October 20, 2020

Your Idealistic Faux Rage Is Unbecoming

Your Idealistic Faux Rage Is Unbecoming

There is a “we’re all in this together” rah rah spirit in this time of pandemic that can at times be an encouraging reminder and at other times a grating cliché.

As some of our commenters have said in recent days, we may all be in this pandemic together, but we are not all being impacted by it equally. Some of us who are more privileged and protected economically and medically bear a greater share of responsibility to do what we can to help those who are more vulnerable and who lack access to the resources we have. To whom much is given much is required.

So, by all means, let’s keep cheering ourselves up and reminding ourselves that “we’re all in this together” — and then let those of us who can go the extra mile as often as we can to intentionally include our neighbors in need in that, serving in ways that truly help them and protect their dignity.

But there’s another “we’re all in this together” theme being played by some idealists for whom everything these days is all about inequality. They, it seems, will not be satisfied that we who are more privileged can truly be “in this together” with others less fortunate until we throw ourselves on the ground, repent in dust and ashes, and vow to spend the rest of our days lamenting and performing acts of painful self-mortification.

Molly Roberts is, apparently, one of these folks. In a fit of idealistic faux rage, she finds the silliest of targets to pick on in her recent article at the Washington Post, “We’re telling ourselves fairy tales while stuck inside.”

The novel coronavirus has spawned a surprising aesthetic showing off humans’ capacity to make a heaven of hell.

You’d think self-quarantine would look morose and miserable, all rainy days filled with darkness and made-for-TV movies, a plodding life punctuated by sad sandwiches stuffed with packaged meat or sodium-soaked beans straight out of a can. Either we’re jobless or the work day blurs together lazily with the personal one. We’re always on, but we’re never burning especially bright.

You’d think.

But log on to Instagram, or Twitter, certainly Tumblr — the only way we see other people now, really, is the Internet. Yes, there are the stray still-in-bed selfies and confessions of ambient anxiety. But behold the sun-drenched countertops crowned with loaves of freshly baked bread with blistered crusts. The home-cooked meals, some of them even themed. There’s knitting and quilting and needlepoint, too, and there’s spring greenery along with flowers that run the ROYGBIV gambit.

These cheerily cozy glimpses are essentially a toned-down version of something called cottagecore….

…Most of us still aren’t in cottages, of course, but in a studio apartment or a two-level house out in suburbia. But we manufacture our own cottagecore, each in bespoke variations, depending on how much time, energy, flour and flowers we have to spare. And why not? We’re simulating a return to a simpler version of the world and a purer version of ourselves. Deprivation becomes an affectation; our loss becomes our gain.

We’re telling ourselves this fairytale: Once upon a time, everything was beautiful, and not only can once upon a time turn into today, but also the transformation is up to us. We can’t control the virus, we can’t control the government, we can’t even control whether our faraway family members and friends stay safe and inside. But we can control our own individual existences by making them that much less complicated than an outside world we’re not even allowed to live in anymore. Or at least we can trick ourselves into believing we’re in control.

Roberts goes on to complain that “‘giving up’ some comforts is only fun to those who are comfortable to start with,” and “You’re probably not spending the evening hours putting the final touches on embroidered pillow-covering when you’re worried about feeding your family, and you can’t curl up by the fire with a dusty old book when you don’t have a house, let alone a fireplace. You definitely can’t do it if you’re on a ventilator.”

She assumes that everyone staying at home who has tried to keep their sanity by engaging in projects and crafts and making their home environment more bearable and beautiful is guilty of shutting out the hard realities of those suffering in these hard times. She accuses those who share their “fairytale” pleasures with others on social media of being engaged in narcissistic escapism, of promoting pretend perfection that shields us from the fact that many people aren’t able to enjoy anything right now.

She would rather everyone feel “queasy” about their privileged status — around the clock, I guess. Furthermore, she assumes that, because people have been asked to stay home, that the enjoyable things they share on social media represent the whole of their lives, and that they have abandoned those who are suffering, taking no responsibility to help their neighbors.

Some people always have been more fortunate than others. Yet now the tension is harder than ever to ignore and harder than ever really to resolve. The usual answer to being a beneficiary of inequality and injustice is to get out and do something, but staying in and doing nothing is the new gospel. Or maybe that’s only an excuse for all of us looking to soothe ourselves in an unsettled era — to retreat to the cottage, and to shut the door.

Complete poppycock.

I wish I could bring her to Indiana. This article, for example, tells of creative ways teachers are reaching out to encourage and lift the spirits of their students, how people are devoting themselves to making masks, how stores and restaurants are banding together to provide food for those in need, how the Girl Scouts donated cookies to blood donors, how neighborhood residents are greeting each other from their balconies with songs and waves to keep up the morale of those shut-in. In short, how people with more are trying to help people with less. How they’re trying to include everyone in “we’re all in this together.”

My former church, where Pastor Dan ministers now, has partnered with local restaurants to provide meals for hospital workers, especially those in Covid units who can’t access food services when working. A friend of mine who owns a brewery (severely affected by this crisis, by the way) devoted his time and resources to making hand sanitizer for first responders. A high school student in our area started up a free food delivery service to help those most vulnerable to the virus.

You can find dozens and dozens of articles from all over America chronicling services that the privileged are performing to help the vulnerable and hurting during this pandemic. As always, humanity is a mixed bag and there is plenty of bad behavior one could cite in this lockdown. But in general, I have been heartened to see people becoming more concerned, more caring, and more creative in finding ways to include and help the hurting and less fortunate in this “together” we’re all in.

And yet, an idealist scold like Ms. Roberts lumps all the “privileged” together and berates them for trying to also make their lives a bit more bearable and entertaining while they shelter in place? Perhaps she is too busy feeling bad about her own privilege and finding fault with the rest of us to see the humanity and love of neighbor that is actually happening through acts of generosity and kindness all around her.

And if some of those people want to use the time they are being forced to spend at home planting flowers, baking bread, setting nice meals before their families, making quilts, and sharing pictures and videos with the friends they can’t invite over to see for themselves, well, I’m more than okay with that.

Comments

  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    She would rather everyone feel “queasy” about their privileged status — around the clock, I guess.

    A Puritan is someone who lays awake at night worrying that someone, somewhere, might actually be happy.
    Or at least not be in ANGST ANGST ANGST about their SIN SIN SIN.

    Even if said Puritan has disinfected themself of any trace of God-talk.

    • Yes, HUG. I was raised Presbyterian, which is fine as long as you pay no attention to their theology. Once you start to take it seriously, it is very unpleasant indeed. I always found the following to be true: A Presbyterian conscience doesn’t actually keep you from doing bad things; it just keeps you from enjoying them.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      ‘Privilege’ is eight parts providence.

      The current, if fading, supremacy of Europeans and their elites is based squarely on the development of the matchlock device by the Portuguese in the 1460s, and the subsequent rapid development of gunpowder weaponry. This effectively canceled the superiority of both the steppe nomads and their mobile archery,and the armored knight on his cataphract.

      So thank you, Joaquim Dos Santos, for my comfortable exitence.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        Other than that, Christiane’s news kinda took the vinegar out of my craw this morning.

  2. Klasie Kraalogies says

    As I once described an ex-colleague – some people are never happy unless they are unhappy.

    I do what I can. I have my own small consulting company, and have adjusted to the new reality by pushing services that we can do remotely. Most of that work and income goes to my staff. And we have been successful. And then I like to spend my income, which is adequate but not substantial, in beneficial ways. Like supporting a local microbrewery (that delivers). Or sharing a sourdough starter I got going. Or arranging Skype meetups. And sharing recipes that worked out to those that are interested. I don’t have skills that pertain to the crisis. My girlfriend has and thus I have been supporting her (remotely) – she is an epidemiologist. I make sure to to check on folks I know that might struggle currently- texting, calling etc. Nothing major – just a quick chat to make sure they are still.ok.

    Basically, just continuing to so the right things, to care about your fellow human beings, especially in the things you need to do anyway, and to continue making the world a better place – you are doing well. And if you are able to do so beautifully with the blessings you have received – great. And if you are having an off day and the anxiety chews on you – it happens to most of us. You are being human.

    But standing on a soapbox yelling at people that they are bad for trying to enjoy life as much they can under the circumstances, or yelling at them because they are not performing great art or learning new skills or a new language (as some are wont to do, ugh) – that just spreads misery. BTW, I think those are 2 sides of the same puritanical coin.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      If you’re and Op-Ed columnist you gotta write something! 🙂

      • petrushka1611 says

        Bingo. And that reminds me of a lot of fundamentalist preachers — when you have 45-60 minutes to fill every week because you are the center of your service, you end up coming up with a lot of silly opinions so you can have something to say.

    • But standing on a soapbox yelling at people that they are bad for trying to enjoy life as much they can under the circumstances, or yelling at them because they are not performing great art or learning new skills or a new language (as some are wont to do, ugh) – that just spreads misery. BTW, I think those are 2 sides of the same puritanical coin.

      Yes. Me, I’m just trying to fight the brave fight against pessimism and despair, navigate the online unemployment benefit system, and get our home clean for the first time in a decade. Anything beyond that I’ll leave to the human potentialists.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      But standing on a soapbox yelling at people that they are bad…

      1) “I’M MISERABLE SO ALL OF YOU HAVE TO BE MISERABLE TOO!”
      2) “SEE HOW RIGHTEOUS AND VIRTUOUS I AM? SEE? SEE? SEE?”

  3. Many of those staying at home are trying hard not to give in to despair as they watch their financial insecurity grow day to day and week to week. Some, perhaps many of the people who until very recently were people with more are now becoming people with less.

    Yet still there are people who practice generosity in the face of uncertainty. As I approached the cluster mailbox across the street to get our mail the other day, a neighbor couple — one of whom stays at home and is in a high risk from coronavirus category, while the other works as a medical technician — stopped me (safely distanced!) to talk for a couple of minutes. Before we separated, the woman said, “This is for you and your wife,” took a bag of groceries from their vehicle — which they had been getting out of when we stopped to talk — and set it down for me to pick up. And that was not the first act of material kindness my wife and I have been beneficiaries of during this time.

    There certainly is “tikun olam” — world repairing — going on in our world today. How much, how little? No one knows, but maybe how much doesn’t matter, maybe it can’t be quantified that way. There is also another Jewish mystical tradition, the Tzadikim Nistarim, which is a belief that in the world there are always 36 righteous people “who justify the purposes of humankind in the eyes of God.” Maybe just 36, or a few more or less, doing “world repair” is all it takes; and maybe, as another Jewish rabbi said, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.”

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Serious question: To what degree is this kind of thing true… “””We’re telling ourselves this fairytale: Once upon a time, everything was beautiful, …. we can trick ourselves into believing we’re in control.””” … how many people are doing that? It’s so weird – the blaming people for a fantasy you are projecting on them. I doubt how many people do that [have the sense of being “in control”], real or imagined.

    I hear this kind of thing all the time and I always feel: “What?” It is so weird.

    • Adam, excellent observation. This is the ultimate strawman whereas the very privileged Roberts projects her thoughts to others and writes about it. The young Harvard educated privileged Roberts lives in a bubble of elite isolation. If this is the best , most profound column she can come up then the dying newspaper business needs 2 ventilators. This high lights why life experience and context is so important. I feel like I am piling on but CM raised a very valid point.

  5. Christiane says

    bad news
    my husband was taken to hospital yesterday with stroke symptoms, he coded twice in ER and was brought back and put on a ventilator unconscious . . . tests were done . . . NOT the virus, that test was negative . . . it’s metastasized cancer to the lower brain stem and the upper spine and I was repeated told that the outlook is poor. My son is on his way home from Alaska. I’m asking for prayers for my husband, I’m seeking God’s will but also hopeful that we may have a little more time with him left. (?)

    Please pray for my husband, dear people
    I would be most grateful for your help. And God Bless!

  6. Paul McGuire says

    New Jersey did an hour long special music program on regional television the other night to elicit support for an organization raising money to help first responders, vulnerable people, etc. Performers included the Springsteens, Jon Bon Jovi, Tony Bennett as well as younger artists who call the state home. Just an amazing hour and I couldn’t have been prouder to call myself a New Jerseyan. All the performers and others who talked are privileged but they created a first-class program honoring those who are giving so much in hospitals, local food banks and doing other essential work.

    • I see Rutger’s has developed a new saliva test for coronavirus, quick and accurate, and NJ is rolling this out on an exploratory basis in some communities. Now THIS could be a game-changer for the whole country. Even though I’m not an alumnae, three cheers for Rutgers, and three cheers for NJ, the state I spent the first 4 decades of my life in — some states, in tandem with and under the direction of real scientists, are getting the job done.

  7. This, this, a thousand times this.

  8. MODERATOR NOTE: I have deleted some comments because I don’t want us to go down the rabbit hole of complaining about the broader media and the culture wars. Today’s post is about one article, one person’s point of view, about which I wanted to rant. That’s all.

  9. I tend to be a glass half full guy. Aside from this blog I don’t read other social media so I am blessed not to see the noise – good or bad. I have noticed in my family that there is more opportunities for conversation, more laughing, deeper discussion, all good things. We have not been impacted financially by the crisis as I am still working, aside from the financial vehicle issues that everyone is experiencing, so I consider us blessed.

    There will be those who complain about the hypocritical way others present themselves. They may not be aware that their could be a back story that they are not aware of. Maybe they should just turn off social media and be concerned about the plank in their own eye.

    I am getting some honey-do projects done around the house and enlisting the help of my kids – and that’s a good thing – lots of conversation, teachable moments, and laughter.

  10. Moralism is not just a problem of the religious. Has it ever been?

    • It is a source of much irony how puritanical the secular “Left” can be.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “New England Puritans, seven-times-distilled down to eliminate any hint of “God”, yet still retaining all the Righteousness and Moral Fury.”
        — Burro (Mule)

      • People easily and quickly fall into moralistic black or white thinking, whether they are religious or not. It’s morally easier to do that, and the truth is that groupthink pushes people in this direction, especially if they strongly identify with some idealistic or moralistic subgroup, such as some forms of Christianity or social progressivism. I freely acknowledge that I sometimes fall into this trap in a big way, and land hard as a result.

  11. I do think her tone comes across as unhelpful. Yet, I find myself in this tension of providing what I might call a pastoral response and a prophetic response.

    The pastoral response is to care for people, help them process life, to still create rhythms of grace and joy in a very, very strange time that we’ve all entered into. This has actually been my primary response.

    Still, I think this space has been created for us to reflect on how we can change. I had been saying, “I can’t wait to get back to some normalcy in life.” But I’m starting to ask whether the norm of yesterday was the best approach. As a church, as humanity, what needs to adjust to bring about true flourishing.

    There is truly tension here and I think we have to look at both sides of the proverbial coin in some form or fashion.

    • I appreciate the two-fold character of your response. There is tension here, and it’s not either/or, not black or white. The chiding and superior tone of her words was not helpful, but what she was saying was not completely untrue.

  12. Yeah, I’ve felt like the tenor of life generally has softened. People seem kinder. I feel kinder. It’s like our fragility is clearly on display so let’s hold each other up.

  13. A member of our church family, an older man I used to greet and shake hands with every week until he became too infirm to attend on a regular basis, passed away from COVID-19 today. His wife had been in choir with us until a couple years ago, when she retired from the choir, but continued to make it to worship on a more regular basis than her husband could. It’s not the first loss to COVID-19 in our parish. This is hard.

  14. After 9/11 Steve Buscemi went back to the New York firehouse, where he worked before finding success on the big screen, and volunteered. He didn’t alert the media or post selfies but eventually word got out. Tragedy is an equalizing factor that forces all of us to realize we are more the same than different. Natural disasters, economic collapse, anything that makes us uncertain about the future has a similar effect. Things that were really important suddenly don’t matter as much or at all anymore. The “times that try men’s souls” often have a positive effect on our humanity. So when doctors and nurses, celebrities and politicians say “we’re all in this together” I take those words at face value because I believe them myself.