In the 46th game of the Oakland Athletics 2020 baseball season, the A’s got beat 6-3 by Lance Lynn, who is one of the best pitchers in the AL West this year. That’s going to happen. Frankie Montas matched him for five innings, but then he threw two consecutive badly located fastballs in the sixth, and suddenly the A’s were down to the Texas Rangers by three runs. It was a game they could have won, had they not made any mistakes, but they did make mistakes, and that was that.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve gone numb about [waves hands in all directions] all of this. Ordinarily, a coulda-shoulda loss would bother me for the rest of the day, but now, this was just one more row added to a large database table named bad_news. Nobody gets emotional about rows in a database table.
And that’s kind of appropriate, because I checked my logs from yesterday’s piece, and bots are reading this blog at a 10:1 ratio over humans anyway. I think I got about 8 visits from humans, and about 80 visits from bots. My writing is ending up in far more database tables than human brains.
It is a feature of modern life that there are a few thousand famous people whose handful of thoughts and ideas, deservedly or not, end up in the brains of millions and billions of people. And there are a few billion of us other people whose thoughts and ideas end up are utterly forgotten but for a handful of digital algorithms that convert those thoughts and ideas into their final form: statistics.
Is it any wonder, then, that cynicism, the belief that all human beings are simply motivated by their own selfish interests, is on the rise? If you treat me like a statistic, why should I treat you like anything but a statistic in return? I don’t have to feel anything about a statistic. Statistics don’t change, or grow. Statistics have no path to redemption or transcendence. Statistics aren’t worthy of compassion or forgiveness. You’re just a number, a number that’s either useful enough for me to keep, or unprofitable trash that can be destroyed.
Looking back at what I wrote yesterday, about the numbness and the lack of energy and the hopelessness, it might be easy to diagnose me as getting depressed. But I’ve had some experience with depression in my family. I don’t think that this is depression. I think this is grief.
Grief is the emotional reaction that comes with loss. It’s the mind’s reaction to losing something you love. There are similarities with depression, in the sadness and the lack of energy and numbness, but depression doesn’t necessarily have an event that triggered it.
I’m not grieving the loss of a person I personally know. But I’m grieving the loss of too many people who didn’t need to die. And as a result of that, I am also grieving the loss of an ideal, a belief in my home city, state, and country, a faith that even if things aren’t great right now, we have a system that is resilient, that moves towards fixing our problems, and that works in the long run to make things better.
I have lost my optimism that ours is a system that can actually fix its problems. Every day that goes by where the pandemic rages on and we don’t take steps to mitigate it, where people get sick but don’t have enough healthcare, where people lose jobs and also lose their homes, where racism persists and we deny it even exists (both nationally and locally), where the climate changes and the countryside burns and the air is unbreathable and we call the problem a hoax or spread rumors that protesters are setting the fires, I despair. We are being actively stupid on purpose, and the worse the problems get, the more actively stupid we behave.
I’ve lost my faith in our competence as a nation. And so I’m grieving that loss. I don’t think I’m alone. A lot of people are grieving their loss of optimism in America.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play about such grief. Hamlet grieves his recently deceased father, of course, but he also grieves the loss of values of the people around him. He suspects that the new king, his uncle Claudius, actually killed his father. His mother marries Claudius just one month after his father dies.
If grief is the reaction to losing something you love, what does that say about people who move on from a loss too quickly? That they didn’t really love at all? That they’re really just cynical bastards out to get theirs?
Hamlet is not happy about this turn of events. He continues to grieve, even when others have moved on. If it had only been his father’s death, Hamlet probably wouldn’t be so dour so long. But his mother’s quick remarriange makes it more than just about a death. It’s a loss of belief in a higher principle: that his mother loved his father.
In the first three acts of the play, events serve to further erode Hamlet’s faith in love. His girlfriend Ophelia rejects him on orders from her father. A ghost tells him that Claudius killed his father. And then he gets wind that Claudius has ordered him to be killed. Nobody around him acts in any way consistent with human love.
As Hamlet grieves, his behavior is indistinguishable to those around him from madness. Everyone around him is too selfish to meet his grief with empathy. Since no one is capable of meeting him where he is, he loses faith even further, and the situation spirals out of control.
Grief is a process. You can get to the other side of it, but only when the time is right. You can’t reason your way out of it, as we see in the first act when Claudius and Gertrude try talk Hamlet out of his grief, by arguing that death is normal, and you just have to suck it up:
KING CLAUDIUS: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
HAMLET: Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
HAMLET: Ay, madam, it is common.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
HAMLET: Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
You can’t rush grief. Grief is not a thing you can fix with a pill, or an attitude change, or an election. Grief will take whatever time it needs.
I’m sure some things will get better if we elect Joe Biden over Donald Trump. We won’t, for a few years at least, choose the stupidest of all possible policies. But our problems are complex. Biden is not some brilliant theorist with a bunch of unique, creative ideas to fix our problems. Biden is what he has always been: a generic Democrat with generic Democrat ideas. I think Biden can stop a lot of the bleeding. I’m not very optimistic that his policies will fix the root causes of our country’s ills.
However, there is one thing that gives me comfort about Joe Biden at this point in our history. Joe Biden has suffered some terrible losses in his life, and been able to come out the other side. He lost a wife and a child in a car accident, and another child to cancer, He is the one politician, more any other major political figure in this country, who knows grief intimately.
In a time when we’re grieving the loss of faith in our values, in our competence, and we’re having trouble figuring out exactly what our values should be, having trouble getting things done effectively and efficiently, We can do worse than to chose a leader who may not have all the answers, but understands how to navigate through grief.