Language, contagion, and the persistence of relationship
Whew! Hey, everyone! How are you? Wherever on the emotion wheel you find yourself in these times, I hope that you’ve been able to access some moments of wonder and gratitude. I hope you give yourself opportunities to witness the beauty of life in pursuit of itself. I’ve been taking a bunch of super short walks around the block recently, and in the last couple days I’ve had the honor of spotting three (!) monarch butterflies in flight. #blessed
Maybe you noticed or maybe you didn’t, but I was quiet on the internet for a while. Thank you for your patience and for still being here. First I was sick, then I had the busiest month of my life, then there was a multi-week trip to the underworld, by which I mean I revisited parts of my past in some deep, painful, but unexpectedly healing ways. But mostly I just… didn’t want to be online. And while there’s a long list of topics I’ve wanted to cover for months or even years, lately I’ve felt an aversion to trying to articulate my ideas and bottle them up. When I think about why, I keep coming back to a lesson that the astrologer Colin Bedell (@queercosmos) shared last year during Pisces season: that we can know something without being able to explain it, and in fact, we don’t need to explain it.
For much of my life, I’ve thought of writing as giving me freedom. Through writing, I can take something apart, organize it, make sense of it. My own personal cartography. These days, I’m finding freedom in not needing to intellectualize and wordsmith my existence. Both sides of this are true, of course. My body is viscerally rejecting the metaverse, I don’t want to write anything, and to say what I really want to say, I need six months to write a book.
From somewhere at the intersection of all these things, I’m here today to share some thoughts on language, reality, and health.
Have you ever run into a problem with a device or machine and said, “Hm, that’s weird. It should work…”? Or maybe someone else has said this to you after you’ve pointed out an issue and they fumble around before meaningfully trying to fix anything? It should work. Ok, but it doesn’t!
This little scenario grabbed my attention once and I’ve been noticing it ever since. It’s funny how fixated we are on what should be. How slow we can be to accept the reality right in front of us when it doesn’t match our expectations.
We can see examples of our brain games all around us.
“It must be razor burn/a pimple/an ingrown hair, because I couldn’t be the type of person to get an STI.” (Fact check: everyone is the type of person to get an STI).
“I have a mysterious rash but it couldn’t be monkeypox in the midst of a monkeypox outbreak, because I don’t fit the dominant demographic description currently associated with monkeypox.”
“I didn’t think I would get sick, because I’m vaccinated.”
“I have symptoms but I keep getting negative rapid tests, so I guess I don’t have it.”
“WTF, why do I have COVID again? It’s been less than 90 days.”
Surely, multiple factors are responsible for our confusion, disbelief, and denial of reality — ineffective or straight up false public health messaging, lack of medical literacy, wishful thinking, social stigmas, systems of oppression. There are also cognitive biases at play, such as anchoring bias: the tendency to be overly influenced by the initial information we encounter about a topic. (I imagine this accounts for at least part of the enduring insistence on hand sanitizer more than two years into a pandemic that’s been clearly shown to be fueled by airborne, not surface, transmission. The dominance of the early guidance we received about COVID — wash your hands, don’t touch your face, sanitize everything — is, apparently, hard to shake.)
Not only do we have to contend with all these individual and collective human filters and barriers to seeing reality for what it is, but reality itself is ever-changing; we don’t get to hit pause while we figure it out. In the case of COVID, our knowledge of and language for the virus is developing while, simultaneously, the virus replicates, mutates, and evolves through us.
This dynamic, this dynamicness, hints at something that I think is really important for, and lacking from, our understanding of COVID and contagion in general: relationship. Relationship, simply put, refers to a state of relating, connection, or interaction between two or more things. I’ve written before that nothing exists outside of relationships. This is certainly true when it comes to infection. To be infected is to be in relationship — in interaction: inter-action — with another living phenomenon. Sometimes indefinitely, sometimes only fleetingly. Sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly.
But rather than an interactive relationship, there’s a readiness in our culture to treat infection as a static state, a label, an on/off switch. We confuse descriptive, aggregate observations for prescriptive, universal rules of how an infection should behave: Six feet, 15 minutes. Outdoors. 95% efficacy.
Fourteen Ten Five-day isolation. 90-day immunity. And we might point to variability as proof of non-reality when, actually, we’ve once again expected reality to be something that it’s not (fixed, singular) instead of being receptive to what it is (fluid, multifaceted). By expecting contagion to approach us as uniform vessels and express through us in identical ways, we deny our own and others’ selfness, creatureness, aliveness.
I notice a parallel between our static view of infection and our static view of pretty much everything else that’s non-human in colonialist, capitalist society. Water, soil, lumber, food, minerals, fossil fuels, fibers — we call these “resources,” rather than living phenomena with which we are in active, sacred relationship. When we’re unaware or in denial of the relationships we’re in, we can’t understand them or tend to them.
I keep thinking about tending to reality and what that requires of us.
Bringing it back to earlier in the newsletter, I keep thinking about the power that comes with finding the right words, and also about the degrees of separation between what we say and what we’re describing. I’m most aware of that distance when I read English translations of Hebrew text and, being a native speaker of both, I know they don’t mean the same thing. I sense the distance in internet discourse (which, IMO, has by now peaked in part due to The Distance): the latching onto terminology that, while originally useful in its ability to distill and reveal the messiness of human dynamics, eventually becomes shorthand to the point that the terminology and its critiquing or praising action become prioritized over real understanding of the dynamics that the language was meant to clarify. And I sense the distance in many of the ways that COVID, like health more broadly, is discussed and imagined.
All language is translation, our closest approximation of what we understand to be true. It’s in our best interest to be careful not to confuse the translation for the original.
We are not infectious for a set number of days because a person, an organization, or a website says it should be so. We are infectious for as long as we are infectious.
Our immunity does not follow the schedule of our language for it.
Our health is not a standardized product on an assembly line. It is what it is: an expression of a web of relationships.