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The Pandemic, One Year On: 4. How do we know what’s true?

My daughter will be 12 this year. All her grandparents are still alive but, as is the way for most people in most places, they haven’t seen as much of her since the start of the pandemic a year ago.

We never had to do the “happy birthday” songs from the other side of a closed window; all of us have seen pictures like that now, so much that we might be desensitized to it, as horrible as that sounds. We’re fortunate. A combination of a little outdoor space to reduce the risks, and four stoic grandparents whose general view is that life is about living, not just about avoiding sickness and death.

One of the general refrains when they see our daughter now is, “You’ve got so tall!”

That’s natural, too. Kids have a habit of rapid growth at a certain age, so a couple of months pass and a few inches come without anyone really noticing, until the tracksuit bottoms are suddenly ankle length and the school jumper comes only to the wrists.

We welcomed her into the world in the summer of 2009, during a gloriously hot and calm few weeks of weather.

It’s no time at all, really, but when I look back now, I realise how much trauma all of us, everywhere, have gone through in that short spell of time.

Trauma not of the acute kind that comes after short spikes of severe experience, like the kind suffered by abuse survivors or soldiers who saw things in war they can never stop replaying in their mind’s eye.

Trauma, instead, of the chronic kind that comes after long periods of stress.

Small ‘t’ trauma

Small ‘t’ trauma is not the kind of trauma that might ordinarily receive talk therapy and medical intervention.

The fact that everyone goes through it at the same time doesn’t make it any less traumatising.

And what all of us have seen and been through over these past 12-14 years or so (it started in about 2007, which brought the start of the global financial crisis, the arrival of the iPhone and the beginning of widespread adoption of Facebook and Twitter) has been traumatising, small ‘t’, for almost everyone, almost everywhere.

The insidious crawl of technology and increasing information uncertainty was presenting challenges for us before the pandemic, but the crisis has deepened unrecognisably since March 2020.

Trust was already breaking down on a grand scale: that’s what happens when everyone has a platform to say whatever they want, whenever they want, or reply to whoever they want, however they want.

It may just be that the pandemic has exposed the faultlines in the way we get and give information, from governments and institutions and media, and even just amongst and between ourselves.

The craft of conversation, the art of dialogue, is being lost, blown apart by the bombs of 280-character rants, and by our fear of the shame we see thrown down on individuals who speak up to disagree with particular narratives, and by algorithms designed to keep you scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.

User experience design on the biggest technology platforms might be less about giving you what you want than giving advertisers what they want — an endless inventory of vulnerable, screen-addicted people who know much less about the workings of their own minds than the high-end behavioral scientists and software engineers who build and continually refine and optimise the Pandora’s box that sits in your pocket, or possibly that brings these words to your eyes now.

Healthy disagreement is the foundation of anything good, but so many of us have become afraid to disagree and we don’t know why. And so two extremes emerge: the extreme of blind, unquestioning acceptance of official lines, and the extreme of absolute distrust of everything that those in positions of power ever say.

The big problem

All of this presents us with a problem. Maybe it’s the defining problem of this period in history.

What do we really know?

What are we certain is true?

There are no easy answers to these questions. The world is nuanced and complex.

Perhaps the most straightforward answer is that anything presented as clean and clear-cut is either false, or at the very least wholly incomplete.

When trust in institutions breaks down, there is likely to be a period of great upheaval. In time, we might come to realise that that period has already begun.

We’ve been here before. Not in our lifetimes, admittedly, but there was a time before mass media, before national boundaries, before the teachings of the Church.

This distrust — distrust both in the information we receive, and just as importantly distrust in our own ability to make sense of that information — creates within us a sense of chaos.

One way to navigate the chaos and find order — within our own minds first, and out in the world second — is to go back to what we really know, to peel back the layers that seem false or incomplete and find the kernel of truth that is available to us at all times.

The sun rises in the morning.

The sycamore turns an infinitesimal shade greener every day.

The daffodils burst into bloom.

The yellowhammer sings his song of bread and no cheese.

The billions of microorganisms, bacteria and viruses in a spoonful of sand.

A bond between a kitten and a small boy.

The inarticulate, wordless love between two people just trying to do their best and be their best when everything seems to be falling apart.

A rare true friendship.

We know things are true when we feel them to be true.

Truth presents itself first not in the prefrontal cortex where our so-called rational mind sits, but in the deeper recesses of our brains, where the neural pathways connect with our gut and with our heart.

Western philosophy and thinking over the past few centuries have sought to diminish the importance of feeling.

Feeling has been dismissed as the source of our most irrational or impulsive behaviour.

And of course that’s true, but it is true also that feeling is also the source of our highest order selves, those moments when we are everything we want to be and we can’t explain why.

When we allow ourselves to feel — avoiding the boredom-quenching reach for our phone, or the TV remote, or the tube of Pringles — we can allow ourselves to feel what’s true.

And what’s true for us is our starting point for everything.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.