By Bill McCormick, SJ
May 12, 2020 — As the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us, times of crisis often lead us to reflection. The internet is awash in articles with stories like “What I Learned From the Pandemic” or “What I Learned about X From Staying at Home.”
But where does that reflection go after the crisis? Every time something momentous happens, we all have something to say about what we learned from it. We all announce plans to live differently. But then we seem to return to the status quo, as though we were never really serious about learning and changing. Indeed, the point of all the think pieces and public self-reflection seems to be discharging a perfunctory obligation, not drawing us toward action.
I would encourage you to stop here and take a minute to reflect. If you are anything like me, there have been many moments in your life when you knew you needed to change, and then did not. Was it 9/11? The Great Recession? After a family member died? After a personal decision led to bad consequences for you or loved ones? Or perhaps after a retreat, when in the midst of a great “retreat high” you decided to change everything about your life, and then ended up changing little to nothing.
If you are honest with yourself, the actions you took toward change probably fall well short of the intensity of your initial resolve. Why is that?
This is a theme of one of my favorite films, “I Heart Huckabees.” (If you’ve not seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch it. A teaser: It stars Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as “existential detectives.”)
It’s a tale of juxtaposed existential crises. Mark Wahlberg’s memorable character, a firefighter named Tommy whose life is falling apart, poses this question: “Why do people only ask themselves deep questions when something really bad happens, and then they forget all about it after?”
That last part is what really fascinates me: Why are we so anxious to go back to “normal” when it is so often the “normal” that the crisis exposed as unstable, unsustainable and unjust? Why are we so quick to abandon all of our resolutions to change that we made in the midst of a crisis? Why does the forgetting feel so intentional?
There are plenty of superficial answers to Wahlberg’s question. But the movie offers a deeper answer through the crisis of another character, one played by a young Jude Law. Law shines as an ambitious and unscrupulous corporate climber. Confronting Law about the attention-seeking activities he engages in to avoid confronting his own depression, Tomlin asks Law what would happen if he stopped such activity. She asks him: “Are you being yourself?” Law responds with the greatest line of the movie: “How am I not myself?”
At first, Law says the line defensively, as a reaction to Tomlin’s criticism. But he repeats the line, almost surprised that it came out of his mouth. And as the line comes out of him, it enters more deeply into him.
“How am I not myself?”
It is a brilliant line. It leads Law’s character to earnest, puzzled self-reflection. As he contemplates the line, he begins to see the disjunct between the “I” he thinks himself to be and the “I” he in fact is. He comes to see the need to change within — that the interior need for reform is as crucial as any exterior one. Indeed, they are intimately linked.
That is exactly what so rarely happens in crises: a deep-seated resolution to change that is itself a kind of change. Call it conversion, if you want.
A lot of our “reflection” during periods of chaos is ideological and therapeutic: We affirm what we already think so as to give ourselves a sense of security or righteousness. A college professor of mine has tweeted amusingly about this:
Today marks the 19th day in a row that my isolation has failed to generate a Why COVID-19 Proves I Was Right About Everything All Along take. Occasional aspirations of becoming a public intellectual seem to be fading off into the distance.
— Jacob T. Levy (@jtlevy) April 1, 2020
For example, some of us are comfortable naming a need for structural reform “out there” that does not challenge us personally in any way. Others tend to commit to personal improvement that turns away from our role in larger structures. In such cases, our renewed sense of the need for change is illusory and primarily therapeutic: It gets us through the moment, and no further.
Ideologies are often based on half-truths, or more accurately half-pictures of the world. This is part of Mark Wahlberg’s problem in the film: He blames every ill in the world on petroleum extraction. The use and abuse of petroleum lead to problems, for sure, but it is not the root of all evil.
Therapy is not all bad. But too often we cope in ways that help us avoid facing real problems. Indeed, this is a primary function of ideology: to construct a world in which we can avoid facing reality.
Moments of crisis ought to lead us to see that our vision of the world is usually too small and too big. Too small because we prefer to focus on the parts of reality that confirm what we already believe — what we want to believe. Too big because we can get caught up in the vast number of things that need to happen, and all the time that it will take. But long-term change is hard, slow work. It starts today. It continues tomorrow. It continues next week.
I would encourage you to think about what will make it hard for you to learn something from the pandemic. How are you seeking therapy and ideological confirmation?
There are lots of possible diagnoses and solutions, including a crisis of solidarity, decadence, etc. But, whatever the reason, remember that change is a daily struggle. It is about building new and better habits. And the most basic habit might be cultivating an awareness of how resistant we really are to conversion.
The good news is that we can absolutely do that. And we can start now.