It feels like things are falling apart.
Or, perhaps a more accurate assessment is that things have always been falling apart, but now we are all falling apart too – languishing from COVID fatigue and grief – and no longer have the resilience or energy to defend our emotional selves against this outside chaos.
As we endure rolling unpredictable blackouts, blatant government corruption, climate crises, health pandemics, and the emotional scarring of living in the most unequal country in the world, it feels as though the light at the end of the tunnel has officially been shut off, and there is no loadshedding schedule to tell us when it will be turned back on (and possibly the rescue train will never come along the tunnel because we’ve bought the wrong size locomotives in a dodgy deal).
This is a difficult time to be alive. A tough time to be hopeful.
Gabor Maté, in his book When the Body Says No highlights three factors that universally lead to stress: uncertainty, the lack of information, and the loss of control. Perhaps this is why things feel this awful.
These are uncertain times. It’s unclear when the pandemic will end, when we will get vaccinated, if we will survive. We don’t know whether the person walking towards us without a mask on is vaccinated or reckless. We can’t tell who’s sick and who’s not – we can’t even tell if we’re infected, unless we develop symptoms. A virus that circulates around us, invisible and deadly, is unpredictable.
We are reminded daily that we are not in control. Global vaccine monopolies trade money for our lives. Our municipalities, provinces, departments, and political parties make corrupt decisions that we have no influence over (facilitated, let’s not forget, by private actors looking to make money off of our suffering). The budget, more austere by the minute, is passed under a ruse of public participation but really Parliament never listens and never changes it before passing it. Laws that need to be passed urgently, are not passed. Laws that are introduced for malevolent intentions slide through Parliament like eggs of a PFAS-polluted teflon pan.
There is so much information from so many opposing sources that it can feel impossible to know which information to trust. We are surrounded by social media noise and the radical right and left who peddle stories that are compelling and emotive … but are they true? Babies that don’t exist make national headlines, but the 1400 maternal deaths that happen each year don’t even feature. We cling to the few solid sources of truth (thank god for you, Mia Malan, the Daily Maverick) but are forwarded crazy things every day by old work colleagues and extended family. Our desire for someone to just tell us what is going on and what to do is childlike in its intensity.
We are afraid. We are stressed.
Chronic stress does strange things to our brain, making us knuckle down into our odd beliefs, horde toilet paper, not care about the people who are struggling around us.
Or, for some, we become so overwhelmed by the suffering of others that we become unable to separate, immobilised by the magnitude of it all. As Sisonke Msimang beautifully describes in her essay, Grief is Another Word For Love, “Somehow, these two sadnesses, my private sadness and this public sadness, have become entangled.”
Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay in 2016, that I often turn to when I am feeling this deep sense of hopelessness. In that essay she says:
“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.
Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”Rebecca Solnit.
Here, uncertainty becomes something to celebrate rather than fear.
Sure, we may not know what is going to happen, but that means that all this terror, sadness, and loss may form fertiliser for something better. A different world. But it requires us to act. It requires all of us to hope.