So here we are, two months into social distancing, checking the daily COVID-19 numbers and trying to make sense of our lives in a world turned upside down.
In his recent New Yorker essay “The Coronavirus is Rewriting Our Imaginations,” Kim Stanley Robinson says there’s a sense that we’re all now stuck in a science-fiction novel that we’re writing together.
Even before this virus, he reminds us, we knew we had a huge challenge. But most of us were part of what climate researchers call “the tragedy of the horizon”: We don’t care enough about future people who will have to survive on the planet we’re now wrecking — all of us, even you, even me — with our daily actions. And yet, Robinson says, here we are, in this crisis, flattening the curve! “We’ve decided to sacrifice over these months so that, in the future, people won’t suffer as much as they would otherwise ... to my mind, this sense of solidarity is one of the few reassuring things to have happened in this century.”
It’s a hopeful essay. What’s more important, money or lives? Robinson dares to imagine that our response to this coronavirus might mean we are entering a new structure of feeling — a way of thinking different from that of the last 40 years.
But, he adds, “There will be enormous pressure to forget this spring and go back to the old ways of experiencing life. And yet forgetting something this big never works. We’ll remember this even if we pretend not to. History is happening now, and it will have happened. So what will we do with that?”
My own imagination runs in circles. Sometimes I can imagine this: Now that we’re been brought face to face with them, we will have to face the economic and racial inequalities in our society. We’ll have to realize the cost to everyone when not all of us have access to health care, education, shelter and food. We will have to realize that focusing on profit for a few at the expense of others is not the only way to live. We will change for the better.
At other times, especially at night — and in the morning, too, when I read the daily headlines — my imagination takes me in a darker direction. Like those medieval mapmakers’ warnings about what lay beyond the edge of their known world: “Here be dragons.”
We all want the things we’ve had to deny ourselves. I want to hug my granddaughter, I want to be able to gather with friends and family to mourn my sister and celebrate her life. (And yes, haircuts! I’m starting to look like a gone-to-seed dandelion.)
But I’m appalled by what seems to me a tragic failure of imagination — people who deny the danger of this virus, or who think it’s all a hoax, or who want to simply blame someone or something, and then “go back to the old ways of experiencing life,” as if all we have to do is pretend nothing has happened.
I know it’s tempting to succumb to that old standby emotion, anger. And a lethargy, even despair, can overtake us. Not to mention exhaustion. But we know, although this virus will always be with us, that this time of waiting will eventually pass. So we do our best, one day at a time. And we try to imagine the ending of this science fiction novel we’re writing together.
“I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses,” Ursula K. Le Guin said in her speech to Oregon Literary Arts in 2002. “It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.”
I’ve been reading my way through her Books of Earthsea, and I’ve reached the sixth and final one now. “The Other Wind” is full of dragons, and I’m happy to report that I’m finding them far more fascinating than frightening. “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons,” she once said. “From within.”
She’s been a wonderful guide through this journey of the imagination we are making by staying at home.