Meeting in the Middle; or, The Sanity Equation
I remember the progression well. First, it had no name. Then, it was the plague. At one point, the gay plague, graduated to GRID, gay-related immune disease. Eventually, AIDS, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. You might think it stopped there, but it didn’t.
As research continued, a distinction was made between HIV and AIDS. Just because someone was HIV-positive, it didn’t mean they had AIDS. Time wore on. AIDS patients got a big dollop of humanitarianism and were changed to PWAs, people with AIDS. At that point, it was still a game of Russian roulette. Most who had it died.
The process eventuated to PLWAs, and I recall taking a deep, deep breath when I learned what it signified: People Living with AIDS. Implicit was, of course, that they weren’t all necessarily dying.
It was a huge mental shift that, once it occurred, took its place immediately in the collective mind. Mostly because it was a relief. Almost everyone knew someone who was positive, whether consciously aware of that fact or not.
PLWAs. Well now, we have come to the same stage with SARS-CoV-2 a.k.a. the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy said in an address Sunday night, “Now begins the phase, for everybody, of living with the virus.”
PLWCs, that’s us. The exquisitely, painfully vulnerable human population of Earth.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is thinking along the same lines. “You can’t tell people in a dense urban environment all through the summer months: ‘We don’t have anything for you to do. Stay in your apartment with the three kids.’ That doesn’t work,” he said. “There’s a sanity equation here also that we have to take into consideration.”
And while we are, as I’ve noted, physically vulnerable, I am struck over and over again during this time how precarious that sanity equation really is.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson echoes his Italian counterpart. “Having recovered from a serious bout with the virus, [he] returned to work at 10 Downing Street on Monday and warned the British nation against acting in haste. ‘We simply cannot spell out now how fast or slow, or even when, those changes will be made.’”
“I know it is tough. I want to get the economy moving as fast as I can,” [Mr. Johnson] told the country. “But I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people.”
Or the American people or the Chinese people or any of the 7.594 billion people of the 177 countries on Earth who have recorded cases of Covid-19. There are 195 countries on the entire planet.
36.7 million people are living with HIV/AIDS on the planet.
35 million people have died from HIV/AIDS since 1981.
7.594 billion people are in dire need of learning to live with Covid-19 on the planet.
207,000 people have died from Covid-19 since January 2020.
2.98 million people have contracted Covid-19 since January 2020.
Listed starkly like that, the numbers are not encouraging. Add to the numbers the ‘sanity equation,’ and we have some serious work to do — as a species.
Opinion columnist Jennifer Senior writing about her inner Eeyore makes a good case for pessimism. “In the coming months, all of us are going to have to figure out how to gird ourselves psychologically for whatever the new normal might be. ‘Optimism tempered by realism,’ tends to be the favored formulation, and sure, that’s fine; it may even be politically and economically sound.
“But I’d also like to make a positive case for pessimism. Defensive pessimism, specifically. Because if things start going downhill, defensive pessimists will be the ones with their feet already on the brakes.”
Her logic made me smile. Sure, I can go to grounded, defensive pessimism, without the disappointed hopes that unreasonable, unseasonable optimism can leave behind. I’m sure any of us could. It’s one option.
Her explanation is too delicious to leave out. “And what, you may ask, are defensive pessimists? They are people who lean way into their anxiety, rather than repress it or narcotize it or allow it to petrify them into stone. They busily imagine worst-case outcomes and plan accordingly. This tendency can drive their more optimistic friends and relations bananas — defensive pessimists are destroyers of worlds, harshers of mellows — but it is, for the calamity-howler, a constructive adaptation, far more useful than trying to cheer up. There is no cheering up, as far as defensive pessimists are concerned. They reject what the theoretical psychologist Barbara Held calls ‘the tyranny of the positive attitude.’”
There’s also the farthest spot on the positive attitude spectrum, that of the blind optimism option, that rah-rah-sis-boom-bah, new agey spiritual bypass recommended loudly by various current spiritual gurus. We could all land here, too.
These are the be-careful-what-you-expect-for-you-will-likely-get-it folks. They’re also eerily superstitious — cracks in the sidewalk, anyone? — often police the words and ideas of others, are given to looking up (at what, I don’t know) and saying, “Cancel, cancel.” I tend to think of these types as treating God, the Universe, Whoever, like it’s an automat. Put your nickel in the slot, and order up whatever you want. And, honestly, sometimes it really does work that way. When the moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns … you know the rest.
Ms. Senior concludes: “It will take all sorts to make the months ahead survivable. But we shouldn’t count the pessimists out. Optimism, as we’ve seen with this administration, can tip swiftly and dangerously into self-delusion. Indulge in it too frequently, and there’ll be too little to fight for at all.”
Jake Nevins in “Gay Literature Is Out of the Closet. So Why Is Deception a Big Theme?” in this morning’s Times writes about James Baldwin’s 1956 novel “Giovanni’s Room.” It references David the protagonist’s decision, even whilst recognizing himself as a gay man, to live as a straight man.
“For David, the decision is less a conscious choice than an involuntary act of psychological contortion; his foremost victim is not one of the many people to whom he lies throughout the novel … but himself. ‘People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception,’ he confesses. ‘Their decisions are not really decisions at all … but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not.’”
Does this trope sound familiar to you? Not in the sense of queer novels, although maybe there too, but in the sense of a certain resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
Over the bungled course of communication that has come to be equated with the White House, how are we not all asking ourselves if Mr. Trump is delusional? In fact, I’d go so far as to ask, how can he not be? Opinion columnist Charles M. Blow is not known for pulling his punches. His essay in this morning’s Times is called, “For Trump, Lying Is a Super Power.” Which may just say it all.
“After Donald Trump’s ridiculous and dangerous suggestion last week that household disinfectants injected into people’s bodies might be a treatment for Covid-19, Republicans intensified their hand-wringing over whether his daily briefings were doing more harm — to his political fortunes and theirs — than good.” I am uninterested in these particular political fortunes except insofar as my vote may make any or all of them, to quote that lovely theologian RuPaul “sashay away” for keeps.
But, grasping at straws, anyone?
We the People are not trusted by the elected persons who allegedly represent us. Ergo, we cannot trust them to care for our welfare.
Mr. Blow goes inexorably on. “Trump, as a person and politician, is riddled with flaws. But he also has an ignominious super power: He is completely unencumbered by the truth, the need to tell it or accept it. He will do and say anything that he believes will help him. He has no greater guiding principles. He is not bound by ethics or morals. His only alliances are to those who would support and further his devotion to self-promotion.”
Mr. Blow is an offensive realist. [I do not mean that he offends, but that he plays offense.]
Ms. Senior is a defensive pessimist.
Mr. Trump is a pathological optimist.
And where, Beloved, do you fall on the X-treme Optimist to X-treme Pessimist Scale?
For me, I’d say I’m a defensive optimist.
That means that I’m basically an optimist, but that, despite the correct claims of the metaphysical absolutists [those are the never, ever even think about the problem, only the solution peeps], I think we need to acknowledge that there is a problem so we can move on.
Many years ago, I had a client who always teased me and asked, “How do you get to Chicago?” At the time, we were both in New York City.
“Well,” I’d say, “if you’re in San Francisco, you turn right. And if you’re in New York, you turn left. And if you’re in either place and turn the other way, you get wet.” We always laughed and she would go on her merry way.
The thing is, Optimist or Pessimist or Intrepid Traveler to Chicago, you have to know where you’re starting in order to make a plan.
Sufi poet Rumi speaks loudly to my heart at this time of considering the sanity equation both individually and collectively, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing. and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
That field, out beyond ideas of optimism and pessimism — where both individual and species are cared for — is our only salvation. I’ll meet you there, you precious PLWC, you.
Dr. Susan Corso is a metaphysician and medical intuitive with a private counseling practice for more than 35 years. She has written too many books to list here. Her website is www.susancorso.com
© Dr. Susan Corso 2020 All rights reserved.