By Simon Bell
Take your time, read the story and let the ideas wash over you.
In the green years of the world, in Homer’s Greece, when hero’s and deific intelligences regularly came together in sunny warm madness’s of colloquy and love, a god of hooves and horns played a pipe to dancing nymphs and dryads in mythic praise of the Lords of all that was. Pan. Descended by confusing paths from Dionysius and the Lords of Misrule. Pan in Greek means: ‘all’. Everything, involving all. The years passed and with it passed the green and sunny age of heroes and gods. The age of steel and concrete found no need for Crazy dancing Pan with his pipes, but still wanted the all and, so all and everything became pan, the all: Pandemonium, Pantheistic, Panchromatic, Pantechnicon, Panegyrical, the confusing list goes on. Eventually you come to Pandemic – all the demos, all the people.
Maybe drunken and pipe playing Pan would not have been that happy with this development. Pan was the bringer of joy to all the people. All the people. Now, as his name and nature evolved, the trouble begins, and disease is carried to each and every one.
A pandemic can be a terrible weapon to attack people with but in this story, the pandemic is not the weapon. It is the story around the pandemic which is the weapon. A pandemic is defined as “a disease prevalent over a whole country or the world”. Some consider a disease to be pandemic when it is established on all continents. But this is academic. A pandemic is when the mind says it is and this is often determined by the ways in which the news is broadcast, and the story is told. The pandemic of the mind rather than the pandemic of the physical disease. Not an adjective so much as a horror story. Here is a story:
Jane and Paul and Karl are friends and they share a flat in London. They work in the city and have a nice 20-something lifestyle. It’s good. Then the story begins.
The story is told that there is a new killer virus let loose in China. Irresponsibility is the story. Here is a version of the story: The virus should never have existed but for bad thinking and bad planning by bad actors in a poorly controlled situation.
And, the story is told, this is the disease or could be the disease, it does not matter which, that may well be the disease that some people in some places have been talking about for a long time and it could be the disease that may develop into a global killer. Because, the story goes, it may evolve and become much more lethal and then it could kill millions.
Jane and Paul and Karl have jobs in offices with lots of people. They talk, touch, sneeze and cough in the office. Everyone does. A case of the disease, moving invisibly in the air between China and maybe Italy, is found in London.
The story is that the case is potentially fatal, could be the first of hundreds if not thousands. An expert on the internet says that this is likely to produce the worst possible outcome.
Jane and Paul and Karl feel fear. Fear is now a thing. It is real and alive. Fear begins in the small dark places of individual thoughts and the conversations between friends. It pops into life in the space between worrisome words. People find out that people are worried. The need for, and wisdom of holidays is questioned, “do we need one?”, and then, they are cancelled. Food is hoarded and social situations are shunned. Strangers are seen as threats. Friends are avoided. People are driven to isolation and suspicion. It all becomes too much. The fear of fear is worse than the fear of the virus. Something in the dark places of people’s minds breaks.
Jane goes home to her family in the country, safer out of the metropolis. Paul and Karl decide to stay, but for different reasons. One is determined to ‘stick it out’, the other is determined not to appear weak. They both stay but increasingly confine themselves to their own areas in the flat. They meet and talk less and less.
Now the story becomes the carrier of the greatest power of the pandemic. Not the disease which kills a few thousand people in a world where millions die every week from a whole range of totally avoidable causes, but the story told about the disease, this has the potency to debilitate entire continents. The real enemy is one which Pan would have recognised. The real enemy is the story about the disease. This is spread by doxia, a Greek word meaning opinion. Now doxia is weaponised and out of control. Opinion needs no facts or truth. It lives in thought bubbles on the internet, isolated chat rooms and news silos feeding the fires of selected opinion. It has been given licence by the most powerful man on earth. Doxia feeds doxia. In the spaces retained by the voices of those who know least, doxia is spread and with it the untruth. This is a disease of the mind, manifestly vaster and more dangerous than any disease made by nature.
Jane, at home with her parents and Paul and Karl, in their separate parts of the flat are now in uncontained states of anxiety, an anxiety caught as surely as any virus is caught, by human interaction. From this point the story goes in one of two directions, amplification or attenuation. There are two scenarios to explore. In scenario 1 we see the consequence of amplification.
To amplify is easy, doxia produces division and chaos in society leading to a break down in civic and collective norms. Food hoarding, animosity, fighting at petrol stations. This eventually results in the reduction of individual personal and collective responsibility. No surprises that the outcome feeds back into the bonfire of the chaos. Our three find themselves isolated and isolating, lost and losing, helpless and unhelpful. So, we need to consider scenario 2. Attenuation.
To attenuate is not so easy, requiring an act of will to move against the flow of amplification. If the will is present, then contained collaboration at scale can lead to new and innovative collective norms feeding an upgrading of personal and collective fear-facing qualities. Feedback leads to a new and sustainable normal which allows scope for cure and correction, hope and improvement. The crisis does not ‘go to waste’. Here the three friends have other alternate ways to proceed with their lives. Better, more hopeful ways.
The green years of the world are long past. But Pan can still pick up his pipes and play the tune of the turning of the years. The mad dance of life, the life lived and living. Living does not care about the quality of the dance. But humans do. Which path will the dance follow?
(© Simon Bell)
Consider, what is the Meaning of the story? Next, what is relevant to you in this meaning? What value do you place on the relevance? Does this give you any insights? Finally, what might you do differently as a consequence of considering any insights?
Artwork © Rachel Furze