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Thoughts in Winter
You Are Not Alone
I am cold to my toes on the evening of one of the last nights of the year, sitting on a ferry that is deeply rumbling through the frigid waters of the Salish Sea. We are moving through the farthest northwest territory of the continental United States, the San Juan Islands, which are part of the same island group to which the Canadian Gulf Islands belong. Like all archipelagos that I have visited or heard tell of, it is magical here. At the moment, though, it is also extraordinarily cold.
We began the day before dawn, my family did, the temperature far below zero, some snow and a lot of ice having accumulated the night before, and drove and drove and drove and drove. It got colder and slicker and more treacherous the farther north we went, even as the weather, by aesthetic measures, improved. The sky became an eye-watering blue, the sun slicing rays through air so sharp it sounded like glass breaking, Mount Baker, one of the many volcanoes along the spine of the West coast, rising jagged and pure white out of the Cascades. There was ice even on the salt water, snow sitting in tufts atop that soft ice, in amongst which birds huddled in mats, too close together and us passing at too high a speed for my inexperienced eyes to know for sure, but alcids I think, possibly pigeon guillemots, or marbled murrelets. The sun set an hour and half ago as I write, and it was 15 degrees last I checked.
I have said in many venues that I used to be a misanthrope. I felt that we humans would destroy our world, and in so doing would thus reap what we had sowed. This misanthropy was inevitably tempered by travel to places that were not at all like my own home—Nicaragua, Turkey, Madagascar. During my travels I would see some of the many different ways there are to live, to tell stories and prepare food, to solve problems and raise families, to have festivals and fires. And when I would return to my own country, I would see how functional so many things in American society were, things that I had had a difficult time seeing from within the confines of our borders. But still I remained a misanthrope.
Then I became a college professor, and in meeting one class of Evergreen students after another, quarter after quarter, year after year, my misanthropy fell away, almost without my noticing. I liked nearly every single one of my students. I came to know something real about almost all of them, something real that pre-dated my relationship with them, something that I had not taught them, and I thus also came to understand that nearly everyone has something to offer that others do not. In a room of 25 or 50 people, in which one person is appointed and anointed to lead and deliver unto the others the wisdom of the ages—past, present, and future—hopefully that sage leader does in fact have wisdom to share, but so too do the others in the room.
Yes, it’s a cliché: I learned from my students. More to the point, though, I learned from them how to love humanity.
Now that ancient misanthropy is once again returning, though, reversing upon itself, as I watch people contort themselves to justify the movements of governments against their own citizens, while feeling themselves to be honorable, smart, and kind. Fact-checkers with no ability or facility in the things they have been hired to fact-check are taken as truth-tellers, while those holding opinions outside of the accepted narrative, no matter how carefully considered, how supported by information, analysis, and logic—are taken to be enemies of those who fall in line. Fall in line, the implied promise goes, and you will be delivered from evil. When you hear someone disagree with the accepted narrative, be assured that they are wrong, and quite possibly have ill intent. When you hear a voice of the accepted narrative turn in on itself and claim the opposite of what it told you before, be assured that you misheard, misunderstood, misremembered, and that this is all being done for your safety anyway.
Recall, from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the “compendium of all the heresies” that describes resistance to Big Brother, the leader of the government of Oceania. It is observed that:
Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. But stupidity is not enough. On the contrary, orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body. Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and that the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the Party is not infallible, there is need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts. The key word here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink.
We are forgetting so much. We are forgetting what we were told to think last year, last month, yesterday. We are forgetting that dissent is necessary—for science, for society, for life. We are forgetting what it is to be human, as we mask our children, hide ourselves from one another, and seek the devil in our neighbors and friends. We imagine that trade-offs aren’t real, that a single-minded focus on one pathogen is the road to salvation. It’s a road to somewhere, that much I know. But salvation is not at the end of this road.
Meanwhile, as if to counter my return to misanthropy, I hear from many extraordinary people. So many. Their openness and gratitude and refusal to submit revive not just my belief in humanity and the human spirit, but in our ability to stop this spiral, to return to a world in which we are good to one another not because someone with a credential says to, but because we know, from the deepest places in us, that being good to people is the best way to be—it helps self, it helps other, it helps all.
Allow me to end, then, with a story from a college professor in Lithuania, someone in the humanities who wrote me the most extraordinary email. She does not want her name used for fear of reprisal from her university, and this is but a small piece of what she wrote, which included many other tales of what it has been like to teach in the humanities in the time of Covid. Here is a devoted scholar and educator, one who feels deep affinity for both her discipline and her students who, at the end of a semester together, realized that, were she to see them on the street later on, she might not recognize them. She had never seen their faces. Here is the end of her letter to me.
And when the last classes this semester were over, I asked the students if they could do something for me. I asked them to take their masks off for just a few seconds. I hadn't seen their faces the entire time and I might not be able to recognize them if I met them some day in the future. I took off my mask, too. I did not know for sure what I expected to see but what I saw moved me deeply. If only you could imagine the gesture with which they tore their masks from their faces! If only you could imagine the smiling faces, from ear to ear, as we say in Lithuanian, in front of me in that classroom! Everyone. Smiling. It struck me. The incredible joy! The fact that it had been a long time since I saw other people smiling! And pain. Pain from the thought of "what are we doing to the young, to our children, even in primary schools?" And now I remember another podcast of yours, on masks. I am not alone. Thank you for reassuring that masks are signs of compliance, not caring, that there is an alternative to what the governments are trying to impose on us.
She is not alone. As I am not alone. As you who are reading this are not alone, no matter your politics, proclivities or positions. Feeling a sense of belonging does not require that others be excluded or demonized. We need not live in fear, spy on our neighbors, or comply with incoherent public policies. Let us instead live in hope, seek the good within and without, and be open, truthful and courageous.