Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 2

For an introduction to this series, look here

Most people do not understand what they have seen, nor do they learn from what they have experienced, but believe their own opinions

Heraclitus would not have been surprised by the epidemic of rumour and conspiracy theories, which has only spread faster during the pandemic. He had quite a low opinion of human beings’ ability really to learn from what was in front of their faces, compared to what intuitively seems right, which is often very different.

The facts are complicated, boring and difficult to disentangle. Stories are compelling, engaging and easy to believe. Taking a less judgemental line than Heraclitus, I think we should forgive ourselves and others for our desire to believe a good story which re-establishes us in our world. Knowing the story, knowing what’s really going on, even when it’s a story of conspiracy and of evil, is better than uncertainty.

The American journalist H L Mencken had it right: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” The only way in which I would differ is that there is not just one solution to our confusion and distress. A whole supermarket of theories is available, tailored to our existing fears and expectations. Professional quality videos on Facebook or Youtube, Twitter memes, Whatsapp ‘inside information’, or whatever other means we use to know ‘what’s really going on’: it’s there for us.

We need to forgive ourselves the desire to believe a good story; but that doesn’t mean we should give in to it. Switching off from the complexity will do us no good in the long run. For those who choose not to believe that COVID-19 really exists, it may well have fatal consequences in the short run, too. Reality is always messy, and especially so now. Living well in the midst of this time is about finding stories to tell that can give us strength to live as well as we can now, in the situation we’re really in.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark

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