Coronavirus: 11,495,412 (and counting). Humans: 0.
As much as we’d like to ignore corona, it’s not ignoring us.
We’ve had reason enough for distraction: a great global reckoning over race and inequality, crashing economies, and weirdly successful smoke-and-mirrors magic that makes the virus as invisible (to some) as Houdini’s disappearing elephant.
But the climb in global cases is relentless. Sometimes, we can even watch the death toll live on Johns Hopkins’ dashboard—numbers clocking like likes on a Twitter feed, 535,185 last time I looked.
So what’s corona got that we don’t? What makes it so seemingly invincible? It’s barely got enough genetic material to put one foot (spike) in front of another!
In a word, it adapts. It shape-shifts easily, arming its progeny with ever-evolving methods for destruction—or survival, depending on your point of view. Corona knows how to be interdisciplinary in ways that our brainy universities only dream of, acquiring expertise in evolutionary biology, globalization, human nature. It’s elegantly engineered to be sleek, minimalist, devoid of excess baggage. It’s got the agility of a ballerina with the raw power of a sumo wrestler. It’s agile enough to exploit weaknesses, find multiple points of entry into our all-too-permeable selves.
As for those selves themselves? We’re large, lumbering, confused. Change gets us bent out of shape. Even the simple idea of wearing a mask leaves us first anxious, then torn, then turned against ourselves. We weigh down our efforts with politics, anger, multiple unrelated agendas. We cling to what we know; we can’t help it, it’s how our brains work. And we don’t like to fail.
Viruses fail a lot, fail fast, mutate, move on. If we’re going to keep up with corona, we need to do the same.
Alas, our species stinks at changing course.
We don’t even see change most of the time—despite the fact that change is all around us. After all, even stones aren’t set in stone. They’re made of rock that’s been recycled many times, melted down and remixed in a churning pressure cooker simmering beneath the deceptively cool surface of the earth. Sometimes, that deeply buried stuff spurts from exotic volcanoes, spitting out, among other things, diamonds—ordinary carbon cooked and crushed into something shiny and new. (Corona, like all life, is also mostly carbon; same old stuff, different form.)
Earth itself rockets through space, spinning at a thousand miles an hour, taking us along for the ride. All the while we’re oblivious; we watch the sun “sink” behind the horizon, even though the sun is going nowhere. It’s hard to see change when you’re a part of it.
Not seeing the changes we’re a part of—I’m speaking for myself here—produces the shock of passing a reflection in a window, and wondering, Whoever is that old lady? Wearing my clothes! Is that me? The answer depends on what “me” means. If I’m talking about the very atoms that form the figure in the reflection, then, OK, maybe that’s me for now. But the parts we’re made of get recycled all the time. It’s highly unlikely that the components of “me” 20 years ago are still a part of me today. Rather, what’s permanent is the pattern, an oddly abstract thing, like a candle flame (more evaporating carbon), or a river (water droplets never the same), or a mind for that matter (carbon again).
So it is with us. Old photos, like fossils, suggest some of the me’s that went into shaping that pattern: At 20, posing in a Chinese dragon jacket, all legs and dangling cigarette. At 40, hiking with my bestie in the Rockies, hanging out with theoretical physicists, with my kids. At 60, dressed up in feathers and sequins to dance in the Sambadrome for Rio de Janeiro’s carnival. There’s no telling what an 80-year-old me will be (if there is one).
Still, through it all, there’s enough of a pattern to discern a “self.”
What changes and what can’t is rarely obvious. The fundamental things apply, but we don’t know what they are. When we find out, the answers often surprise us. Few people expected that the speed of light would turn out to be constant while the things we just assumed were constant—like space and time—are, in fact, elastic. Until very recently, we believed we understood that our internal genetic engineering—our DNA—was immutable, while the environment “outside” altered. Now we know that external influences mold the way our genes are expressed; the experiences we have (or don’t), especially as children, can radically refashion the blueprint itself.
Our understanding of change itself changes.
Little of this is intuitively obvious, but that’s what science is for: to expose the holes in our knowledge, the flaws in our so-called common sense.
It’s what lets us see the elephants in front of our noses. And it provides the technology that allows a clever magician to move one magically out of sight.
To be sure, some parts of society have adapted well. We’ve endured months of lockdown; many of us do wear masks. We’ve moved everything from game nights to yoga online. Boomers have become Zoomers. Late-night comics are funnier (and more relevant) than ever without audiences, and cultural institutions continue to put on performances. My favorite so far is Pacific Northwest Ballet’s socially distanced dancing swans.
But in general, we’re terrible at veering from course. Like the apocryphal fellow who looks for his lost keys only under the lamppost because it’s the only place he can see, we’re afraid of stumbling in the dark.
Keeping up with corona will surely take some stumbling; stepping into the dark always does. But how many times do we hear that someone “stumbled” upon a great idea? It’s the only way to become more adept at adapting in a hurry.
Oldsters have decades of experience adapting (or not) to revolutionary shifts—societal, cultural, medical, technological, political, military. OK, so Boomers haven’t exactly done themselves proud. We left the world a mess. But we do know a thing or two about the forces that stop change from happening. Knowing a little science doesn’t hurt either.
For example: Changing your mind is not a sign of weakness.
Au contraire, changing your mind is an obvious sign that you’re using it. Learning you’re wrong lets you revise your thinking. That’s science in a nutshell. No one thought continents could move until geology proved they can and do. No one imagined dinosaurs had feathers. No one believed that life could exist in the darkest depths of the ocean, where no sunlight can penetrate; yet there it is, feeding on minerals spewed from ancient vents, at temperatures above boiling. Life, as it turns out, exists almost everywhere because it adapts to almost any circumstance. Just like corona.
Wrong, in other words, often means incomplete, unexplored, unexposed; it means you didn’t know enough to have a righter answer. The good news is, that’s fixable.
Not surprisingly, we’re often even wrong about what we can change. Yes, even you can learn to bake bread. Yes, most white people can find another Black friend. Yes, cops can learn that weapons made for war zones don’t work on city streets, and even Mike Pence (!) can wear a mask.
These past few weeks alone, impossible things have happened, sometimes before breakfast—elephants exposed and deposed virtually overnight. NASCAR bans the Confederate flag. Mitt Romney marches for Black Lives Matter. The NFL admits that ostracizing Kaepernick was wrong. These past few decades, the routine sexual harassment that my generation took for granted (really, no one wanted to hear your complaints) is unfamiliar to many women my daughter’s age.
It’s unlikely a coincidence that countries run by women have done far better controlling corona than countries run by men. They’re less obsessed with being “right” and more focused on taking care of things (and people). That’s just basic biology: When women step out of the spotlight to assess what needs doing, they don’t have to worry about losing their masculinity.
That said, among the impossible happenings last week was Dick Cheney launching the hashtag #RealMenWearMasks to coax guys with fragile egos to cover up. A whole industry has popped up to make masks macho enough for “real men”: whiskey bottle masks, Darth Vader masks, mustache masks. Seriously, this is a real thing.
Part of what’s wrong with our vision of “right,” no doubt, is our bloated diet of advice books, columns, TV shows, videos, Instagram feeds. They school us in right way to be content, raise children, have sex, succeed, be a man. It goes without saying these generalities almost never apply to individual cases. What’s right for which man? Which kids? Succeed at what? Content with what?
What’s right is what works in any given space, time, context. Newton’s laws of gravity are “wrong” if you want to explore a black hole, but can be right enough to get spacecraft around the solar system.
What matters is finding the right way to thrive in whatever world you’re in.
Corona’s environment is us, its all-too-welcoming “hosts.” It’s found the right way to use us to get it where it wants to go.
What do we have that corona doesn’t? Well, we’ve got science, we’ve got art, we’ve got fun.
Science tells us what’s true, what’s possible. Art reminds us of what it means to be human, what matters. Play lets us fool around with crazy ideas that might turn out to be brilliant. Between them, we’ve got tools for creating a sustainable equilibrium that preserves the best and discards the worst of our ideas for vaccines, for prevention, even policing.
Meanwhile, we’ve got families and friends we care about. We’ve got orchestras playing for houseplants, ballerinas dancing at home with their dogs and cats, Zoom charades, cat videos, now even dancing “Karen” videos. We’ve got magicians. We’ve even got search tools that reveal exactly how Houdini made that elephant disappear.
Viruses mutate to survive, to take advantage of changing environments. Corona can’t live without us. So it learns all about our lungs, our hearts, our behavior, our global health system, the better to spread and grow strong. In turn, it teaches us about ourselves.
Black people, in a weirdly analogous way, have been learning about white people’s worlds for centuries—in order to survive. Most white people haven’t felt the same need to learn about Black people’s worlds. So to some, scenes of brutality seemed to come almost out of the blue (pun intended)—an elephant if there ever was one, trampling on people for real—on their freedoms, yes, but also literally on their lives. What does that teach us about ourselves?
In the end, we must co-evolve. Like the spinning Earth, we roll along together, or not at all.
Trevor Noah recently said that if mutation is corona’s secret weapon, then “we’re going to have to mutate to fight back.”
He concentrates, muttering to himself: Mutate! Mutate! Mutate!
A third eye appears on his forehead. He can’t see it, of course, because it’s a part of himself.
He shrugs his shoulders. “I guess nothing happened.”
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Maybe we’re already adapting and just don’t know it.
Photographs: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Getty Images; Andrea Savorani Neri/Getty Images; Steve Pfost/Getty Images
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