever that humility is essential.
in the midst of this apocalypse, as our routine, forward motion is interrupted, the opportunity comes to see things as they are. days are revealed as hours, which are revealed again as simply minutes, and living becomes a matter of moments.
now, this moment. now, this one.
because, after all, this is all we’ve ever had — isn’t that clear now?
something deep inside me, indefinite but persistent, says that coming nearer to truth, even painful truth, will eventually serve us.
i am not alone.
you are not alone.
we are not alone..
a final thought, just one more turn around this word, apocalypse:
i hear an invitation that, beneath and amidst this moment of planetary exposure comes the possibility for further, more personal, discoveries.
my question to leave you with is, what else has been hiding under the surface of your life?
as life, as we’ve known it, screeches to a halt, are any old voices beginning to speak?
sometimes we bury things too quickly, things that are beautiful and innate but that, for some reason, we felt too fearful or unworthy to prioritize. some of us are uncovering, or recovering, treasures amidst this chaos — long-buried dreams, procrastinated curiosities, delayed projects, youthful aspirations.
i daresay all of us have at least a few such gems we’ve hidden or surrendered along the way, and, for those of us with more time and solitude on our hands (and i know that’s not everyone), this is a time for resurfacing.
i’ve spoken to so many in the past week who have begun such uncoverings — returning to drawing after a years-long hiatus, picking up an old writing project, indulging a dormant love of baking, fiddling with a dusty instrument or finally diving deep into a stack of books that has long beckoned. for my part, i’ve been writing more, reading hungrily, fiddling with a few poems, brainstorming with friends about collaborations, doing a little redecorating, and weaving new sequences for yoga lessons i hope to teach.
most importantly, i think, i’ve been giving my mind the time and space to wander, exploring the strange new expanse now revealed as old artifices are stripped away. too many of us, i think, experience a thought-life that is at once under-nourished, over-saturated and hyper-distracted. allowing for quieter, emptier days has allowed my imagination to slowly stir again, my senses of inquiry and creativity gradually shuffling out of the shadowed corners where they’ve been too often shoved.
so i ask you, finally: what is it that gives your day color, that expands your heart or intellect? have you fed yourself with these things lately? is there something you left behind, perhaps long ago, because it didn’t fit in the streamlined, productive model we call adulthood? something that feels indulgent or silly or even reckless, but which touches a part of you that’s been covered over?
surely i’ve said enough by now. if you’re still reading, thank you. it is a privilege to share this instant with you, if only from my screen to yours, across time and space. i hope that you are feeling sheltered even in the midst of this uncovering, that you are discovering, perhaps alongside grief, some moments of joy or at least curiosity. (if you’re able and willing, i’d love to hear what you’re finding.)
& i hope the unknowability of all this opens even just a small space for possibility — my word for hope — amidst the fear.
until next time,