µ#3: Tired

Does it not seem as if we were tired all the time? Is this some kind of psychological or spiritual long Covid (even without the medical condition itself)? Certainly, I cannot really be alone in this. This sense of dread, of sameness, even doom, it has to stop. Be patient all, and be well.

µ#2: Why the Posturing as if Pandemic was Over?

Why do people feel the need to posture as if the pandemic was over? What’s with the “no masks” pretension, with excluding and mocking people who still want to be careful? What’s with the denial of science? We know this is an evolving situation, that the vaccines don’t protect fully, that may still allow you to spread Covid – should we not protect all those who still need protection?

µ#1: Fleeting Micro-Thoughts

There is not always time to write a full post, but sometimes, I feel the need to just throw something out. I’ll have a new category of micro blog posts (marked with “µ”, the greek letter mu for “micro”) which are less thought out, nothing fancy, but urgent enough, in my (more or less) humble opinion, to be put out there. Given that I don’t use Twitter, they’ll be collected here.

#101: The Mask Does not just Protect You but Others as Well

If you are vaccinated against Covid-19, you may be safer now from serious illness and death, with the caveat that virus mutations may still bring some uncertainty. Many vaccines seem mostly safe and effective, and adverse reactions are statistically not relevant, as far as we know now.

But for many, vaccination does not seem to be an option. There can be a variety of reasons, and even though it would be desirable that eventually, everyone gets vaccinated, it simply won’t happen. We cannot demand it of everyone, apparently, and we cannot – and should not – mark people with signs that they are vaccinated or not.

This means, even if you are (probably) safe, others around you may not be.

What has been true about mask wearing from the beginning is that they do not just protect you yourself, but others around you also. That means until there is herd immunity, the scientific thing to do, the kind thing to do, is to keep wearing the mask everywhere where distance cannot be maintained, and where we cannot be certain that everyone around us is vaccinated.

Thus if you see me out in public in the near future, I will still be wearing a mask, whether formally required or not. It’s not just about me. It’s about others as well.

#93: Don’t Picture This: The Trouble With Selfies

My phone’s front camera is probably very confused. It has been severely underused. The back camera is not very happy either, but it gets used occasionally when I have forgotten to take my regular camera with me and need to take a picture. Very rarely does the front camera get to make a video call, but I prefer to use a real computer for that.

I don’t even really know what a “filter” is on the phone or one of these photo apps, or why I should be using it. That’s what Photoshop is for, isn’t it? Of course, I know, and I mockingly pretend not to know. Somehow. But somehow, I also don’t know.

It’s not that I don’t take any pictures ever. I’m a pathological picture taker, and I have spent quite some time thinking about Susan Sontag’s book On Photography, which successfully and disturbingly analyzes said pathology. Ideally, this reading is combined with Plato’s discussion of the power of writing as well as his metaphor of the cave, Walter Benjamin’s article “The Work of Art in the Time of Mechanical Reproduction,” Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and Neil Postman’s Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Combining the insights gained from this tour de force of media theory, it becomes clear that it is too simplistic to cling to the idea that technology would be basically neutral, would just be tool, and that it would depend on how to use it. Technology is far more than that. Its influence on our lives is thoroughly transformative. It lets us believe that it does our bidding while in fact we yield to its influence and needs just as much. We do have some control over how to use it, but even its availability changes the very ways we can think about it.

Do I need to know something by heart, or is it just enough to look it up? Do I focus on experiencing something in real life, or do I focus on recording it, transforming it from a continuum of active being to a frozen moment in time, a mere snapshot, something that will serve as a substitution for reality? What does this kind of technological reductivism do to the world thus captured, what does it do to what we think about this world and the living beings contained therein? What does it do to people if they are mainly understood through their media representations? What does it do to their notions of self if those representations are created by themselves even?

Whoever sat pretty for Leonardo when he created the Mona Lisa may rest safely in their grave shrugging off whatever Leonardo may have seen in them and showed of them in his famous painting. But what does this do to the person conducting a self-portrait? We know that Vincent van Gogh probably did not gain in personal happiness through his painting of self-portraits. He represented himself as himself. If you subscribe to the idea that Leonardo actually may have painted himself as a woman, as Lillian Schwartz suggests (and which sounds actually fascinating and has some level of plausibility), then Leonardo perfectly understood that any visual representation is always an interpretation. Certainly, Van Gogh knew that also.

Artists understand that even if you depict yourself or represent yourself, you are never being authentic: There is always something else happening. The self on the page, or in the picture, always has to be seen as a lyrical I. The “me, myself and I” that you see in self-reflective and self-portraying art is never the real self. It is a deliberately chosen perspective, a snapshot at a specific time, a setting in a particular scene, an inauthentic moment posing as authentic for a very clear artistic and dramatic purpose.

Reality cannot be captured, it can only be represented. Umberto Eco illustrates this in his short story ridiculing the creating a map of the empire in a 1:1 scale. The map would completely cover and crush the reality beneath it, as it would take over the entire space of the empire itself. Similarly, if we rely on nothing but representations of reality in order to understand it, we will limit ourselves to understanding the representations rather than reality itself. Granted, sadly, we need media and representations to even be able to conceive of reality. Our perception itself mediates the world around us. We are always sitting in Plato’s cave, we can never access reality as such. But we can understand that our tools of perception and the media we use to facilitate our perception in turn influence that perception also.

As Susan Sontag describes it, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” This acquisition, this pictorial conquest, this obsessive need to claim some form of ownership of the world by possessing it through images eventually destroys our relation to the world. We substitute experience with representation, concreteness with abstraction, the world with pictures of the world, the self with pictures of the self.

This act of substitution, of representation, certainly affects how we see reality. The self, specifically if it is mainly communicated through pictures, will eventually conform to the pictures. As with many things, this is probably not a problem unless done to excess, but it can still fundamentally change how we see ourselves.

There is a reason – probably more psychological than religious – that some cultures have looked with suspicion at photographing people, or at depicting an image of divinity. That which can get captured, depicted, and represented so easily will lose its mystique, its transcendental qualities or – following Benjamin – its aura. Something happens once we fixate our selves through pictures. It happens both for others and for ourselves. But how do you represent yourself without losing some sense of self? Especially if this is a constant exercise in the performance of the self?

Should we see self-photography as an art form? For some, it certainly is; for others, the definition of art would probably have to be stretched a bit. But art certainly can be an escape clause here: it requires though – as illustrated above – a conscious act of deliberate self-distancing from the image of the self as performance.

Yet the context of such pictures of the self certainly matters also, whether we should see them as more artistic self-portraits or what is commonly described with the less high-brow term as selfies. As soon as a selfie is posted on social media, the battle for audience reactions begins. How many people like my picture? How many don’t? How many are seeing it? Is the picture being noticed? At what point though do these questions into something more personal? How many people like or dislike or notice me? Am I, as a person, liked, or is it the representation that is liked? Should my self – if a specific representation is liked – conform to the representation? Should I myself become the image I have put out there as an allegedly authentic image of myself (or of my self)?

Maybe this is the key: if the pretension of authenticity is taken at face value, selfies may well turn from being a possible work of art to an act of introspection through outside judgement, and become an exercise not of play but of masochism (or its psychological twin, narcissism). We know that social media itself should probably be better described as anti-social: They all too frequently are an exercise themselves, and not in sociality but in sadism. Artists all throughout time have suffered from bad reviews, and have tortured themselves through their art. Maybe we should thus see the selfie as the revenge of the self-portrait: May the same level of scorn be heaped on John or Jane Q. Public now as it was heaped on artists throughout the ages.

But that is certainly not something to be endorsed. Personally, I am staying out of the selfie game. There are plenty of ways to indulge in self-loathing; I certainly don’t need to document this in pictures on a regular basis.

#90: In Defense of “Wokeness”

A great deal of scorn and dismay is currently heaped on a movement or way of thinking that describes itself as “being woke” or “wokeness.” The terminology itself may shift, especially when faced with an onslaught of ongoing critique or with attempts to use it for corporate purposes.

Certainly, it is easy to ridicule any attempt at creating a serious social movement of goodwill and progressiveness. Without a certain amount of naiveté, nobody surely would be able to believe that we, as a culture, would be able to change the world for the better. Any grand attempts at changing the way we treat each other in actions and speech, the way we conduct policy and business, and the way we understand and approach our reality must seem maddeningly simple-minded and shortsighted given the vast, cynical history of a world that has never been too kind to its inhabitants.

Any utopian design to build a better planet, any belief that “a better world is possible,” stands in the way of the collective and depressing experience of humankind.

I am not saying that every single suggestion, critique, or demand is something that is yet fully fleshed out. There is still work to do, and we need to recognize that. But there is substance here.

“Wokeness” is something that is serious. It is about the recognition that despite decades, centuries, millennia of human cultural, political, and social development, we are still not where we would like to be, where we would actually need to be to live up to the promises not of politics, but of life itself.

We are all human beings. We are all living beings. We are all living on this one planet, which is dwarfed by a Vast universe. This is it, and this is us. We are all connected by genetics, history, necessity, locality, for better or worse. There is only one human race. There is only one planet Earth, with all the life on it.

We have tried countless ways of being mean to each other, to be downright sadistic, hateful, evil, uncaring, unthinking, indifferent; in thoughts and in actions. Do we want to continue down this path or not?

We are all imperfect beings, we are all fallible, none of us is perfect, but don’t we want to aspire to becoming better, to become more perfect – while still remaining humble?

Are we all not in this together? Do we not need to recognize each other as our relatives? After Cain kills Abel, he asks, Am I my brother’s keeper? It is the clearest accusation ever in one of our earliest texts: Yes, we are our brother’s, our sister’s, our father’s, mother’s, friend’s, or stranger’s relative, and yes, their fate is connected to ours. We have a responsibility to wake up from the lull of indifference, from the coldness of monetized relations, from divisions by class, race, gender, age, or others, and to wake up to not just the possibility, but the necessity to see our world anew, as a place for everybody, including ourselves.

This is what “wokeness” means: the unapologetic desire and audacity to care about each other, and the political will to create a society that is more kind, that knows truth, knows justice, values life and dignity and can be hopeful again that human beings actually have the capacity to grow and transcend our imperfections and past and current sins.

All the details, all the oversimplifications, imperfectly thought-through solutions, provocations both necessary and unnecessary – all of which needing well-meaning and substantial criticism –, all these, however, pale in comparison to the actual desire for a better world, which – naively or not – may indeed bring us hope, and eventually, a better world, filled not with indifference and hate but with compassion and all-encompassing love.

So say we all?

#89: Tragedy is the Nature of Life, and That is OK

In the classical tragedy, the hero fights against fate. The ending is already clear, and nothing the hero does, will change the outcome. Tragedy arises from this positionality. Caught between the now and the inevitable then, resistance is necessary but futile. Resistance is the resistance against death, the fight to stay alive against all odds, to stay moral in a world of immorality. All choices that have to be made only pertain to the interim between one’s own life and one’s own death. Nothing that is left behind either punishes or rewards us ourselves – even though we know deep down that we don’t know, and that is even more tragic – or we can just give up. This is our freedom. We know that it ends, that it all ends, our lives, the lives of our friends and family, our country, our civilizations, our planet, our sun, our universe. Everything dies.

This tragic truth however is not bad news. It just is. It is up to us to fill our lives with what we want. Is that a license to do evil? Maybe religion was invented for a reason, maybe we need the notion of an immortal soul that could be damaged by our choices in life. I don’t know. none of us knows. But whether or soul is mortal or immortal, whether we call it our soul or our psyche, whether we call it eschatology or psychology, suffering is suffering, and joy is joy. We either cause happiness or pain, and if we cause it in others, we know, deep down, we will cause it in ourselves. It is not difficult, and we all know that.

Do I choose to cause happiness or pain today? Certainly, sometimes we do have to make difficult choices. Sometimes temporary pain is necessary to gain greater joy. Different perspectives need to be navigated, compromises need to be made, negotiations need to happen, and we surely don’t benefit from simplistic certainty about what is right and what is wrong. This is the other tragedy of life:  We all make mistakes, there are no absolutes except the certainties of our fallibility and eventual death.

But again, this too needs to be embraced as liberating. Realizing the inevitable is the only way to psychologically manage our tragic situation, and to see the dark, maybe even divine comedy behind it all. Either this cosmic joke is on us, or we realize that we can laugh about ourselves, so that in the end we can say that we have understood our suffering and turned it into something worth living with, and even worth living for.

#88: Nature is the Best Meditation

I have never known how to meditate in the way that is typically depicted in all kinds of media today. I am not able to sit down comfortably in some cross-legged position or alleged “easy pose,” listening to my breath and somehow clear my head. Not possible.

But there are other forms of meditation. Bruckner’s 8th Symphony in Celibidache’s rendering, clocking in at an hour and forty minutes, is a sublime experience of otherworldliness, so is watching Koyaanisqatsi and immersing yourself in it, or Visitors. But these may be strange tastes.

The easiest or best way is to just go out into nature. This does not have to be wilderness, but it has to be something that is out of your control, contains the unexpected, and requires you to just sit still and be mindful of your surroundings. David Attenborough is right – he typically is – about just being out there for 10 minutes in nature. Observe, marvel, and discover, like Thoreau famously said he did, and later philosophize like Emerson, maybe. Nature may be the big city, and you just sitting at an ideally open window, or in a park or near the street, watching the nature around you – people, pigeons, etc. Lose yourself in the now. Find not your own breathing, do not concentrate on yourself, but on your surroundings. Find the breath of the world, and discover your insignificance in it. This will do more to decenter yourself, to rethink your thoughts, and to – ideally – quite literally catch a fresh breath of air.

If you can be out in real nature, not our ghastly human-made habitats of concrete, steel and plastic (you can sense Emerson pushing me on here). Go out into the garden, maybe even the woods, the desert, the sea, or aim for the stars – and just be. Watch a bird fly, hear a fly buzz, when you don’t yet die, take in the smells and sounds and see that this all goes on without you, does not need you, does not require even your presence. You do not matter always. You are not all-important. You are just a guest, a visitor, and you have the freedom – as part of nature, even though we tend to deny that to ourselves – to also just be. Now that you are, what do you want to do with it? And so the healing, hopefully, can start.

Nothing fancy. All it needs is to be still for a moment, for at least 10 minutes, and to lose oneself in that which exists without us, in that which is always greater than us. The rest will follow.

#86: Nature Is Stronger than Us: The Pandemic, not the Lockdown, Is the Problem

It appears that if you feel tired, exhausted, depressed, and have been doing so for months already, you are not alone. The entire world is out of balance. Nothing is normal anymore, no matter how much we may want to pretend it is.

Some people are blaming the lockdown for this feeling. We can’t do what we would normally be doing, and it is because decisions have been made and continue to be made time and again to close down parts of normal life and have us postpone living like we used to.

But this kind of reasoning looks at things backwards. No matter how we may want to rationalize it away, the real problem is the continued development of the pandemic. Will the vaccines work? Will we be patient enough to wait till we have enough immunity that there will not be anymore the pressing danger posed by the virus? Can we afford to be patient? At which point does it become unsustainable to wait for a better tomorrow?

Yet any attempt to reason ourselves out of this will fail. Lockdowns are in place because of deaths and serious conditions, which are a result of infections and occur in a time-delayed fashion. If we let infection numbers rise today, the consequences will be only become visible much later. We know that, and this is why infection rates are a good predictor for the future. Once they go down, the chances for variants to arise goes down, because only a virus that’s still out there can mutate.

This pandemic plays on our biggest weaknesses; socially, psychologically, fiscally. We are not built for this. A lot of what is happening may be counter-intuitive, but it is still real.

Maybe it helps to remind ourselves that we are not alone in feeling the impact of this, even though it hits some people harder than others. Is this a test then for our capacity to empathize and sympathize? Does this moment in time provide an opportunity, though ill-gotten, to revisit what we consider? Time will tell, but I doubt it.

You may believe in the capacity for people to change, yet history will prove you wrong all too frequently. Not to sound too fatalistically, but our societies function the way they do for a reason. Things may change occasionally, but they’ll always coalesce into a pattern over time. We will eventually forget this pandemic as we’ve forgotten all the ones before us, and we will probably be just as unprepared for the next one that is surely going to follow.

Epidemics and pandemics have killed entire civilizations, even though we do not want to see that either. We want to believe that it is our own agency that can both save and doom us; but all too frequently, it is just nature itself.

Maybe Jurassic Park holds the lesson here that we will need to keep hearing: “Nature finds a way.” For better or worse. No matter how much we try to self-evolve our way out of this, nature cannot be tricked, cannot be overcome, cannot be avoided. We ourselves may not be patient, yet nature is, always.

#84: Panicking Is Not a Good Strategy

Certainly, the Coronavirus crisis is serious. By now, we are dealing with various pathogens, some more virulent and more dangerous than before. We are not sure to which the vaccines will work, and we will have to be careful.

Nevertheless, when leaders such as the current CDC director Dr. Walensky warn of “impending doom” and talk about how scared they are personally, this is not helpful. It is understandable to want to validate the feeling that many of us have daily, but is this a good strategy? Similarly, Dr. Fauci warned of a “darkest winter” last year.

These warnings may well be warranted, and statements about the seriousness of the virus are necessary. But communicating fear plays into the hands of those who already claim that this entire crisis is nothing more than human-made histrionics. “I am not afraid,” they say when they reject masks, distancing, isolating at home, and vaccinations, claiming that the others – those who communicate their fear – are weak and timid and distort the situation for their alleged political purposes.

We do not need to be afraid, we do not need to feel doom. We do, however, have to be cautious, careful, vigilant and do everything we can to defeat the spread of the viruses. We know what tools to use to minimize spread, and all of us who are able to use them should do so. We all can wear functioning masks. Most of us can maintain physical distance also. Many of us can work remotely, or work in workplaces that allow some distancing. By doing what we can do, we are protecting those whose choices are more limited. Additionally, the vaccines work, but they are not a cure-all without all the other measures.

Fear is very personal, and maybe it is good if leaders admit to it. But it never communicates well. “Concern,” sure. “Impending doom,” this just invites unwanted criticism just as this one right here. Fear can also paralyze and lead us to make mistakes. As I said before, we need logic right now, not panic.

We can beat this, but we need to do our part and stay the course.