“I used to distract myself,” writes James Baldwin in his 1964 essay Nothing Personal, “some mornings before I got out of bed, by pressing the television remote control gadget from one channel to another. This may be the only way to watch TV: I certainly saw some remarkable sights.”
Baldwin, renowned for his commentary on race and American culture, was not one to parse words. His sharp critiques of American culture scraped away at the hypocrisy and superficiality that covered up the deep-seated wounds and injustices that plagued our historical landscape.
One of his most poignant criticisms was of our impulsive recourse to distraction. Baldwin observed that so many Americans lacked the tools to face their woundedness—both the wounds they have inflicted on others and the ones inflicted on themselves. The existential shallowness of the American dream doesn’t exactly hold values like vulnerability, transparency, and intimacy in high regard. Baldwin saw through the alluring fantasies of American life offered to us on television screens.
He continues, “Blondes and brunettes and, possibly, redheads-my screen was colorless-washing their hair, relentlessly smiling, teeth gleaming like the grillwork of automobiles…hands prevented from aging by incredibly soft detergents, fingernails forbidden to break by superbly smooth enamels, teeth forbidden to decay by mysterious chemical formulas, all conceivable body odor, under no matter what contingency, prevented for twenty-four hours of every day, forever and forever and forever.”
Baldwin made his name as a modern-day prophet by his audacious censures of his own people’s lack of authenticity. His ability to penetrate to the core of American culture and entertainment, call out our attempts to mask our own poverty and iniquity through illustrious facades and vapid distractions, harkens back to the prophets of the Old Testament. One can dare to imagine the biting words with which he would critique more contemporary forms of entertainment found on social media. I shiver thinking of what he would see in the variety of filters and facial modifications made available through Instagram and Snapchat.
Baldwin traces this mentality back to the days of colonization. Allured by the fantasy of a comfortable, picture perfect life, with enough wealth and materials goods, devoid of conflict, pain and insecurity, the pilgrims set to work pursuing their “false myth”—as Baldwin called it—of happiness.
Baldwin continues, “I know the myth tells us that heroes came, looking for freedom; just as the myth tells us that America is full of smiling people….and though I rarely see anyone smiling here, I am prepared to believe that many people are, though God knows what it is they’re smiling about; but the relevant truth is that the country was settled by a desperate, divided, and rapacious horde of people who were determined to forget their pasts and determined to make money.”
Even the disease of racism, Baldwin appears to claim, is rooted in the graver illness brought on by the infectious “American myth.” It comes from the intentional blindness of the slave traders, and of those early colonists who denied the humanity of the people they made a claim over. But they were only able to do this, Baldwin claims, because they never stopped to look at themselves in the mirror. Their blindness to their own humanity made it easier for them to be convinced that the Africans they were enslaving, and the original peoples’ land they were pillaging, were not actually human beings.
The long-term effect of this mythological vision of bourgeois complacency—devoid of inconvenience, ugliness, and woundedness—was that we Americans became blind to, what it really means to be human. Not only this, but the myth blinds its adherents to the injustices and sufferings they are inflicting on others.
Baldwin’s incisive prophecy is all the more relevant, and vexing, fifty-six years later. As the days in quarantine continue to drag on, I find myself wrestling with Baldwin’s words. Working, relaxing, eating, communicating, praying, and sleeping in the same space for a prolonged period of time has a way of wearing you down. Modifying my daily routine to fit my new lifestyle of spatial fixedness and social isolation has left me confused and exhausted. The impulse to distract oneself becomes all the more alluring. Why keep focused at a Zoom meeting, when you can hold your phone out of sight from the camera shot and scroll through Instagram? Why buckle down and knock out your day’s tasks in one sitting, when you can take a “quick break” and watch an episode or two (or three) of a Netflix series?
Shockingly enough, I’m already bored with the very distractions I’m using to distract myself from boredom. Something about watching five episodes in a row of Unorthodox, or watching thirty Instagram stories consecutively, leaves me feeling groggy and, well, useless. And as the effectiveness of my go-to distractions begins to wither, I find myself reflecting not only on how unideal our current circumstances are, but on how unideal my life is as a whole. Past memories that I always hoped would fade into the background start surging to the surface of my mind, along with my dissatisfaction with my current place in life. Faces of people who have wronged me, and worse, those I have wronged, make their way back into my conscience.
There is something exhaustingly inconvenient about the human condition. Our inability to completely stave off the sensation of loneliness and satisfy the need to feel that we are “good enough” comes off as a condemnation. We are unavoidably and inescapably characterized by an onerous “lack.”
The Coronavirus isn’t only shaking up our health and safety, it is shaking up the very fibers of American culture. The recourse to distractions, facades, and superficial solutions are unable to offer a sufficient answer to what is emerging from our experience. The fears, needs, and questions that this quarantine is bringing out of us demands that we face ourselves in the mirror, and start asking, “Who am I really? And what is the point of my existence?”
The American myth of happiness is like a band-aid that covers up these questions that are deeply rooted in our spiritual poverty. The dangerous result of this cover-up logic is that we inoculate ourselves to the possibility of being vulnerable with others, of embracing our own woundedness, and letting others gaze upon those wounds with affirmation, empathy, and mercy. The more this becomes impossible, the further we alienate ourselves from each other, living in relationships marked by superficiality and inauthenticity, and distancing ourselves from those for whom this illusion of intimacy is not feasible.
At what point do we realize that we all share in this condition of poverty…that we all are plagued with this terrifying lack? At what point do we break through this facade, tear off the band-aid, and start facing the terrifying questions with each other?
Opening up about our existential insecurities and longings is a risk, to say the least. But my experience over this time in quarantine has shown me it’s a risk I can’t afford not to take anymore. My phone calls with friends and coworkers, especially with those with whom I am close in age, has revealed to me that I’m not the only one who deals with the sense of feeling inadequate. A shocking amount of my friends also struggle with insecurities about their competency in our careers, their fear of being overly needy in relationships, and their moral quandaries about how they are living their lives.
There’s something about answering the question, “So, how have you been doing?” honestly—without the recourse to more conventional responses like recounting the events of the day, or, “You know, just hammering through these Zoom meetings”—that allows you to experience real intimacy with the person at the other end of the line. Not being afraid to speak up about your internal struggles and questions, and to just “bare it all”, creates a space where we can be freely and authentically human.
Baldwin laments that we “appear to have become too timid to question what we are told. Our failure to trust one another deeply enough to be able to talk to one another has become so great that people with these questions in their hearts do not speak them; our opulence is so pervasive that people who are afraid to lose whatever they think they have persuade themselves of the truth of lie, and help disseminate it; and God help the innocent here, that man or woman who simply wants to love, and be loved.”
He attempts to help us face those rare and precious moments, when those existential questions inevitably rise up to the surface of our consciousness in an attempt to break through the facade. He points to that “devastating” moment when we wake up in the middle of the night, perhaps at 4 a.m., in which we start thinking about all the things we have to do the next day. Get up. Get dressed. Go to work. Make dinner. Watch TV. Then fall asleep and do it all over again. Just going through the same cycle again and again. Is there any point to this seemingly endless rat-race?
This 4 a.m. hour also is the moment in which we are forced to confront the conundrum that arises when our daily routine is brought to face our unavoidable mortality. “It is a fearful speculation—or, rather, a fearful knowledge—that, one day one’s eyes will no longer look out on the world. One will no longer be present at the universal morning roll call. The light will rise for others, but not for you. Sometimes, at four AM, this knowledge is almost enough to force a reconciliation between oneself and all one’s pain and error.”
At 4 a.m., we have a choice. Either fall asleep, and keep blindly going through the routine. Continue following the example of Camus’ Sisyphus in his absurd task of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, day after day, and never really face our need for answers to those existential questions.
Or, we can wake up and look at ourselves in the mirror, facing our wounds, our needs, and our desire to be infinitely, unconditionally loved. “Since, anyway, it will end one day, why not try it—life—one more time?”
This time in quarantine seems to be a prolonged “4 a.m. hour.” The real question is, will we go back to sleep? The future of our country post-Coronavirus will be largely determined by our answer to that question. Will we continue wallowing in our distractions and facades, running further away from those questions whose ubiquitous presence shakes up our aspirations to bourgeois complacency? Or will we look in the mirror? Will we take the risk of showing ourselves to others as we are, and start embracing that fact that we aren’t as happy as our Instagram profiles may make it seem? Though the journey toward the truth may seem long and daunting, its nature might be different if we allow ourselves to be accompanied by others.
This essay was originally published in iO Literary Journal under the title “Why not try life one more time?”: Living in Quarantine with James Baldwin.