the grand illusion

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Lynn Steger Strong*

Perhaps the crisis makes room for us to recognize that our losses and failures are not individual. The ruthlessness of the system is now openly on display.

When I started this column in February, there was no Covid-19. We know now that there was, but it was not yet our daily reality.

I'm a fiction writer, Ivy League adjunct professor, mother of two. I was supposed to write about all the ways that there was no longer room for people like me to make a stable living; all the ways this country's lack of a safety net — the relentless embrace of late capitalism, the on-demand economy, the failing health care system — was distressing many of us. I wrote before and after Covid-19 about not having health insurance. I could also have written about not having dental insurance, the pain I have and have had for years, every time I chew.

I should write about perception versus reality in what I do professionally. The owner of Prune, New York restaurant, Gabrielle Hamilton, wrote an essay about this recently – describing how, for so long, many of us have pretended that we arrived or were on the verge of “getting there”. We had crossed off all or most of the goals we were told to achieve in our professions, even as our lives remained in constant states of anxiety and fear. Work – the ability not just to do it, but to never stop – is the attribute that is perhaps flaunted and celebrated above all else. One of the reasons many of us don't share the way we don't have enough money is, I would argue, because we're too embarrassed to say we're struggling. We internalize that our suffering is our fault – it's because we shouldn't be working hard enough.

I wanted to write about spreading this feeling that there are no more paths to stability, because I wanted there to be less shame around it. I wanted to explore the ways in which, in an ingrained and fundamental way, our struggles were more systemic than just us.

In her essay, Hamilton talks about talking to other people she also thought of as successful, who were really just performing success in the same way she did. Hearing them say now that they were a week or a month away from bankruptcy even before Covid-19 was shocking to her. She discovered that, in fact, this has all been just a ruse for some time now.

It's not just shame that keeps us quiet either. We keep our “flaws” a secret because we know, especially the markets that Hamilton and I work in – art, books, restaurants – have a lot to do with looks. Is this book or that chef, this artist important? Why should anyone pay the rent, the studio, the tour? Pretending we're not drowning is the proof we have that we might still be worth saving. Our stability performance is one of the few ways we hope to navigate the narrow avenues that may still point us out.

It's one thing, however, to perpetuate misperceptions, to pretend - because you're busy surviving, that you can't stop playing the rigged game of outsmarting the other person, because you can't help feeling that your circumstances must somehow be your fault – this is what makes it that much harder for anyone in the group to tell the truth.

In the last chapter of this column [Two in five, no The Guardian), I wrote about the individual imagination. I wrote that our lives haven't worked out for a long time and a lot of that was a direct result of the choices we've made – I'm individually responsible for choosing to be a writer, I'm responsible for choosing to have children. Maybe I can escape to rural Maine if we can't pay our rent in the middle of this crisis. Maybe we can find a way to keep us in the same position. But that is not a possibility for other people across the country, who, through no fault of their own, find themselves without a safety valve.

Individual shame and individual desire to succeed in cruel systems have kept many of us silent about the failings of this country [England]. They are now blatantly on display.

One of the things that I hope this crisis makes room for is for us to recognize and say out loud that our losses and failures are not our individual failures. I hope we can start saying out loud all the ways the system has failed us. Admitting as a group that we are being slaughtered and exploited, that our bodies are overworked and undervalued, taking the burden off any one of us. It can and should make us feel less ashamed and less afraid.

*Lynn Steger Strong writer, is a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian.

Translation: Stefanni Mota

Originally published in the newspaper The Guardian.

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