March 20, 2020

WILK | Viral Nihilism, Chronically Coping When No One Gives Us a Cure

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I was in seventh grade and 12 years old, when my history teacher, Mrs. Saylor, paused and turned her attention away from the dirty whiteboard in a moment of realization to say that we, the cluster of restless preteens seated in front of her, had never known life without war.

I’m still not sure if that statement was completely correct.

I do know that she was right about the list events she subsequently rattled off to try to help us, children supposedly bombarded with unending violence on the very largest scale, understand the stuff we’d been through, the stuff we’d seen: 9/11, the Iran/Iraq War, ongoing military aggressions with Afghanistan, a hard-hitting recession, the Boston Marathon Bombing, constantly-stacking murders by our police force, Sandy Hook Elementary and so many shootings since that it’s far past the point of pathos to try to name them all. It was a lot. I almost hadn’t noticed.

I was in fifth grade and ten years old when Osama Bin Laden was apprehended and executed under the Obama administration. Between listening for the H bus to be called on the announcements to tell me I could go home, boys around me started celebrating, rough-housing with each other, cheerily listing off weapons they knew from COD right there in our elementary classroom. My eyes tried not to linger too long as they raced to see who could find the rumored uncensored pictures of his dead body. I remember being panicked that I was supposed to be so happy over the grotesque details about the death of a person I had just then heard of for the first time. I was the second to last stop on the bus and my heart beat hard all the way home.

The thing is, all this “trauma” left me relatively unscathed. Mrs. Saylor was correct in her observation that the world, since we’d been born, was consumed by war and similarly apocalyptic occurrences. But though I  stared blankly at the news from behind my dad’s spot on the couch, throughout my adolescence I never stopped to take it in. Or rather, I never had to. The constant terror on the screen didn’t touch me, not really. No matter how many villainous mentions I heard of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, from birth through middle school, I wouldn’t ever experience it. I returned every day to a home that was safe. I was healthy. I was happy. In my childish half-awareness of all the disaster, life was still navigable enough for me to remain only childishly half-aware.

However, for many people, elsewhere, in countries we mindlessly group together in that mental space of “I think we bombed them, not sure why,” life was far from navigable through these times.

And with the onset of this pandemic, I’m constantly reminding myself of that. Pestilence is looming, it’s vacating college campuses, shutting down cities, and bringing nations to their knees. Corona, among its other more grave consequential effects, has brought to the surface all of the building, internal dread stirred up by so much tragedy. At the same time, it has given us so many cathartic, irresponsible ways to deal with (read: ignore, repress, downplay, make a joke of) it. Here, we have a weird, shared consciousness that sits at an intersection of powerless yet somewhat protected.

Coronavirus deaths have exceeded 9,000 worldwide. At the moment I’m writing this, the United States has just under 11,000 cases and the growth seems to be exponential, unchecked. Last week I saw reports predicting medical inadequacies and threads from public health professionals detailing how these shortages could exacerbate the issue and send us into an even more turbulent spiral. Shortly after, in a move that was painfully, depressingly predictable, our government poured hundreds of trillions of dollars into the stock market. Reports are being released exposing to us how, three weeks ago, state and federal officials were selling shares and protecting their wealth according to pertinent, virus-related information that they’s continue to hide from us until it would be too late. Our president refuses to accept the WHO-certified test to help protect us against the virus and then lies about it to our faces. Because the health of the market is far more pressing than peoples’ lives. “If COVID-19 proves anything, it’s that institutions have failed you, elites don’t give a shit about you, and most experts are either moronic or deluded.”

Between cracking jokes and desperately advising each other to pause spring break festivities and St. Patrick’s Day bar crawls, we wallow in this historic, global, but still somehow American, disaster. We wallow in it the way we’ve always been told to do. We become the media we’ve relentlessly consumed all these years —  treating disaster after disaster as an opportunity to broadcast morbidly entertaining or weakly hopeful footage. More often, the former. Because we’ve tried demanding justice in the past and frankly we’ve grown too numb to know it’s what we deserve and urgently need. We capitalize off of it. We make darkly comedic viral memes and Instagram our impressive and aesthetic quarantine reading lists. We do our best to express how seriously or lightly we’re taking it and feverishly await the validation that it’ll bring. We do whatever it takes to keep ourselves sane while the people in charge decide, again and again, we’re not worth it.

So we sit, still, safely distanced from one another (or not), and get through it. We get through it because we are stuck at the point of simultaneous plight and privilege regarding what it is to be an American. To be treated like such a laughable last priority by your government that you have no choice but to laugh as well. So we look like hyenas to the rest of the world, cackling deliriously amongst carcasses of the less fortunate.

Because what do we do with absurdity when it becomes so overwhelmingly normal?

Alecia Wilk is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.