Individualism & the End of Lockdown

26th June 2020
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I listened to a fascinating podcast the other day. It was the excellent Tangentially Speaking with Dr Chris Ryan where he (and surfer Kyle Thiermann) interview a psychologist called Dacher Keltner.  Keltner is founder of the Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkeley. And he's a really interesting guy. But the thing that really struck me was talking about individuality.


In the podcast, they discuss the way in the 1960's and 70's the hippies strived for individualism. Everything was about expressing your own "me". I can do what I want, I can be anything I want. It was the ultimate expression of freedom coming out of post-war conservatism and heavy organisation/control by the state, by institutions and by our own society in general. It should have been a power for good. But it was that desire for individualism over everything that led to the philosophy of Ayn Rand and fired the ultimate expression of selfishness that was the Reagan and Thatcher era. I'd never thought of that, it never occurred to me that the hippie liberation movement was what led to possibly the worst tangent modern culture has ever taken.

There is a reason that this has become relevant to me right now. As I write this, we are in the end days of the Coronavirus lockdown in the UK. We're starting to come out of it, society is opening up again. It's springtime three months too late. It should be a cause for celebration. Symbolically because it represents how we got through that crisis. But practically as well. The economy is restarting, people can go back to work, we can see friends, we can go places. Normality is returning. We did it, we got there. Of course, that's ignoring the 60,000 dead but stop being so fucking negative, you damned defeatist scumbag.

But I feel sad about it.

I don't get what we are celebrating. People are elbow to elbow on the beaches. The roads are jammed up. The big chain stores are selling over-priced shit that no-one needs on easy debt that no-one can afford and people are falling over themselves to do it. The pubs are opening in a week and I'll bet cash money that that is going to turn into the biggest night of chaos imaginable. Fat, drunk women screaming at fat, drunk men the country over.

Almost from day one of lockdown, pollution dropped. Wildlife started to return to places that hadn't seen any in years. It's a cliche but there were porpoises in the Grand Canal in Venice (one of the most god-forsaken tourist shitholes I've been in recent years). At the end of the day I'd walk to the bottom of my garden and listen to the birdsong. Or sometimes, just the silence.

And people stopped being cunts. I hate social media but I joined my local community's Facebook group so I could find out what was happening in the area during lockdown. It surprised me. People were giving stuff away for free. They were offering help. Support. Kindness. It was an actual Community.

The roads were empty and when I did see other drivers they were acting like normal people. Some were even downright courteous. You'd see smiles from strangers. One day a piece of paper came through the door with a phone number and a message that read "if you are alone and you need anything, call this number".

Some of it was cringey, all the "if you can be anything then be kind" type messages and memes. But there was a sincerity in it. Sure, some of that comes from social pressure and a sense of duty but it was still a shift in the way people acted.

I stopped watching the news and listening to the government briefings. You know how I knew lockdown was lifting? People were being cunts again. Some dickhead letting fireworks off at 10pm the other night. A BMW driving up my arse on the way home from the supermarket. I can hear traffic noise again. The local community FB group? Now it's just a stream of people complaining about shit.

And we are fucking celebrating the return of that as a great victory.

It's been really interesting to look back and see how quickly community formed and then individualism returned. It's all forgotten about the minute you can buy a pint or a fucking giant TV or stand in a queue to get into a sale in a clothes shop selling the products of an Indonesian sweatshop.

The irony is that this behaviour does not bring happiness. Going back to the Dacher Keltner interview, two areas that he's studied are awe and compassion. Awe and compassion are both emotions that are deeply satisfying and rewarding. But they aren't necessarily born out of happy times. Keltner mentions the connection between death and dying and the feeling of awe. He also spoke about how they could stimulate compassion in test subjects by showing them horrendous imagery of illness and violence and cruelty. None of this is positive at all yet it creates some of the most powerful, meaningful emotions there are. It makes me think that Jungian analyst Jim Hollis is right: the meaning of life is not happiness but satisfaction.

We've become hooked on the idea of happiness and comfort and "easy". As Chris Ryan himself points out, comfort isn't a feeling, it is a lack of feeling. If you can feel something then you are not comfortable. Ease means you never have to put in effort. And happiness? You can eat something and it makes you happy. You can buy something. You can cut someone up on the road and it makes you happy. These are all feelings that lead to flab. We're obese, mentally and physically, because we never get satisfied and then make excuses. But I'm Happy. I'm expressing my individualism.

But individualism, when it has morphed into self-interest, is not a positive. It is not the hippy force for change or freedom of expression. It is the imposition of your wants and desires (and rarely your actual needs) on to a broader society. I love the idea of libertarianism but it falls short when you remember that people, and corporations, are cunts. It's all well and good to say the world will self-regulate and discourage other negative behaviours but we all know it doesn't happen. Corporation buy their way out. Governments lie their way out. And people either keep the world out by building their walls a foot higher if they can and if they can't then they accept they have a lot of shit to eat to get by every day.

One of the most powerful books I've ever read is Sebastian Junger's Tribe. Junger wrote it after he made the fantastic documentary Restrepo. He'd spent a couple of years embedded with a US military unit in one of the worst bases in Afghanistan. He lived under constant attack, facing the same death and injury as the soldiers around him did. He witnessed horrendous violence, he saw friends die. It was a true hell on earth (which the film conveys brilliantly). Yet when he came home he found he could not cope with normal life. There was no pleasure in it. Junger found himself missing the extremes of emotion and the pure stimulation of being in Afghanistan. But above all, he found himself missing the bonds and friendships that he made there.

In Tribe, Junger builds a case for our comfortable, modern, individualistic society as being ultimately destructive to the psyche. As the title of one of the books he references puts it, you can find paradise based in hell. You might even need it: hardship brings out the best in humanity. He takes the reader on a journey from the American frontier, where white women abducted by Indian tribes would run away back to the wild after being rescued and where so many Europeans were dropping out of employment to join the Indians that laws were needed to prevent it, through to the London Blitz where mental illness, crime and unhappiness dropped. Junger also describes the preparations that the US government put in place to receive the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Medical support, psychologists, therapists, hospital units were all made ready for the epidemic of mental illness that was expected. It never came. Those who survived the death camps went on to live lives that were happier, more productive and lower in mental illness than the general population experienced.

While that is maybe an extreme example, Junger makes it clear we thrive on hardship and fail in comfort. In my own life, the most profound experiences have come from similar environments: experiences where I have faced death whilst among people that I shared a deep emotional bond with. I have lost friends and had moments where I thought I was going to die and yet those are the happiest times of my life. In the last few years my life has become increasingly settled and stable and comfortable but the quality of life has gone through the floor.

At the start of the pandemic I went through a period of very extreme emotion. No-one really knew what was happening and all there was to go on was the horrific news footage coming out of China and Italy. I was terrified for what seemed like the inevitable loss of my parents and potentially even the loss of my own life. Yet preparing for the virus's arrival was by far the happiest part of the last four months. It felt like we were getting ready for a siege, like we were facing our own disease-based 13 Hours. I loved that. And when it came, and we locked ourselves away, that's when the down-slope happened for me. I'd take the intensity and fear of those first few weeks over the subsequent three months of what became a steady, uneventful plough through the year.

We are going to watch our society rebound back into the negativity and selfishness that permeated it. The hangover from the 1980's that never went away and every generation gets told isn't some malaise you're feeling. What you're feeling is called "normality". This Is How It Is Supposed To Feel. And chase happiness and comfort and ease. Because the fatter we get the more we consume, sticking the needle of Netflix, Krispy Kreme and the filthy, fatty, greed of cunts like Phillip Green into the veins of our consciousness.

Like everyone, during lockdown I missed that actual, in-person interaction with other people. What Eric Berne called "strokes" and as he said, if you don't get your daily strokes "your spine shrivels and dies". One of the hardest things was my daughter not wanting her goodnight kiss any more out of fear of Covid-19. But as we come out of it, I think I am far more afraid of seeing our society rebound than I ever was of the disease. It's made me realise just how toxic normality was.

Ironically, the one thing I am looking forward to most is splitting. Pack a bag and disappear into the wilderness. On my own. Take a look at where all the flabby cunts are headed and go in the opposite direction.