Kill Your Ego Before It Kills Someone Else

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by Hannah Harkness

Hey there, you down in the dark! Thank you for taking the time from your long fictional sports conversation with the stick figure you painted on the wall of your rented apartment to read my article. Personally, I’ve been in a basement room of my apartment I share with 3 roommates, some pet rats, a three-year-old black lab, and a snake for a little over two weeks.

This is not what is stressing me out. I got lucky, all parties concerned are delightful. Especially the dog that CLEARLY has no idea what is going on and still freaks out when I walk in the door even though I only leave the house for supplies for 5 minutes maybe twice a week. The problem is when I DO leave my house, I STILL see people acting like absolutely nothing is happening, and that spirals me into a panic attack. Normally you wouldn’t hope to see that things are getting increasingly barren and dystopian every time you leave the house, but in THIS case, if it’s not creepy and empty outside it means that people aren’t staying home and we’re all going to be trapped in rooms with our thoughts. 

So what’s it going to take for us to get out of this besides staying home, washing our hands, and figuring out how to create split personalities that can accompany us through months of solitude? Empathy seems like the easy answer, and an important one. Caring about other people on a base level means that you will not want to leave the house and risk killing five people so you can play basketball. And it’s true that our culture has experienced a decrease in empathy-a now famous study was conducted in 2010 by the University of Michigan that determined that there was a 40% drop in empathy among college students between 2000-2009.

Schadenfreude also has an impact: call-out culture has taught us that it’s cool to take down other people. It’s easy to chuckle that Harvey Weinstein went from power to sitting in prison with Coronavirus. But unfortunately, Harvey having Coronavirus means a good person could get it, so we DO actually have to care that he’s sick or at least act like it. But caring isn’t enough. We’re also going to have to let go of the entire culture of individualism that teaches us that we are all important and special because virtually everything you do to prove that spreads the virus. 

When you go to a party (remember those?) and introduce yourself, people ask you first “what do you do” to determine who you are and get an idea of what your social rank is in society. Now, you can’t go to parties and it’s likely you lost your job. You can’t go to hangouts on rooftops and post them to Instagram, showing everyone you can afford a rooftop bar and that cool people invite you to things. You can’t get pictures of yourself with celebrities to try and elevate your status. You can’t gather in groups to engage in hobbies or protest against people you hate. Basically, we’ve landed ourselves in a situation where the enemy we are fighting requires us to all admit that at the end of the day, most of what we believe makes us individual and important is shit we entirely made up. If you are doing what you are supposed to to stop the virus, you more or less have to completely strip down your identity and treat yourself the way the virus treats you, which is a tiny weak speck of meat in the grand scheme of the universe that can be easily taken out by chemicals. And that, for New Yorkers, is going to be even more impossible for people to handle than being unconditionally nice to strangers.

New Yorkers are competitive with both each other and the rest of the country. The city is supposed to be a place to “make it” and stand out from everyone else, and if you aren’t doing that, who the hell are you? When I see celebrities melting down on Instagram right now, I’m not seeing them melt down from isolation, I’m seeing them melt down from losing the infrastructure that makes them important and gives them the ability to treat other people as lower. They can make all of the posts they want from the house that is nicer than yours, but they now know that it’s possible to be taken out by something that also affects poor people which is a hit in the ego I don’t think any of them ever expected to get. The “we are all in this together” kum bay ya sentiment is one side of a coin. The other side is “we all shit and die, and now we have no way of pretending otherwise.” We can no longer execute our identities the way we used to because they were tied to industries and other people that disappeared from our lives in a matter of days. 

This (in addition to money/survival and thirst for human contact) is making people go out in groups and infect each other. The kids that were all over the internet on spring break were saying things like “I need to live MY life and party.” In the context of Instagram culture, this means “Everyone needs to see me out and about on social media because if I don’t, I’m just another person in sweatpants at home.” Identity politics isn’t just a centerpiece of our culture because we as a culture are changing the way we view marginalized groups, it’s also taking off because we LOVE our identities and losing them is terrifying. If actors can’t make movies and go to awards shows, a lot of them just become bored sociopathic rich people that don’t know how to be interesting without a writer or a director. If attractive people with no other qualities can’t get haircuts or go to the gym, they become confused shells trying to figure out how to cook. We’re being faced with an enemy that requires us to act like we aren’t special, otherwise it will literally kill us.

Can America do that? I’ll be real with you… I have no idea and I’m really pessimistic about NYC. I believe some version of the city will survive because its citizens and the world will fight tooth and nail to keep it. New Yorkers are nothing if not stubborn, resilient., and hopelessly addicted to nostalgia. However, the need to be superior is so hardcore built into our identities that it will absolutely push hundreds of people into the streets. I saw a band post a picture of them and the audience going “WE aren’t scared of Coronavirus” like it made them special risk-takers. The worst case scenario for doing this is usually just being annoying, but in COVID-19 times, trying to be edgy can kill your parents. To an extent we can try to be edgy and superior online, but there’s limits to how far you can take that posting from your apartment. Your hot takes and Tik Toks aren’t enough to make you special if everyone is doing it.

Everyone seems to be trying to blame generations of people for Coronavirus. Boomers are entitled, Gen X is apathetic, millennials and Gen Z like front facing cameras more than keeping old people alive. Really though, every accusation being made is the same and every age group is going outside, not because they were born in 1990, but because collective responsibility is un-American. Little cultural details give other countries an edge over us in fighting this. In Japan, public bathrooms are usually squeaky clean because culturally, leaving a bathroom a piss covered mess is a no-no. In America, we are catching Coronavirus from toilet seats because one cultural detail is killing everyone using the same Starbucks bathroom in Hell’s kitchen. Hoarding food to look out for #1 ultimately results in no one having food. Malnourished people have depleted immune systems. People with depleted immune systems catch and spread Coronavirus. Look at that-you tried to hoard supplies because you think you deserve more than others and in the process, you shot yourself right in the foot buying 15 packs of boneless skinless chicken breasts that are going to get freezer burned.  

Having self-esteem is important. You need some semblance of it to function and contribute to society at all. And I’m not making the argument that there is no “you.” I will argue that “you” is something you completely made up that can change at any time, but you still exist as at least as a concept otherwise I wouldn’t have a word for you. Of course there is you, and nothing is going to change that. But in order to actively contain this virus, we need to ACT like who we are doesn’t matter. We need to act like we are all just a bunch of bags of bones with lungs that can fill up with phlegm and kill us at any time. If we don’t, we’re going to die under martial law in our homes partially sharing our collective consciousness with Animal Crossing. Wash your hands, stay inside (unless capitalism is forcing you out to do your job), and kill your ego before it kills someone else.

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