Don’t put your money where your mouth is: reflections on capitalism during the pandemic

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Whether you’ve been laid off from your job, are working from home, or going in to work with a new set of protective gear and anxieties, your day-to-day routine has likely been impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19. And because as humans our external activity, our actions and routines, directly impact our internal activity—our thoughts and moods—most of us are having to adapt to sweeping internal changes as well. 

With more hours to fill, and less appointments, deadlines, and busywork with which to fill them, we are thinking more. We are also thinking more reflectively. If there is one thing I know as a writer with a general anxiety disorder, it’s that reflection—or thought that is not directed toward a particular purpose or outcome—is a double-edged sword. Wielded correctly, it can produce magnificent things: art, poetry, scientific theories, groundbreaking epiphanies that can change the course of history or an individual life. On the other hand, reflection can easily turn into rumination for some, which can turn into catastrophizing, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and other unhealthy thought patterns. 

Many of us, myself included, are having to work very hard in this time to avoid unhealthy thought patterns, through distraction, mindfulness activities, and zoom meetings. For me, the thought of producing art, poetry, or even a simple blog post like this one feels impossibly difficult right now. That said, there are moments when I am working out, taking a walk, or sitting down to write, when I find myself relaxing into a more fluid, more creative state of mind. Here I am able to reflect—on the current state of things, and what all of it means—without spiraling into a pit of existential angst. 

I have been trying to take advantage of these moments of clarity, whenever possible, to evaluate my priorities, and also my programming. Because we live in a capitalist society where our worth is measured by our income, our ambition, and our general productivity, the current situation has many of us feeling not just frightened, but also guilty. Even when it’s due to no fault of our own, not having a job, collecting government assistance, spending money we didn’t “earn” on food and entertainment, “spending time” off the clock on leisure activities, and even sleeping in on the weekday feels like a reflection on our character. We feel lazy, negligent, “useless”—even when we’re being told that by staying home we are literally saving lives. 

Interestingly enough, the messages we are getting from the government right now are quite anti-capitalist, with leaders in government, even Trump himself, encouraging us to be “healthy at home” and to prioritize our safety and the safety of others, over everything: including our businesses, our financial wellbeing, and the general economy. Small business owners who have closed their doors, likely to never reopen them, have been lauded for their “sacrifice,” much in the way religious communities honor martyrs who give their lives for their faith. We have been instructed to prioritize humanity, over convenience and over profit, in our every action, even the smallest ones. These messages are in tension with capitalism, and with our collective programming as American citizens. These messages are also ones that virtually all Americans, regardless of age or race or political party, are agreeing on in the present moment. 

So maybe this period of reflection is awakening in us, not just as individuals, but as a country and as an American people, an awareness of the ways in which the current system and our current programming is flawed. Some people believe that all things, including pandemics, happen for a reason. I’m not one of those people. I do however think that it is human nature, and our responsibility as humans, to look for the reason (read: morality, rationality, lesson, meaning)—or the unreason (read: immorality, irrationality, contradiction)—in current events and systems. And when I look around, I am seeing more people doing this. What are some other possible reasons (read: lessons or meanings) you are finding during the pandemic?   

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