I’ve been thinking about what all of you are going through — and let me be clear here, by “all of you,” I am talking about my fellow privileged knowledge workers whose primary problem right now is that they’re all losing their minds from the extreme isolation — and it brings to mind the time I took my pet rabbit on a long road trip.
When I lived in Brooklyn, I adopted a pet bunny, and for a couple of years, she lived with me in my tiny bedroom in my Brooklyn apartment. She had never been outside that little burrow. She was entirely unaware of the rest of the world, but she was very happy. And then, I decided to move back to Tennessee (well, technically, I decided to move back in with my parents for a couple of month while I had a quarter life crisis and then figure out where to move from there). I put my rabbit in a little travel carrier and I put her in the backseat of my mother’s car, and I drove all day, stayed in a hotel, and then drove all the next day.
This journey was the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to my rabbit. Try to think about it from a rabbit’s point of view — her entire world was one small space with very familiar smells and noises, and then suddenly, she experienced in quick succession: an SUV, four new American states (and a district!), several gas stations and rest stops, a Hampton Inn, and my parents. That’s a lot for a little rabbit! She didn’t eat or drink or poop for days, from the anxiety.
Eventually, I got concerned and I called a hotline where experienced rabbit parents would advise you on lapine health concerns. I talked to a lady about what my rabbit had gone through and how it was affecting her, and the lady kind of yelled at me. She said that you can’t just go from zero to sixty like that, with rabbits. What I should have done, she explained, was to gradually acclimate my rabbit to change, by taking her first on a little walk outside in her carrier, and then for a drive around the block, and then for a longer day-trip, and so on, until she was ready for the long haul.
Now, this lady was obviously out of her fucking mind, but she did have a point.
After I moved back in with my parents, I had about a year of weird transitional living and unemployment and then I got a job with a distributed company, which meant I could work from home, and I’ve had that job ever since. I’ve always been heavily into social isolation and I’ve always had to really force myself to leave my house. Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and 20s, I did really long stints of not leaving the house. Weekends, certainly, but periodically, I’d go a week or more without talking to anyone or going outside. I was used to it. I preferred it. And when I got my remote job, I wasn’t required to ever leave the house or talk to anyone ever again, if I didn’t want to. And increasingly, I didn’t! For the last six years, I’ve lived the way nearly everyone is currently living — but by choice and quite happily.
But this is advanced isolation. You have to build up to this level of cloistering. You have to acclimate yourself to it. You have to train at easier levels and build up to it when you’re ready. And all of you right now are like my rabbit: you’ve been shoved into the diving pool when previously you’d never so much as gone wading. And so you’re quite understandably freaking out!
I’ve been trying to think of what I could say to make you all feel better about it, because I love living this way, although even I would prefer not to be doing so under threat of a global pandemic and economic and societal devastation. And so I was thinking, what would I have said to my pet rabbit at the time if she had been able to comprehend it, to make her feel better?
I think I would have told her that she was about to undergo something very frightening and strange, but that she didn’t need to worry, because an adult was in charge. I would have told her that I had a plan, and a reason for what I was doing to her, and that I had already ensured that at the end of the ordeal, she would have an even better cage than she’d had in Brooklyn, and toys, and salad to eat, and carpet to rip up, and new people to bite, and more space to run around, and she was going to be happier than she’d been before, happier than she’d thought possible. And that she just needed to trust that I was on top of this, and I was taking care of her.
Here the metaphor falls apart (it was shaky to begin with), because I obviously cannot reassure any of you that someone smarter and wiser is taking care of all this, and that things will be better on the other side, or even that there’s a clear destination in mind. Because no one knows what’s happening and the people in charge of it all are so profoundly stupid and ill-suited to the task that it is as if I had asked my rabbit to drive us to Tennessee herself. They have no destination in mind whatsoever, and when this is all over, things will very likely be much, much worse.
Here’s what I think is going to happen — and I’m just some dumbass, so don’t listen to me about it, but if I turn out to be right (and I hope I’m not), then I called it. I’m not too afraid (yet) of what will happen with this pandemic, but I am very, very frightened of what will happen after it. Because I think that the environmental crisis has hit a real point of no return — hit and passed it, in fact, some time ago — and that before COVID, there was a very slim possibility that we were realizing that (albeit too late) and would begin to pour money and resources into solutions that, while they would not turn back the clock, would at least slow things down enough so that the worst effects of the environmental collapse would not be felt for several more generations. But what’s going to happen now is that when we come out from under this pandemic, everyone is going to be so desperate to get the economy back to where it was that we will not seriously implement any unproven or costly environmental regulations for the foreseeable future. In fact, we’ll probably go the other way and double down on all the industries and processes that made money in the past, and it will be considered highly unpatriotic to express any concern about any of this, and we’re going to end up accelerating what we should have been halting as much as possible. And the result will be that before the end of most of our lifetimes, and certainly before the end of our children’s, we are going to be learning how to live in an increasingly inhospitable environment. We probably won’t be able to be outside for long periods of time, and will need to wear additional protective gear when we do go out. The sun will be too strong for our skin (it already is), and because of wildfires, we will likely need to wear respirator masks sometimes. We’ll need to ration water through at least part of the year, and eventually all of it. So we’ll stay indoors a lot.
And if you take this long view, then this current quarantine is actually good practice for what will eventually become our normal. We can in this case consider our current situation as a short period of acclimating ourselves to the sort of sheltering we are likely going to have to undergo for increasingly long periods of time over the next fifty years. So we’re training now, like the rabbit lady said that we should.
We’ve been predicting this sort of scenario for a long time, but one thing I think the writers and filmmakers got wrong about end times is that they always portray people as turning into essentially feral creatures who rape and murder and eat one another. And in my (admittedly limited) experience, that’s not actually how people behave in catastrophic and traumatic situations. Instead, we get nicer and more cooperative. Think about it. Haven’t you noticed how much nicer everyone’s been to each other for the past couple weeks? Even online? I have. When I’m out and about in my neighborhood, I always make a habit of smiling and nodding at anyone who passes me. This is not because I’m a friendly, outgoing person — I’m not. It’s because I’m an independent single woman in a family neighborhood and I am familiar enough with US history to know that the position of independent single women in society is a precarious one. We’re tolerated with only a slight bit of side-eye only up until some kid gets barfy from Halloween candy, and then it’s “make a bonfire and drag that creepy witch out of her house.” So, I try to take every opportunity to personalize myself to them a bit.
Anyway, usually my smiles are met with the usual defensive Southern scowl, but ever since the quarantine, every single person is smiling back, and even waving, and even sometimes a friendly, ‘how are you hanging in there?’ People are being nice, because everyone is frightened. We’re afraid we’re going to die.
We’re all much better people when we’re terrified of our impending death. Flannery O’Connor was dead on about that. And so I think we don’t need to worry that when the time comes, that we’re going to turn on each other. That’s not what people do. Instead, I think we’re going to become more dependent on each other, milder and sweeter than ever before. We’re going to turn to each other, and nestle together like rabbits, and we’ll just go to sleep, both psychologically and also probably physically. We’ll be sleeping peacefully when it all falls in.
Is this comforting? I meant for it to be, but in case I missed the mark, here are some rabbit pictures: