Meaning in a Time of Pandemic
Updated: Sep 26, 2020
I don't think it's an understatement to say that since the brutal and unnecessary killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, the Black Lives Matter movement has not simply witnessed its flames of outrage for justice and civil rights to blaze up again at a local level, it has caused a fireball of moral indignation to engulf the entire planet.
Emboldened by this response, some BAME celebrities have used social media platforms to recount incidents of racism they themselves have experienced. X-Factor winner Leona Lewis is one such figure.
While shopping in a small store in Chelsea with her father, she was asked by its owner to stop picking up the stuff on display. Looking around her, Leona noticed the other customers in the store were also picking up stuff, yet the owner seemed okay with that. Since all these other customers were white, it wasn’t difficult for Leona to recognise what was happening.
Justifiably, Leona was upset and angry. Rightly, she called the owner a racist, who threatened to call the police if she and her father didn’t leave. As Leona and this shopkeeper argued, everyone else in the shop had quietly walked out.
Back in her car, Leona sobbed. Later, she realised that what bothered her was not so much that the shopkeeper saw someone “black” and therefore saw “shoplifter”. Rather, that none of the other customers, who were clearly appalled by what they were seeing, had said nothing.
Meanwhile, her father fished out one of his daughter’s CD recordings and returned to the shop. Moments later, the owner was knocking at the car window and apologising profusely. Had they known who Leona was, of course they would never have treated her the way they had.
What's most striking about this story in particular, is not so much that the store owner assumed their apology might somehow pardon their prejudice and let them off the hook. Neither that the customers were conditioned by long-established cultural norms to avoid public confrontation and remained mute. It is more that, once the owner recognised Leona as being “famous”, her celebrity seemed to endow her with a value that minutes earlier had otherwise been denied her and a meaning that somehow suddenly and mysteriously transcended the colour of her skin.
How, we might wonder, have we arrived at this place where our existence can be judged worthwhile and meaningful only if we have attained fame and success? Is this why so many people, especially young people, reach so hard and desperately for that glittering, star-spangled social status we call “celebrity”? And at what point in human history did this collective way of thinking become the primary focus for our egos to assume in order to find a purpose for being, and presumably, happiness and contentment?
When I first started writing seriously, I used to indulge myself with thoughts of having my debut novel published to great critical acclaim and winning the Booker Prize. I imagined the sell-out book tour and signings, my profile photograph displayed on magazine covers. I imagined money in the bank, quitting the day job, the resolution to all my insecurities – as a person, as a writer. And with this success, I imagined world renown.
And when I think about this, I recall listening to an interview with the formidable author Lionel Shriver. I remember my ears pricking up hearing her say (loosely speaking) how she, too, would entertain herself with such daydreaming. But it wasn’t until her seventh, “make or break”, as she called it, published novel We Need to Talk about Kevin became a huge literary and commercial success and won her the Orange Prize for Fiction that her dream was finally realised, and her worth as a writer was validated.
Deservedly, Lionel soared high on the thermal current of this triumph.
But once all the interviews were done, the chairs on the stages of literary festivals stacked away, the cameras turned to the next bright young talent – she realised she had to start thinking about writing the next novel, and all those old, familiar, nagging doubts and anxieties returned. She worried whether her next work would be as well-received as the last, whether she could maintain her long and laboriously-won status. She worried, I suppose, whether she would fail.
In this story, I can’t help but recognise something at once human, reassuring, inspiring, and ultimately tragic. It is plaintively clear that no matter how gifted you are, how highly others regard you, this knowledge will never release you from feelings of self-doubt nor satisfy a longing for meaningful accomplishment. For the fame and success that you spend so many hours fantasising about, and many more striving to achieve, becomes your burden. Rather than freeing you, it enslaves you.
And yet, precious few in the fame business are prepared to tell you this is how it is. Indeed it is rare that our idols talk so openly about the downside of success and fame, as if the truth is a dirty little secret that must never get out. With not a little help from the media, we are all too willing to believe - and willing to allow them to let us believe - that to have fame and fortune and to live a luxurious, privileged, magazine-glossy lifestyle and to be the envy of the more obscure and less fortunate is the solution to every problem we encounter daily as human beings. We are only too willing to buy into this peddled fiction that once you step up onto that lofty, gilded plain of being - occupied, I should add, by an infinitesimally small number of people when measured against a world population of 7 billion - you will be drinking from the Spring of Eternal Happiness.
And things are no different in the fiercely competitive arena of entrepreneurship, that exclusive club in which we have also wilfully constructed false narratives declaiming that to “win”, one must take up a shield and spear and lunge and stab at anyone and everyone if one is to make it to the top. That to show empathy and kindness and compassion is a sure sign of weakness and vulnerability, and, ergo, the road to failure and losing. We have perpetuated the myth that once you make that landmark million, you will be hailed a winner and become the personification of contentment.
Except we have misled ourselves. Or else we have been misled. For it is our chemistry, not the realisation of an ambition that determines our emotional state on a day to day basis. It's the whims and caprices of our chemistry that leaves us always wanting more, that leaves us hopelessly dissatisfied people, and tortures us with a feeling that enough is never enough. Once you’ve had a bestselling book or profited your first six-figure sum – the fears return, the emptiness slips back into your soul, and you’re at a loss as to what do next, and you question the point of everything. For gratification is only ever a transient experience. It is an addictive drug from which there is always a counter-reaction of a deep low after the ecstasy of the high, but which never stops us from wanting more. Whether you are able to afford that little puttering second-hand scooter you have coveted for some while, or that astronomically expensive brand new Lamborghini, the dopamine-rush induced by sudden ownership is exactly the same, and equally temporary.
And whether you have £200,000 in the bank or £200m, you will never be £180m worth of happiness happier. Studies show us this. And yet, sadly, that does not stop us from believing the lie. And so we are condemned to this infinite regress of yearning, joy, and dissatisfaction.
In this way, cognitive dissonance is a master of deceit. It uses smoke and mirrors to divert our attention away from the evidence in plain sight: that fortune and fame do not protect us from low self-esteem, loneliness, paranoia, primordial anxiety, eating disorders, self-destructive behaviour, alcoholism, drug addiction, depression. In fact, it would seem that fortune and fame will happily create for us new insecurities. Or else reawaken, and perhaps amplify, those already existing, those formed in our childhood by triggers we no longer remember and which latch on with jaw-locking determination. Earnest Hemmingway, Virginia Woolf, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Keith Flint, Kurt Cobain, Anthony Bourdain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, the list goes on - despite enormous wealth and success, and in some cases idolatry on par with Jesus Christ, all battled with personal demons, and either accidentally or wilfully clocked-out well before their time.
You might be inclined to think that the need to be “known” is a modern phenomenon, propagated by the media for their own interests, but you may not be entirely correct. Quite possibly it is written in our DNA. Quite possibly it evolved with the Cognitive Revolution, growing with this new facility for thinking and self-awareness, with the forming of our egos. The oldest articles of art known to us, the 40,000-year-old hand stencils discovered on the walls of an Indonesian cave, are surely nothing if not one of our ancestors trying to say “Look! This is me! I am here!”
Thereafter, to a greater or lesser extent, history has always provided us with idols and heroes, figures we feel deserve our gaze and devotion. Roman thespians and brutal gladiators were celebrated by their audience; while ancient Greek athletes had songs sung in their honour. And 18th Century Romantic artists and poets certainly had their share of admiring fanboys and fangirls.
The cult of personality as we know in the here and now, though – that can be attributed to the media. With the introduction of newspaper gossip columns in line with the emergence of Hollywood as a spectacular purveyor of world entertainment (no coincidence, certainly) in the early twentieth century, they conjured a powerful influence unlike anything seen before. But while these inseparable mediums are still a major player in the fame-game, they are no longer the sole arbiters and endorsers of celebrity. Today, it is easier than ever to become known - and globally, besides. The internet has provided us all a theatre with near-unlimited audience capacity, where anyone can, and do, become hugely popular and recognisable as “names”, regardless of any discernible talent. And from selling advertising space on their video channels, along with brand endorsements, anyone can expect a very lucrative payday. Whether any of these so-called YouTubers and Influencers will endure past the Warholian 15 minutes, however, and what the long-term effect on them will be when the curtain closes and their brief moment under the spotlight is over, it is perhaps too early to say.
One thing is certain, though. No matter what we know about the pressures and sometimes vacuous, often fleeting nature of fame, little has convinced us to pause to reflect upon why we so badly need the world to recognise and accept us. To stop for a minute and consider what fame will really do to improve our lives beyond the ability to keep consuming shiny new stuff and seeing ourselves pictured in newspapers and magazines – and even when we know the media equally relish elevating our profiles as trampling them into the mud.
That is, until very recently.
Earlier this year, the world went into lockdown due to the attack of something so virulent, so lethal, and so small that it could neither be seen by the eye alone, nor routed by the deployment of any sized military force, and it had the effect of levelling the playing field for the value of life for every single human on this planet. No matter your wealth, status, power, fame, where you lived, how you made your living – bar a few who appeared to have an inherent immunity, everyone was at risk from contracting Covid 19 and dying in a terrifying and painful way.
And when this happened, it was as if we experienced a collective epiphany. As if, for the very first time, we saw ourselves exactly as we are: as one people, each as vulnerable as the next in the face of this fatal, common, invisible enemy. And, as country by country we closed our borders, and city by city, street by street, we closed our doors and people were forced inside and to stop for a while, to spend more time with their loved ones then ever they had, or been separated for longer than they had ever known, we were gradually awakened not only to the fragility of our existence but to the possibility the world could be something else, something better. So vital and real did it seem to us, so there for the taking, it was as if all we had to do was reach out and pluck it right out of the air and it would be ours for keeps.
But as we emerge from this long seclusion, we might wonder how soon we will lose sight of this possibility for change. How soon we will forget what we might have learned from our new sense of oneness and togetherness, from our collective suffering, our missing of human contact, human touch; by having time to meditate on our past and our future, to re-evaluate and reassess our priorities and quickly return to that place where the individual plays prince or princess and the selfish ego rides roughshod over this new universal communality of kindness and caring that we have recently discovered and applauded. . .
And perhaps it is already too late. Perhaps we have already witnessed its quick dissolve in the clash between left- and right-wing ideologies and the divisions reopened by the BLM protests around the world. Perhaps the bus is already disappearing over the horizon.
I am not a religious person, but I pray that over the coming weeks, as we begin to repair from mourning and blink up once more at our life-giving sun, that we don’t suffer a sorry and predictable collective memory loss. That we can reposition the order of what and who we once held in esteem. That in pursuit of our goals, it is not once more at the sacrifice of our kindness and humanity towards others - such as those low-paid, frontline, sometimes migrant keyworkers who risked their lives so that you and I can now continue to chase our dreams. That we can maintain some perspective and remember our place in time and the great scheme of the universe.
For on a cosmic scale, the planet that is home to us all – Earth - is merely a speck of rock and blue water floating in the infinite black nothingness of space, and our existence upon it, at best a happy accident, barely a breath. For it, our being here carries scant more importance and meaning than if we had not evolved at all. Earth does not care for our wealth or fame or power. It does not care who lives upon its islands, conquers its tallest mountains, or sails across its oceans. It does not distinguish between peoples, genders, faith, sexuality, skin colour. It does not care about our opinions, our fetishes, fashions and peccadilloes, our inventions and machines, our aims, our hopes, our dreams. As far as it is concerned, we are nothing more than a deadly, multiplying virus that, after all is said and done, is causing both it and ourselves more harm than good, and it would be better off without us. And whatever damage we do to it and leave in our wake, eventually it will heal, and continue to happily thrive. Until it, too, dies. As everything must.
If we are fortunate, then, the fact of our existence will live on in the memory of our children and our children’s children, and perhaps for a generation or two thereafter. For good or ill, a handful of us may secure a place in human history. Have a statue erected in our honour. And maybe later have it pulled down. But eventually, every single human being who lives now and who will live in the future, their fame, notoriety, power, desires, their passions of hate and prejudice and superiority, will also be extinguished and forgotten. Whatever small meaning we thought we had, will be gone - forever. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t have aspirations; that we shouldn’t want to make money; nor want to be liked by as many people as possible. But, since we’re nothing but a guest performer on this Earth, with the briefest of slots on its stage, let’s put down our arms and join hands and support one another as we each navigate this wonderful, merry, giddy, sometimes difficult, always complex, crazy little pirouette we call Life.