Chaos and Pandemic: A CIL Reflection Written by Paule Guerard

      These are days of intense inner and outer chaos. Covid-19 and the measures most countries have taken to fight its propagation have forced us to ‘stay home’ and have profoundly disrupted all of our routines, save for the very most basic. As a consequence, ‘our lifestyle’ has been put on hold: our jobs and the movements generated by our work schedule, such as commuting, driving or flying to and fro, leaving home regularly to go somewhere else to work has become almost inexistent for many. Our working life normally generates revenues that we then use to pay our rent or mortgage, and for purchasing essential goods and services, and for chosen activities and for any other items that make our lives comfortable or better. The left over revenues, if you have any, are used for diversion and non essential activities. If you have no revenues left, then you can always use credit so you too can partake of ‘life’s pleasures now’ and worry about paying up later. Most people are connected to this huge transe-inducing web of life; some of us are more marginal within it. Here, in Canada, a very complete system of subsidies is keeping most citizens afloat; it is not so in all countries.          

In the beginning of the pandemic, I felt refreshed by the lack of publicity on TV, as many shows were suspended or done on line by the various animators. I noticed that within about 3 to 4 weeks, new publicity had been created that was speaking to us about our needs in times of pandemic. Some of these ads were educative and government produced; others were wanting to return us to our past habits: eating out, buying groceries, clothes or books, on line, etc. I was stunned by the rapidity with which our industries adapted to the new reality and jumped back on the band-wagon of “seeing to our needs”.          

It has now been nearly 12 weeks of quarantine, 12 weeks of distance from our “normal” lifestyle routines, 12 weeks of distance from one another. The world, leaders and citizens, has now begun to lower lock down recommandations to re-start our economies, which at this point are rather moribond. We also feel the need to reopen because we are hungry for contact, we want to see each other up close, watch a smile bloom on a stranger’s lips, catch a whiff of perfume in the subway or on the street, hug a friend, shake someone’s hand. Our nervous system desperately wants to regain its connection to others, wants to return to seeing others as a calming factor and not as a threat.  Most people in the world appear to want that return to ‘normal’ – though we have not ever discussed, beyond wanting face to face contact and proximity, freedom of movement and a flourishing economy, what ‘normal’ means. Against this backdrop, this generalized  state of stress and brittle anxiety, this idleness, this  growing economic concern: Georges Floyd is killed, right before our eyes, on live TV. And chaos erupts not only in the United States of America, but somehow all over the world.          

Wearing masks, or not, we go march in the street, rubbing elbows and breathing the same air, all but forgetting about Covid. Some marches are peaceful and moving: hundreds of people lying face down in the street, hands behind their back, for 9 minutes… Others are violent and destructive: stores get broken into, merchandise looted. Protest is what it is – not necessarily acceptable or polite – that is why it is called protest.  We will no longer stay home. We will not let ourselves be dominated. Not by a virus, nor by injustice and racism. BLACK LIVES MATTER. ALL LIVES MATTER.          

As I sit and watch these events unfold, I look for ways to make order or sense of the chaos within me. I feel much of the world has been in a transe of capitalism, where fulfilment could be obtained in 54 payments without interest. And now this. Death. No, not death the known one, the one that awaits each and everyone of us. NO.  Execution. Execution at the hands of those who are supposed to keep us safe. Painful death because someone does not like the color of my skin, or perceives that I am hefty and threatening. Death at the hands of someone who, on camera, appears calm and unafraid, someone surrounded by ‘supportive peers’ and a crowd of clamouring, outraged and shocked citizens yelling to stop, to please stop. All the while, George Floyd, in a weak voice is whispering “I can’t breathe.”          

Corona has been threatening us with death since the beginning. At first it seemed to be an equal opportunity virus. After weeks of interaction, it is now clear that if you are old, black, brown, latino or poor, the virus likes you more. And then Georges Floyd is murdered. It is all too much, and its enough! And now we can finally do something. Now we have put a face on the silent killer that has us by the throat. It’s a policeman. I do want policemen to stop violating basic human rights. In past years citizens suffering from mental illnesses have been treated like criminals on the prowl. Native women have been ignored when they were being raped and kidnapped weekly. Black people are repeatedly approached and treated like dangerous suspects even when they are just out for a walk or a drive. A few years ago I was attacked and had to report to the police: I was frightened of the interaction to come. Why is that ? Are policemen not a part of our society that we created to keep us safe and watch our boundaries, sort of like an external immune system? And if so has our police force become overly reactive the way some immune systems do?          

As a Canadian, I want to think that here, on our soil, we are just and equal…but I know how we have treated and are still treating the First Nations People and the Inuits, and the immigrants too: red, black, brown, yellow, olive, café – if you are not pure white, and in Quebec, pure French, there is much profiling and mistreatments , and yes, killing, that goes on here too. We have been poisoned by the same poison as the United States: racism and white supremacy.          

Trump’s words to the states’ governors were symptomatic of someone who has been poisoned by this notion of supremacy:  “You have to dominate now, or they will run all over you and you will look like jerks. “ This is a recipe to close our hearts down. It is far more pernicious than closing down our economy. So watching this I decide to sit quietly and examine where this poison is in me. Where is the part of me that wants to dominate at all cost, or the part that will attack because it can not recognize what it should protect? Where is the part of me who got killed, unable to breathe, while many witnesses were helpless to stop my death; where is the part of me that is tired of feeling disenfranchised, disrespected, scared, so scared,  misjudged and mistreated; where is the part of me that is asleep at the wheel, hypnotized by the distractions I buy myself, unaware and unaccountable; and where is the part of me that does not give a damn, does not listen to the news, or the internet, but simply gets on with it, like I am on vacations, and it will soon blow over and things can go back to normal; and finally, where is the exhausted part of me, the one for whom this crisis has represented extra work, replete with Covid risks and long shifts without much of a break?          

As I hold these questions, I realize that none of us are separate though we have lived under the tyranny of that illusion for so so long. It’s not just that white folks believe themselves better than black or brown folks and superior to the red people we found in America, north and south, when we arrived here. It is that in general humans of most colours, have behaved as if superior to all living matter on the planet, animals and fauna, but also superior to the earth herself with her magnificent elements: air, water, metal, fire and earth. We believe we can exploit her with abandon, she is a thing and we are not connected to her – we just live here – we are not landlord but only tenants. The earth is not our responsibillity. We watch her die slowly on TV documentaries, the same way we watched Georges Floyd take his last breath: we are both mesmerized and horrified but, are we willing to change? If Covid demonstrated anything to me, it is that our lifestyle can be changed, put on hold, redirected. What if we did that by choice and with vision, instead of simply because we are obeying the whims of a pandemic. Can we look deeply at how we live and redesign normalcy ?          

This is what I hope comes out of this current chaos. I see us emerging from these weeks with the courage to question what is normal and the capacity to discern the differences between normal and norm, and between habitual and so called normal. We are such creatures of habits, we do not like change even though we can adapt to it. We tend to wait for change to be forced upon us rather than to choose to make change. Our industries and our enterprises only support profitable change and often are replete with conflict of interest. If I sell wood floors, I don’t want you to go buy bamboo floors, unless I can sell them to you. And if I sell blood pressure medication, I want you to keep needing it and taking it. Profits have become more valuable than anything. They are the superior way, the sign of success, the guarantee of a future. I no longer believe this is true. Nothing should be more important than life, diverse life. It is time to choose a new normal, for black people, for Native people, for all people; for the earth herself and for all animal life forms. It is time to choose the changes we want to implement to bring about this new normal.          

Until we can gather and mobilize, I am going to keep looking within and without. What do I see ? What grabs me out there and how does it belong to me internally? Or what is going on in me today and where is it expressed in the world? What connects the microcosm to the macrocosm and vice versa? What am I going to change within me? And as I make changes, may I know that I am part of the whole, that I own some of that chaos and some of that beauty, that I have the capacity to adapt and to re-invent, that my life matters, that all lives matter.

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