America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Essays

Breathing Lesson

The miraculous human face—disrupted by the ubiquitous mask.

Talbot Brewer

Graffito of mother and child in gas masks; INSADCO Photography/Alamy Stock Photo.

It’s the middle of 2020. The world we’ve known, the life we’ve lived, the shops and theaters and restaurants where we’ve gathered for amusement and delight—all of them, shuttered, canceled. I do not know what end times look like. But if I try to picture them, I see people locked in their homes, venturing out only for necessities, giving each other a wide berth, hiding their faces from each other, afraid of one another’s breath or touch, anxiously tracking news of an invisible killer as it compasses the planet, town by town, home by home. That is, I see the middle of 2020.

The depredations of the coronavirus may well have been greatly exaggerated in some quarters, for political convenience or gain. But while the numbers and their significance are open for debate, there’s no doubting that when the virus hits full-force, it’s the stuff of nightmares. Your lungs fill with fluid. You gasp for air but can’t get your fill. You drown on dry land.

It’s worth pausing over the potency of the symbolic register within which this disease does its undoing. Otherwise we might not see how a lately bustling world has been “vexed to nightmare” by an invisible virus, one whose toll—while undoubtedly severe—does not match the most serious pandemics of the past. Taking a breath is the first thing we do when we are born. A delay of even a few minutes is enough to send parents into panic and put the newborn’s life in acute danger. That first breath, once taken, inaugurates the rhythmic rise and fall that will recur roughly 21,600 times per day for the duration of our lives. The breath and the heartbeat—the two pulsing cadences that are with us as long as we are, the ones whose end will be our end. Breath is the more measured of the two, and also the more pronounced, especially under exertion. It is our second umbilical cord, tying us as primally to our second mother, nature, as the first tied us to the womb. It might fairly be called the music of our life—the soham or hamsa that anchors our deepest meditations on the bottomlessly astonishing fact that there is something rather than nothing, and that we are a living and breathing part of this something.

In the experience of breath, we find the ur-source of our ideas of the peculiar form taken by our kind of being—call it human being. From the Greek terms pneuma and psyche, both of which referred initially to breath, we inherit, by a series of metaphoric leaps and etymological twists, our ideas of mind and soul. From the Latin spirare—which, again, begins life as a plain old word for breathing—we inherit our idea of spirit, and, by a second metaphoric pirouette, of religious and artistic inspiration. Breath, then, is the humble bodily function through which we are able to picture, and hence to purposefully nurture, our most exalted capacities—the capacity for religious awakening, or for artistic genius. We awaken to God, if we do, or hear the voice of the muse, if we are lucky enough to be addressed by it, in a movement of mind that put our forebears in mind of breathing.

Our utter dependence on breath, whose demands we are literally unable to refuse for more than a minute or two without being overridden by our own bodies, suggests that what is most vital in us is not made of meat or bone, but of some more subtle and diaphanous stuff—of thin air, maybe. Given these symbolic resonances, the thought of death by suffocation holds special horror. It suggests the snuffing out of the spirit, hence of that which we are perennially tempted to imagine capable of surviving when the flesh expires. Death by the hangman, death by drowning—these are the pictures on the tarot cards we’re always hoping not to draw. We have been drawing them by the scores in 2020, this most unusual and disturbing of years.

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There are certain concatenations of events that powerfully suggest that history has an author, and ham-fisted one at that—one whose penchant for unlikely coincidence and resounding symbolism makes reality read like bad fiction. So it was when, while mesmerized by this virus and by the liminal fear of our own suffocation, we were transfixed by the unconscionable killing of George Floyd. We hear him say over and again: “I can’t breathe.” We see the pitiless face of his executioner, Chauvin, namesake of the original chauvinist (a particularly clumsy authorial touch), who seems to take the very fact that his victim has breathed these words as proof of their falsity. And slowly, horribly, we watch the breath and the words leave the body of George Floyd.

Yet his dying words—“I can’t breathe”—have an unlikely afterlife. They go viral, circling the planet at a speed that could be equaled by no microbe, nor anything else composed of matter. become the rallying cry for massive demonstrations in dozens of cities across this country and a few on other continents. Idealistic reformers take to the streets, with the best of intentions, and so do opportunistic looters, with the worst.

The police prove disturbingly well-prepared for such a moment. The American cop has always toted a hefty pistol and enough ammo for an old-school shootout. But the cops who took to our streets this summer made John Wayne look like a bobby with a billy club. They came in military vehicles, clad in armor from head to toe, carrying an almost cartoonish arsenal of lethal and “less lethal” weapons. This pumped up police force appeared for all the world like a menace to “we the people”—or at least, to that significant portion of the people who had assembled in the streets to protest police racism and violence. Calls to defund the police were greatly amplified, and the city streets filled with mutual mistrust and loaded guns.

Meanwhile a certain unpredictable insomniac lobbed wee-hour Twitter bombs from the Oval Office, with the apparent aim of sparking a showdown spectacular enough to scare the suburbanites into his camp before the upcoming election, while his more conciliatory rival remained mostly out of the public eye, perhaps in order to minimize opportunities for his trademark gaffes, and thus rather conspicuously failed to articulate a genuinely inspiriting vision of his own. As the economy wobbled on the edge of a cliff, it began to sink in that we’ll almost certainly be depending on one of these two men to pick up the pieces and lead us into 2021.

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I’ve been having this recurring dream. Maybe you’ve had it too. I’m at the grocery store and I see my fellow shoppers from behind. At first everything seems normal. Then one of them turns my way. I’m expecting to catch sight of a standard issue homo sapiens. But this shopper has no face. A blank taut membrane is stretched across the surface where the cheeks and nose and mouth are supposed to be. I think I can make out lips and tongue moving under there—maybe trying to protest their muzzled condition, maybe just struggling for a clear breath. But I can’t be sure.

I do see the eyes, and they do appear to be intact. But when eyes are left to do the communicating by themselves, they give little sign of what’s going on behind them.

Simone Weil once observed that “human beings around us exert just by their presence a power which belongs uniquely to themselves to stop, to diminish, to modify, each movement which our bodies design. A person who crosses our path does not turn aside our steps in the same manner as a street sign…”11xSimone Weil, Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, ed. and trans. E.C. Geissbuhler (London, England: Routledge, 1976), 28. This observation seems quite perceptive. Yet it no longer holds true of me or my fellow shoppers. We have been demoted to the status of walking street signs. We do register with each other, but mostly as an indication that a swerve would be advisable in order to avoid some danger—a near touch, with a threat of contagion. We no longer inspire those micro-nods of micro-acknowledgment that are the opposite of what today are called micro-aggressions. I look past other shoppers without really seeing them, and they do the same to me. In fact, there is no alternative, since no one can really be seen. Our fellow humanity has not been forgotten—I’m sure we would all hastily and sincerely affirm it, if asked—but it has been covered over, effaced.

Faceless humans, with vacant eyes. What does it portend for us that these tropes of nightmares have seeped out into the light of day, and into those public places where we ordinarily expect others to be present to us, and us to them? What will it mean for us, or do to us, if the virus is not vanquished quickly, or if our encroachment upon exotic wildlife brings forth a rolling series of similar global contagions, and we end up living for a prolonged period in this spectral realm that I already hear people calling “the new normal”?

I am tempted to play the Cassandra here and foretell the gradual atrophy of the daily habit of perceiving and publicly confirming each other’s humanity. I am tempted—but not quite ready to do so. This outcome is not inevitable, and lately there has been reason for hope, for—as just noted—the people did something surprising this past summer. They gathered in large numbers night after night in the streets of our cities, at risk of contracting a potentially fatal illness, to testify publicly, face to face, to the seemingly simple and yet perennially flouted truth that black lives matter. They insisted collectively that black skin must no longer mask the urgent necessity of breath or the inviolability of the spirit.

On this more hopeful reading of our moment, the mask has served to literalize a preexisting struggle really to see what is always there to be seen when we encounter each other in the streets. Somehow, almost inexplicably, and certainly inexcusably, we have been unwilling or unable to see the fellow humanity of others through what ought not to impose even the tiniest impediment—namely, a particular skin color. An appalling mix of chauvinism and eagerness to disparage others has conjured up the appearance of a mask, and the dehumanizing effects of a mask, where there is no mask. And there, in the resolutely unaffected face of one Derek Chauvin, we were able to confront, collectively, the hideous endpoint of this refusal to see.

We all were able to see that Chauvin’s humanity was covered over, buried, by his own determination not to hear or see the human being, and the human life, being snuffed out under his knee. But could we have seen this, and been moved by it to take to the streets in unprecedented numbers, if we were not grappling with the dream we’ve all been having, the one where the masked condition is universalized, and we must struggle to see anyone at all? Would we have seen this, if we were not all getting an initial firsthand glimmer, new to many of us, of the plight of invisibility? Would we have taken to the streets, if the coronavirus had not interrupted all of our ordinary routines and left us adrift and longing for the primal pleasure of a human gathering? Who can say?

But George Floyd did happen at this moment of travail, in the middle of 2020, and at least for a brief moment the light went on.

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We can only go so far in exploring the dangers associated with the public hiding of the face if we do not address the prior question: What is a face? It can take a moment to feel the weight of this question, or even to see how it could so much as be a question, and a live one, for those who are minimally competent in English. Yet the mask has made clear what perhaps ought already to have been clear, that this question, the question of the face, is an unavoidable question for human being—a basic question of ethics, and of civics. We will have to tangle with this question if we are to internalize the lesson that might be learned from our ongoing manifestations against racism. And we will have to tangle with this question if we are to attain to a comprehensive reckoning of the costs and benefits of our current strategies for waylaying the pandemic.

Well then, what in the world is a face? I don’t pretend to have a fully satisfying answer.22xTo the best of my knowledge, hardly anyone has attempted to answer the question in the spirit in which I intend it. Perhaps only Emmanuel Levinas. I certainly cannot hope to equal his incisive reflections on the question. But if I were to hazard a response, I would begin not with a definition but with something closer to a riddle. I would say: The human face is the most miraculous of everyday sightings, or the most everyday of miracles.

The face—a miracle? This sounds like a line from a late-night infomercial for some anti-aging cream. If you’re like me, you might be tempted to retort: You obviously haven’t seen mine. Yet I think we would all readily see what this riddle is getting at if our vision had not been dulled by years and years of habitual sightings. Speaking for myself, I barely see my own face in the mirror. I see something else—a dated impression of it, a mask from the past. I can’t see what I really look like—what the years have made of me—until an image of me surprises me by appearing, say, in a photo I do not initially realize is of me. And if I can’t see my own face, how likely am I to succeed in seeing anyone else’s?

I suspect that it is a basic law of human perception that we no longer see the things we’re most familiar with. Call this the doctrine of the fall, in its application to the eyeballs. If we want to restore an awareness of the miracle of the face, the first and most essential step is to wrench it free from the gray on gray of the familiar. We might try to do this by imagining a face—and let’s make it an obviously human one, by making it frozen in extreme grief—appearing somewhere bizarre and astonishing: say, on the thumb of a hand we are about to shake, or on an apple we’re about to bite. This is not at all like finding a thumb or apple that was the perfect likeness of some other body part—an elbow, or an ass. That would be improbable, and might occasion a laugh, but it would not give us the existential shock of the truly uncanny, as would a misplaced grief-stricken human face.

Why, then, does the human face, when seen afresh, carry us into the realm of the uncanny? Because the face brings into view something that it does not seem a mere lump of matter in motion could possibly make visible. In the face, the thing that breath is our most helpful image of—call it psyche, spirit, chi, soul—transubstantiates into meat and skin and bones, and makes its passing moods and fancies legible to the naked eye. We look to the face for the most unmistakable and eloquent manifestations of love, anger, hatred, jealousy, shame, indignation, determination, doubt, conviction, dejection, joy. All skin marks the boundary between the body and the world beyond it. That’s what makes it skin. But the skin of the face constitutes a more bewildering sort of boundary between inner and outer. It is the meeting place of two forms of being that seem as if they could not possibly meet: the subjective realm of inner experience, and the objectively observable realm of matter in motion.

Faced with this uncanny mélange, certain biblical phrases powerfully suggest themselves, even to this heathen. The face is the spirit incarnate. The face is the word made flesh. Perhaps we could be convinced, in a certain mood, to say similar things of certain other body parts. The hand is a likely candidate, since it can be exquisitely expressive, and can enact our envisioned plans with unparalleled dexterity. But the hand differs from the face in this particular: It is almost entirely at our disposal. It is ordinarily inert until we will it into motion, and it rarely gives away our thoughts against our will. The face, by contrast, is that bit of the material world that gives us over to the public, whether we like it or not. We are, as it were, impaled upon it, and while we might be able to hide it—say, behind our hands, or with a mask—we cannot reliably hide ourselves in it. It might at any moment betray our hidden thoughts and feelings, and it might do this even if we are reasonably adept at bending its contours to our designs.

Further, while a hand can express the general tenor of our feelings, the face can convey the internal strains and nuances of our emotional states. We might for instance plainly see, right on someone’s face, that his show of cheer is perturbed by some lingering resentment. We do not look to the hand or foot or elbow or ass for such fine-toothed information about the state of another’s soul. It is only the face that can display the full flowering of our distinctively human emotional and cognitive powers, with all their internal conflicts and complexities.

In short, the face is that part of the body that opens to the realm of the spiritual. If seeing it as a face—taking it, as it were, at face value—does not already bring us into that realm, it does at least figure as a worldly portent of its distinctive phenomenological contours: the existential astonishment, the hope of companionship, the appearance of infinite depth and interpretability, the omnipresent and unnerving possibility that one has fallen hopelessly into wishful thinking and that what one thinks one plainly cherishes in and shares with another soul just isn’t there at all.

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The face, then, is where we humans find each other—where we look if we wish to know each other. But the face also plays an essential role in our coming to be human in the first place. The infant’s chaos of subjective experience does not easily suggest the idea of anything so coherent as a persisting self. Yet the infant cannot become a human child, much less an adult, unless it becomes aware of itself. It must become aware of itself not just in occasional moments, but in the basic structure of its reflections and deliberations, so that it is not only able to pose, but unable to avoid, the question what to think and do. It is the unavoidability of this question that confers upon human beings the gift, and the burden, of a life that is not merely lived but led—the sort that is a project and a task. This is the sort of life we human beings are distinguished by.

How then are children to apprehend themselves in thought—or to become fully human, if that’s what self-apprehension amounts to? Arguably it is in the acknowledgment extended to us by others—perhaps on credit, before we are entirely there to inspire it—that we first catch glimpse of the kind of being we are meant to become. That being does not come fully into its own until it brings the idea of itself back home from the signs of recognition offered to it by others. If this is right, then it is precisely in the face of others that we find the idea of the self that is the founding structural element of our form of being.33xThis sort of picture has a long philosophical pedigree. Versions of it can be found in such figures as Hegel, Fichte, and, more recently and more elegantly, in Stanley Cavell. Ideas in this family also have a prominent place in contemporary developmental psychology. See e.g., Michael Tomasello and his work on the ontogeny of primates and children. It is only by responding to this summons to selfhood that we are able to experience the life we live as our own life, ours to shape or misshape; and only then can we begin to understand what will be lost when the kind of life we have is lost.

In the utter absence of others, we would not merely find ourselves alone; we would never find ourselves at all. Members of the species homo sapiens would not achieve that delicate internal division that is essential to the self, and that frames the problem of our peculiar pursuit of unity. The human form of being, then, can fruitfully be conceived as a gift, and a burden, passed along by each generation to the next. It is the most basic and the most telling of the many gifts that each generation bequeaths to the next. Every covered face is an incremental interruption of this basic intergenerational gift—the call to, and the gift of, humanity itself.

Now, this might seem like a philosopher’s exaggeration—the result of leaning so hard upon a line of thought that it, and we, are carried beyond the bounds of good sense. Yet this particular flight of philosophical “fancy” accords well with the empirically documented effects of prolonged aloneness. Those prisoners who have endured long periods of solitary confinement often speak of their ordeal as a kind of psychological torture, whose central challenge is resisting the thought that one’s life has become a living death—an existence reduced to the perpetual postponement of a living moment, which is to say, a moment made pregnant with unpredictability and interest by the presence of another mind and will. In her illuminating study of the phenomenon, Lisa Guenther concludes that solitary confinement reliably causes inmates to become, quite literally, unhinged. As she explains:

In the context of this inquiry, “becoming unhinged” is not just a colloquial expression; rather, it is a precise phenomenological description of what happens when the articulated joints of our embodied, interrelational subjectivity are broken apart. Solitary confinement deprives prisoners of the bodily presence of others, forcing them to rely on the isolated resources of their own subjectivity, with the (perhaps surprising) effect of eroding or undermining that subjectivity. The very possibility of being broken in this way suggests that we are not simply atomistic individuals but rather hinged subjects who can become unhinged when the concrete experience of other embodied subjects is denied for too long.44xLisa Guenther, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), xii.

For most of us, the coronavirus lockdown has meant a vastly milder deprivation. Yet it seems noteworthy that it is precisely this continuum on which we have moved a not-inconsiderable distance. The result has been, for many, a psychological ordeal, especially for those who live alone, but also for those who live unhappily together. It has placed a special burden on our children, who are forming their basic idea of the human world in this inhuman environment. They are told to keep their distance from other children, all of whom now fall in the category of mortal threat to self and loved ones. They might easily intuit that they themselves are a mortal threat to loved ones, and that now (and now looms large in the world of a child, especially when no adult can confidently say how long this now will last) love itself demands a studiously maintained physical distance. Those neighbors and fellow citizens whom they do not know personally are now typically seen with their faces masked, during nervous forays to the pharmacy or grocery market. Their formative experiences of the human world are missing something crucial—namely, the humans whose world it is, and who are, for the moment, at best half present.

I have suggested that the face is the focal point of our most pressing ethical struggle, which is the struggle to see, vividly and without hindrance, the reality of our fellow human beings—their psyche, their spirit. This is an extremely demanding form of vision, because it is so strangely lacking in staying power. When we come to see other aspects of reality, our cognitive achievement normally inscribes itself in our unreflective perception, so much so that it is hard not to see what we have learned to see. This is how it is, for instance, with sidewalks, or stop signs. We see the sidewalk as a place to walk, and do not need to stop and think in order for our feet to find their way along it. We see the stop sign as demanding application of the brakes and can scarcely see it or respond to it otherwise. There are occasions when, rather than passing quickly by another human soul, we see that soul inscribed, say, in the lines of suffering of a face, and the vision brings our thought, and perhaps our bodies, to a halt. In such a case we see and respond to what is always there to be seen. But somehow this vision does not inscribe itself in our unreflective take on the world, in the way that the vision of a street sign does. We slip, inevitably, into insensibility to what we have seen, and there we remain until the miracle of the face surprises us again.

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What is most surprising here is that we can be surprised by something so utterly obvious: that there are other human beings all around us, equally real and equally important. We do not deny this truth—that would verge on insanity—yet for the greater part of our lives we are spectacularly oblivious to it.

This particular form of oblivion seems to exert an almost gravitational power upon us. It is where we fall, unless something keeps us from falling. As a general rule we are drawn to knowledge, by what might be called our curiosity or wonder, and repelled by ignorance. There must then be something about this particular obliviousness that gives it a power of attraction that ordinary ignorance lacks. Or maybe there is something about the particular truth in question here—the truth that others are equally real and equally valuable—that gives it a special power of repulsion. But what could be so unendurable about this ordinary truth?

I cannot pretend to answer this question. But here again, I have a gut feeling about where the quest for an answer might fruitfully begin. I would begin with Blaise Pascal’s description in the Pensées of the special horror that comes along with vivid awareness of our common humanity:

Let us imagine a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows, and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men.

This image of “the condition of men” could do double duty as a description of Milan in early March of 2020, or Manhattan a month later. But the condition itself is perennial, even if we ordinarily manage to push it from our minds. In our zeal to turn our minds from it, we sometimes make ourselves complicit in the misspending of this one life we have. This is what Pascal called divertissement, and what we might call diversion or distraction—one form of which is the web surfing that over the past two decades has stealthily claimed and monetized a growing share of our most precious resource—our attention, our awareness, the airy stuff our psyches and lives are made of.

Another way to turn our minds from the fate we share with our fellow humans is to pretend that death is not, after all, something awful. One way to do this is to picture what is lost in death, human life, as a thing of no great moment. If we ask why the impressive body count of certain movies does not render them repellent, but actually draws us to them, perhaps this is because they banalize that which we most fear, death. The casualization of life, and death, can be a balm to our most primal fear. Yet unless we fall into patent incoherence, this relief comes at a heavy cost, since we can’t give ourselves over to a truly fitting set of life goals if we really internalize the thought that our strivings are in service of nothing weighty. Perhaps one source of racism is our incoherent wish to deny the importance of human life without implicating our own life in that denial. A line must be drawn somewhere in order to paper over our incoherence, and since no line is defensible we draw it indefensibly, along lines of skin color, then fortify and entrench the resulting division with whatever rationalizations we can concoct.

It must be added that there is another, more powerful sort of appeal in these indefensible divisions. I have been stressing that the self is constructed interpersonally, and that its reality and status are made visible in the recognitional gaze returned to each of us by others. This recognition is the air the spirit breathes. Without it, we cannot know ourselves as selves, hence cannot be selves in the fullest sense. But if we need the eyes of others to acknowledge us as the fellow humans that we are, we can easily come to want acknowledgment as the inherently superior beings we are not. The thirst for this invidious misrecognition reinforces the felt need for a boundary line between those humans who matter and those who don’t, increasing the lengths we will go to in defense of these indefensible divisions.

As I’ve been stressing, there is a sense in which the face brings the lives of others into plain and patent visibility. Yet there is also a sense in which the lives of others remain wholly inaccessible, at an unbridgeable distance. Stanley Cavell calls this fundamental fact of our separateness “the unity of our condition,” which is to say, the surd and sometimes excruciating form taken by the being we have in common with those of our kind.

It is this form of being that makes love a possibility, since love is not love that fully collapses the distinction between lover and beloved. If we try to imagine such a love, we see that it cannot be a gifting of each to the other, since giving is essentially an act for two. I cannot intelligibly explain how I came to have a thing by saying that I gave it to myself, since I cannot give what I do not already have. But if gifting requires separateness, then so does love, since mutual gifting of each to the other is essential to love.

Separateness not only makes love possible; it also gives rise to an existential need for love. Hence the recognition extended from elder to infant, and more generally from generation to generation, can bequeath to future generations a healthy and livable sense of self, only if the recognition is a loving one.

What could make the reality and irreplaceable importance of others more visible to us? To this question I want to say: If the miracle of the face cannot do it, then nothing could. The fact that a miracle is necessary, and yet perhaps insufficient, reflects the utter and nearly unbridgeable incongruity between the two elements that must be met in one flesh, if that flesh is to deserve the name of face. The world of matter in motion seems to offer the wrong sort of material for making the spirit visible. Perhaps then we must complete the offering of the face with a small leap of faith, in order to bridge this discontinuity between the medium and the existentially significant message it is called upon to convey and certify. If so, then every face we see is an occasion for the deepening of faith. The seeing can be true only if the faith is strong. And this is not just any faith, but an especially urgent one—a faith that keeps the human world from falling into inhumanity.

I have heard biting moral denunciations of those who refuse to wear masks in public. They are said to be reckless. They are said to be heedless of the lives of others. They are said to be afraid to appear afraid. I have generally declined to join the mask-refusers, and I do not know what motivates them. But it is not inconceivable that many of them have motives that are far more noble than has been supposed. To say that they too deserve our understanding is, I think, to say something obviously true, and there may well be point in repeating it. Yet there is a risk in repeating such things. The air is thick, these days, with mutual moralistic condemnation. It poses as great a threat to our future, and to the humaneness of our world, as does the coronavirus. Both have gone viral, but the former reproduces itself with far greater efficiency than the latter, and it attacks what is best in us—what breath is our best image of. We need a way to mark this moralism without adding to it. It’s hard enough to breathe.

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What has perhaps been most striking about the year 2020 is the speed at which a familiar dystopian vision of our future has become real. The fearmongers and Cassandras have been saying that soon we’ll be seeing people only on electronic screens. That we will be shopping and dating and “making love” in this mediated and disembodied manner. That we will log in to work and encounter our fellow workmates as so many spectral images on screens. That what used to be our wanderlust and spirit of adventure might be satisfied from the comfort of our bedroom, with virtual sky diving and virtual mountain climbing and virtual tours of architectural wonders and museums, allowing us to knock off an ambitious bucket list in a couple of all-nighters. For the moment the fearmongers and Cassandras are looking awfully prescient. The black mirror is no longer merely an amusing distraction from, or useful tool for, activities taking place in the real world. Suddenly it is the place where real life, or what is left of it, is taking place, and it’s the thing we need distracting from.

The coronavirus is favoring us with an opportunity that’s unavailable to that poor frog we’re always talking about—the one in the slowly warming pot of water. Thanks to the coronavirus, the future won’t sneak up on us, bit by bit. It’s hitting all at once, and we have a fighting chance of taking its full measure and giving it some deliberate thought. We have a moment—maybe a brief one; maybe just a breath or two—to raise the question whether it’s a place we want to spend our lives and raise our kids.

I think it’s safe to say that most of us have a ready answer to this question: Thanks for getting us through a jam, but no, not this, not for us, not for our children. But if we’ve seen the future that we were heading toward, and we don’t like it, then presumably we do not want to go backward either. For the future we’re not welcoming is just the future last year was heading toward. Only the ETA has changed.