Lovecraftian Times

Cthulhu

This article about how what people are feeling right now is grief keeps popping up in my Twitter feed.

When I first read it, I understood why people liked it and knew I should, too, but it mostly irritated me. Every time I came across it, I got irritated anew.

But why? you ask. It’s such a nice, thoughtful essay. I felt better after reading it.

Yeah, you did. Because it’s feel-good bullshit.

First of all, ‘grief’ itself is one of those words — like ‘community’ — that sends me into a violent rage, because it’s so cheap, so overused, that you can count on its very utterance being, almost always, pure performative bullshit.

(This probably explains why I have so little patience with fiction whose premise is dead children or ailing family members. Too much of the work with these themes counts on the instant heart-string pull to mask lazy writing and sheer manipulative intent.)

I’m not disputing that the feeling of grief exists. But those who revel in talking about it, labeling every annoyance, every feeling of unease, every hurt feeling grief are full of shit.

They do it because it’s easy and because grief, like pain and suffering, is considered noble. You’re not a hyperventilating hot mess, frazzled from too much time at home with the kids in between videoconference meetings,  pouting because your fun that involves travel or socializing has been postponed indefinitely. No, you are feeling “anticipatory grief.” Gimme a fuckin’ break.

Note that all this precious writing is aimed at work-from-homers whose jobs aren’t in immediate peril. I bet all the laid-off workers don’t feel grief over canceled birthday parties or spring-break family trips, but utter fucking despair over losing the roofs over their heads and the ability to feed their kids.

All of us who stay at home, keep our families healthy and do our jobs remotely should fucking count our blessings and shut the fuck up. So you’re a little perturbed. It’ll go away. You’ll adjust. You’re not grieving; disappointment over the non-fulfillment of your myriad fun plans isn’t grief. After all, what was that saying? If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.

I grew up in a very chaotic society. Amid political and economic turmoil, the societal attitude (and that in my family, for sure) was that we’re always, always, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And you know what? People grow up, have friends and fun, fall in love, get jobs, raise families, and live full lives in chaotic societies.

In fact, until I came to the US I didn’t know one could ever have so much faith in the system. In a functioning judiciary, long-term political stability, health of the economy; in people following rules. Realizing this was possible was heartening. I started feeling entitled to all these things. I became soft, complacent.

But this, this situation we have now, the open-endedness, the uncertainty, that’s what I’d been training for my whole youth. And I can tell you that all this is not only survivable, but livable. Even thrivable. (Provided you don’t actually die from COVID, of course.)

What you’re feeling isn’t grief. Please, don’t cheapen grief. It’s bewilderment in the face of the unknown because you’ve spent your whole life able to count on stability and prosperity. But that’s not a feature of most societies, and even when it is, it’s never for more than a few uninterrupted decades.

What you’re facing is actually Lovecraftian: cosmic horror that has no interest  in making its intentions understood. What you’re feeling is fear. Fear is not noble; fear makes you feel and look weak. But it’s real and it’s true. And it will pass.

10 comments

  1. So true. A colleague of mine wrote on facebook that she’s going through the stages of grief. But she’s the kind of person who goes through the stages of grief when a train is 10 minutes late.

  2. Anxiety is the word I would use for those of us targeted by the HBR article (that I thankfully had not seen). Fear for people genuinely worried about loss. But definitely not grief for missed Disneyworld trips (or, cough, Wisconsin Dells trips). Good grief (pun not intended).

  3. Spot on. I feel like if people read more, or knew more about history or… other countries… they’d be way more emotionally prepared? I’ve been running disaster scenarios in the back of my head since elementary school.

    Infectious disease dynamics is my field. I’ve seen the pandemic coming since mid-January but was stupidly naive about how ill-prepared many Western institutions are, including my own state, city, and university. I didn’t think we’d have to step in to provide sound advice, but the response is a complete cluster#@%$ on every scale. My group is working extremely hard. They know this is not interesting science and we probably won’t get papers to speak of. This is pure service in a public health emergency. No one has batted an eye. Almost everyone in my field is trying to help with those local responses.

    I digress and should get back to work. Thanks for the perspective.

  4. Cannot agree more. I too grew up in a chaotic society and now live in one of those countries consistently ranked as one of the safest, richest, happiest, whatever. This expressed my anger at the self-indulgent grief essay better than I could myself. Thank you.

  5. Eighty years ago, my grandmother saved the world by joining the army and working in a field hospital while bombs rained down. My grandfather saved the world by serving as an artillery officer. I’m saving the world by teaching via Zoom.

    One of these things is not like the others.

  6. Thank you! I thought the grief article was bullshit too. And you’re right, we are feeling fear and uncertainty, and don’t like it!

  7. N&M – I have also used the word anxiety to describe my sentiments… and I am not usually an anxious person. I think it actually gave me some empathy for how anxious people can feel. That has since toned down though as things have “settled” into a more clear reality. Several of my friends who grew up in more unstable countries are totally chill right now, haha. Honestly, I can think of two times in my life that were very similar to this (at least for me personally – not the world): the end of grad school, when I lived in my bedroom writing my dissertation 14 hours a day and only venturing out into the world for “essential” needs, and being at home with my newborn for 5 months when she was born, when life was chill yet tedious and we ventured out twice a day for walks around the block.

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