#53 - just look up
on seeing reality more clearly
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When I worked in global health nearly a decade ago, I came across a medical device company in Japan that had created a vest of sorts that would simulate the feeling of having a heart attack. The objective was to use a hard-hitting experience to persuade citizens to take health prevention directives more seriously. At the time, most campaigns in the global south used pamphlets, text messages, wall paintings, television commercials, door-to-door canvassing etc. to communicate health behaviours that could prevent chronic illness or death. The effectiveness of campaigns varied at best, but were always mild in comparison to the experience of either being threatened with an illness or disease, or knowing someone who had contracted or died from it.
Essentially, behaviour change was most likely only when the threat arrived at your door or the neighbours, which made the simulation a brilliant response to our irrational human nature. Even then, when faced with a direct threat, a minority amount of folks would deny or disregard it, unable to contend with what it could mean for their short fate or simply not care to.
This course of behaviour change echoes in the plot of Don’t Look Up, the Netflix satire of Armageddon that was released a few weeks ago. The film could very well be an organized effort between climate scientists around the world who have for over a decade been sharing warnings of the escalating threats to our planet’s health, and have likely reached their wits end. Similar to patterns in our current culture, facts shared by two astronomers played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence about a comet they discovered that is directly targeting earth is taken as a ‘possible theory’, a light morning show segment to banter about, a business opportunity by a tech giant and a conspiracy used to rally the opposition for an upcoming election. The urgent news becomes ideal fodder for meme culture rather than crisis leadership and a much needed reorientation of priorities and values.
After much screaming to government and citizens alike with pictures and evidence and being gaslit by the media apparatus, Lawrence gives up, and is shortly followed by DiCaprio, who momentarily is swept up in his new found fame. They both descend into depressive realism - a state that has defined a large part of the last two years for me. Depressive realism draws the connection between depression and wisdom, and was first suggested by Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson in a paper published in 1979 that shared the results of a study that measured the illusion of control between depressed and non-depressed students. The results led the authors to hold the view that reality was perhaps more clear through the lens of a depressed person.
The depressive realism hypothesis is ‘controversial’ as Julie Reshe writes in Aeon, because it calls into question the practice of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is based on the premise that there isn’t any value to negative thoughts. Yet, Reshe references additional studies that have also shown the connection between sadness and critical thinking, and conversely between positive moods and more stereotypical and cliche thinking. From her own experience with depression she wonders ‘what if I learned something valuable, that I wouldn’t be able to learn at a lower cost? What if it was a collapse of illusions – the collapse of unrealistic thinking – and the glimpse of a reality that actually caused my anxiety?’
Lawerence and DiCaprio are thrusted into a crude unveiling of the illusion of a system that is unwilling to contend with reality. Even as accomplished academics that are validated by their peers, they are rendered powerless, seen as crazy and eventually gaslit and threatened into silence. A few days before the impending dooms day, the comet becomes visible in the sky - and it is the first time that citizens begin to accept their fate. This is solidified at a presidential rally where in the midst of being guided by leader, Meryl Streep, in the denial chant ‘don’t look up,’ a citizen from the opposition does in fact look up towards the sky and sees the comet heading to earth with their own two eyes. The threat has now been experienced and has arrived at the door, but it is too late. Minutes later, humanity begins to dissipate into dust and we are left with the artifacts and junk of our legacy flying in space: cars, photo frames, cellphones.
Perhaps what is most uncomfortable about the film is not that humanity is going to end - history suggests that has and will happen again - but rather the moments between the acceptance and the end. In the final scenes and hours before the comet is going to hit, DiCaprio picks up Lawrence and her fuck it the world is ending beau, Timothee Chalamet, and drives back home to his wife and kids after a short-lived affair. Music on the radio is playing and DiCaprio revels in his love for the band like one would on any given day. It is not any given day - but what is left to say at this threshold?
They soon arrive back to DiCaprio’s home and cook a meal to share around the dinner table, turning off the live televised mission led by an Elon Musk figure who has collaborated with the US government to mine the comet for billions of dollars in resources using technology that hundreds of scientists warned would fail and ultimately does. For DiCaprio and Lawrence, the end is marked by a return to our fundamentals - sharing time, stories of gratitude and a meal accompanied by bottles of wine. As they wait for the inevitable, the conversation slows into a casualness about DiCaprio being a coffee aficionado, that is both a marker of the peace in acceptance and the dissociation from the unfathomable. In mid-sentence, the roof suddenly collapses into itself.
The last two years have been so noisy and in many ways, such a mess. Capitalism’s encroachment of the pandemic was visible at every stage: from our policies on paid sick leave to a racist vaccine distribution strategy and now extortion from testing. Because of this, we lost so many people, perhaps before they were ready; parents, siblings, lovers, grandmas. At times I have felt like Lawrence, bursting into anger from disbelief, arguing with friends through back and forth slack messages, and doom crying and scrolling through the night. I can legitimately say that I have slept 15% of what I was meant to and have felt chronically dehydrated from anxious sweating.
But with each passing day, headline and emotional breakdown, my stories and attachment to the illusions stripped and stripped and stripped away. At times it was ugly - like seeing the ways in which justice and compassion got entangled with moral superiority, righteousness and virtue signalling in graceless ways. My intellectual understanding was solid but it took many hollow episodes of depressive realism to accept some harder realities in the folds of my body.
A few months ago on a completely ordinary day, something in me settled. It wasn’t peace for what was, but it was peace with what is. There would be no arrival point to all getting along and recognizing our shared humanity. If it came, it would likely be in our final moments before a tsunami or a comet wiped us out.
But there would be guides, luminaries and shapeshifters on the way, like Bell Hooks, like Desmond Tutu, like Adrienne Marie Brown, like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin whose teachings on love, freedom, and justice were so clearly derived from the withering of illusions during episodes of depressive realism and held the depth that could steadily hold us through contemporary discernments on who and what we give power to. There would be countless acts of care and tenderness between text messages and cups of tea that would never make the papers and have no agenda to accomplish. And there would be ways to meet reality more gracefully, with curiosity, reverence and acceptance, even as it exposed its nasty visages.
Normally, a movie like Don’t Look Up would send me into an existential tailspin that would begin and end with staring at the ceiling without blinking for hours, but I was largely unmoored by it and that oddly felt like some kind of growth. In accepting how terrible reality could be, I saw our magnificence more clearly too, and could more sincerely choose which story, which vantage point, occupied my foreground.
Since we have been threatened with our own comet, the coronavirus - we did change our behaviour. We did rise to meet reality - even if we didn’t always understand or agree with the rationale and were weathered by alternative beliefs. We were not perfect, but often sincere. Between putting on a mask when traveling from a restaurant table to the bathroom, sanitizing every time we came back to the car after an errand, lining up for hours to get a vaccine, isolating in lonesome for days and weeks when we just weren’t sure what to do, taking rapid tests before seeing loved ones even when they were hard to locate and expensive - a sincere consideration for our collective well-being emerged. In the best of cases, we expressed familial and community love through over-indexing on safety measures, even when it became tedious and tested our nerves. After the mental labour of weighing all the potential risks and available choices were said and done, not endangering someone’s well-being felt far more important than temporary discomfort and absence. We weren’t perfect but we were resilient and though resiliency is not the yardstick we are fighting for in the absence of supportive and affirming structures - our willingness to generate it is still worth celebrating.
Our capacity to change our behaviour as an act of care says a lot about who we are and who we are becoming.
I say this not to wrap a neat bow at the end of the Gregorian calendar, but with the decision to anchor in this perspective, and the wisdom that we have to be intentional about the stories that we wrap around inescapable facts of our physical reality - of the comets coming our way. Sure, we could reduce our response to the pandemic as simply coercion as some kind of libertarian anthem - but what might be the impact of further concaving distrust on a planet that we inevitably share? The choice is mine, yours and ours.
DiCaprio and Lawrence ultimately wanted to save humanity - an effort that is perhaps too grandiose for our complexity, and too vacant from the larger evolution and consciousness of the universe. ‘I’m grateful that we tried,’ Lawrence says at the dinner table, acknowledging that she was going down, but with dignity. As I reflect on 2021, which seems more like a long 2020, I choose to remember the ways in which we acted with dignity. I choose to see us as people who care even when forces try to beat it out of us. And I choose to believe in our capacity to change for our liberation.
See you in 2022. May it bring exactly what we need.
I would love to kick off the new year in the spirit of giving. So, the first three people who email me with their address, I will send you a copy of my friend, Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr’s upcoming book release: I am Because We Are: An African Mother’s Fight for the Soul of a Nation