But what if it’s exactly the other way around?
What the current crisis and our responses to it, both individual and institutional, have reminded us of is not the unreality of the pandemic, but the illusions shattered by it:
The grand, shared illusion that we are separate from nature.
That life on Earth is generally stable, not precarious.
That, despite what we know from the historical and geological and biological record, human civilization—thanks to advancements in science and medicine and social and governmental structures—exists inside a bubble, protected from the kind of cataclysmic event we are currently experiencing.
What I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that this supposed technological bubble was just that: a thin layer that popped easily.
The stronger bubble, the one that persists, is the psychological one. Even as our stark new reality becomes clear, it remains hard to accept that “normal” was the fiction. It will take some time to let go of the long-held, seldom-questioned assumptions of everyday life: that tomorrow will look like yesterday, next year like the last.
These assumptions are a luxury. For me, they are a cross product of my intersecting privileges: born in the United States, to professional parents, at a point in history where my life has proceeded, for the most part, through a series of economic booms without major socio- or geopolitical upheavals. Or at least with upheavals far enough removed so as to allow me to feel physically and mentally insulated. Living with these assumptions for so long has created a kind of expectancy as to how things tend to go, that my life has to make some kind of sense.
But what if it doesn’t? Quantum mechanics might provide a useful, if rough, analogy. At a fundamental level, physical reality defies our most basic intuitions about causality and locality, which is to say about time and space. Our senses and perceptions evolved to evade tigers and catch food, not to understand the properties of photons and subatomic particles. Despite more than 100 years of effort by the world’s leading physicists and philosophers, the quantum realm remains incomprehensibly bizarre. As it turns out, science fiction cannot invent anything weirder than the brute reality of the universe itself. The fact that we cannot comprehend it is a form of environmental mismatch.
We may face a similar type of conceptual difficulty in grappling with a pandemic. Our brains may not be naturally suited to dealing with problems of this scale or nature. Even our language, our concepts, are inapt tools, artifacts of our previous reality. Unprecedented, historic, we proclaim, with each new, grim milestone. As if precedent and history have bearing on a virus that seeks only to maximize copies of itself.
Perhaps most revealing is how we say the damage, the fallout, and the speed at which things are happening feel unimaginable, a word telling both in its rightness and wrongness. We “imagine” this kind of disaster all the time, in our dystopian-novel trilogies, our bingeable streaming miniseries. And most famously, in our summer popcorn global-disaster blockbusters, a well-worn genre that derives its pleasure and dread from the same source: literally imagining the worst. We enter dark, cool theaters in the middle of July, portals to other universes in which various doomsday scenarios play out. But here’s the key: We’re always behind a scrim of safety, a barrier between what we think of as possible and impossible. We watch these movies as tourists in an alternate reality, knowing that our round trip lasts two and a half hours, and then we will be home, safe in the real—and boring—world.