‘It’s Alright. We’re All Dying’: Summer Chronicles 2020 #7

by on August 3, 2020 · 0 comments

in Health, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

“It’s alright. We’re all dying.”

This is the feeling I get while consuming American media and walking the streets of downtown San Diego in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.  I said these words to myself the other day as I made my way around a pack of maskless tourists by the harbor, heedlessly ignoring any need to be concerned about their health or that of anyone else’s.

On this particular date, we were experiencing what was a record number of new COVID-19 cases but that was no reason to interfere with vacation nation.  We’re all dying, but it’s alright.

That was the refrain in Michael Ventura’s classic 1980s essay, “Report from El Dorado,” where he brilliantly outlined American media’s schizophrenic character.  As Ventura puts it:

Media keeps saying, “It’s all right” while being fixated upon the violent, the chaotic, and the terrifying. So the production of media becomes more and more schizoid, with two messages simultaneously being broadcast: “It’s all right. We’re dying. It’s all right. We’re all dying.” The other crucial message — “We’re dying” — runs right alongside “It’s all right.”

He goes on to observe that North American “entertainment” consists of devoting an enormous amount of time to “the ritual of sharing death” in the form of both fictional narrative and TV news.  This practice defines us because, “Only a people dying in the midst of death would need to see so much of it in such sanitized form in order to make death harmless. This is the way we choose to share our death.”

At base, what this speaks to, according Ventura, is a deep denial of death: “So we engage in a ritual we pretend isn’t happening, hovering around deaths that we say aren’t real.”  But our denial doesn’t save us.  Instead it condemns us to a kind of living death cut off the core awareness that makes our lives meaningful.  Instead, we take our lead from the screens we watch in our homes or on our phones that we stare at so steadfastly that they come to define us.

What, though, if we are able to get outside of the bubble, to connect with this moment of profound uncertainty and take stock of the stark human toll?  What will we find there if we can move past the packaged reality on our screens to access compassion?

Perhaps underneath the denial, aversion, and fear, there would be grief.  Grief and a recognition of deep collective loss, and the thought that those who have been affected are not distant statistics but our neighbors, perhaps our family or friends.  When we occupy this landscape of grief for the other there is inevitably this thought: that could be me.

The husband sending a message to his wife from the hospital before going on a ventilator, that could be me.  The father watching his child suffering from horrible complications, that could be me.  Friend losing friend, lover losing beloved, that could be me.

And, of course, most of us will likely avoid the worst fates, but the importance of feeling with others in grief and facing the potential of our own deep sorrow is not to wallow but to occupy the clarifying landscape of grief in a way that makes us more rather than less human, larger and open rather than smaller and closed off in the sterile world of screens.

Then, out of all this darkness, we might forge a closer connection to the precious texture of this gorgeous but uncertain existence.  Every day dying, everyday becoming.

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