During the thirty days when I am sickest, meditating makes me wonder why thinking is ever on the agenda. I’m trying to imagine the effort it would take to cultivate a truly thoughtless existence, when I notice the greyhound laying on her bed, eyes open, staring directly at the living room wall. She’ll lay like this for hours, effortlessly, sighing at odd intervals. Envy doesn’t quite describe it.
The greyhound has COVID-19, too, odds are, but she seems to be handling it far better than my partner B. and I are. When she joins me on the couch, she splays on her back, the top of her head resting on my belly, her paws curling satisfactorily to the ceiling. Thus upturned, she blinks at me and smiles with her tiny incisors until sleep rolls her eyes back into her head.
The sight of her is only ever briefly distracting—never quite enough to keep me from picturing the cytokine battle in my lungs, each briery pain an immuno-mortar lobbed at one of my cells. Or to keep me from imagining our apartment empty, B. in a hospital where no visitors are allowed, the greyhound sent off to B.’s brother in Virginia where he’ll have the strength to walk her, brush her, carry more than a few scoops of kibble. The sound of B. stirring in the next room and the heat of the greyhound’s sigh don’t register to me as evidence that we’re okay.
Given the stubborn persistence of my consciousness, I ditch meditation and instead rewatch the first season of True Detective. I’m drawn to it not for the show’s charming pairing of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson but for its miserable attitude toward reality, which, in the right mood, feels like truth unyoked, revealed, laid bare.
I mainline this rock-bottom truth by listening carefully to McConaughey’s character, detective Rust Cohle—a self-described “realist.” When the first episode delivers me Cohle’s white-walled apartment, empty but for the stacks of books, a mattress, and a wooden cross, I know I was right to buy the HBO subscription.
At this moment in late March, we live in a second-floor apartment in blue-collar nowhere, four hundred miles from our hometown. Cargo trains pass our building six or seven times a day—a lone reassurance. All other news seems to disconnect us from the outside world. Headlines offer work-from-home advice, vaccine timelines, cautionary tales. They speak to those who are well. No one knows what to tell the infected—our uncertainty is the best information we have.
And are we infected? Our soul-flattening fatigue is unmistakable, as are the yawns that catch in our chests as if they’ve found fly paper. But what about our normal temperature readings and negative, professionally administered COVID tests? The slam hammering of our heartbeats when we climb the stairs after the slowest possible walk with the greyhound? The spider veins, the calf pain, the tingling in B.’s left arm. Tiny red dots rise to the surface of our skin like so many clover mites. Our apartment seems to lift from its foundation, exclude our experience from sense, our symptoms collecting mystically like miniature plagues.
Eventually, the news will acknowledge us with our chest pain, our anosmia, our vascular symptoms, our must-be-false negatives—but slowly, from what feels like light years away. In the meantime, I cling to the image of Cohle’s apartment because its desolate, isolated whiteness feels more familiar and honest to me now than our own cheerful throw pillows and scattered memorabilia. And because the existence of that apartment in the world confirms that Cohle, however distant from humanity, is not entirely lost. He might be uniquely capable of teaching me how to live with this suffering and ultimately survive.
In that first episode, Harrelson’s character, detective Marty Hart, sees Cohle’s crucifix and wrongly assumes he’s Christian. Cohle corrects him: “I contemplate the moment in the garden. That you could allow your own crucifixion.”
“Unbelievable…” I mutter to myself. My Catholic-schooled mind does a somersault. That word allow gets at something dark and true. It’s completely conscious. The mind’s dooming of the body. I scribble it all down. The greyhound peers at me sideways, as if to disapprove of the idea, but more likely to chide my interruption of her nap.
Cohle’s next lines I remember almost fondly for their bare-fisted blows to humanity’s pedestal. “I think human consciousness is a misstep of evolution,” he says. “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” and as if that weren’t enough, he concludes, “I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming. Stop reproducing. Walk hand-in-hand into extinction.”
The word “extinction” doesn’t affect me the way one would expect, given the circumstances. Being sick has rendered me egotistical in the extreme. When I contract pneumonia, B. and I know that antibiotics are hard to come by and should be reserved for higher-risk groups. But while my doctor calls around to nearby pharmacies to assess their stock of azithromycin, the terror comes easily. B. shuffles to the car to pick up what might be the last azithromycin in town and calls a family friend to ask about hospital capacity, as if asking could guarantee me a bed.
Initially, these selfish moments feel necessary—stand-ins for everything we can’t do to survive, but they so easily begin to feel earned. By week three, I can feel my ego corroding into a bitter shell of things I believe I do and don’t deserve, and figure it’s time to cultivate some awareness of the larger narrative.
Maybe to “reconnect” with humanity, I pick up Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and read of the sudden, recent, unexpected, and largely unexplained rise of homo sapiens to the top of the animal kingdom with the cognitive revolution. “The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans,” Harari quips, “is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish.” Harari seems to delight in this information, as if sapiens’ sudden ascension is his greatest pride. For me, the notion of my insignificance is such a relief that I release the idea of breathing for a moment.
It’s exhausting, I realize, to constantly convince myself that I matter. To have the intense feelings I have about the virus in my body and about what’s at stake in defeating it. To read the ticker tape thought in my brain that says, Nothing is more important than your survival, and remember that this must be a short-term goal, practically speaking. I’m supposing that now is a good time to make contingency plans for failure, when I realize that making a plan is just another act of ego.
I know this, yet every night of my thirty nights of illness, I record my symptoms and can’t help but attempt a wishful magic trick by flipping forward in my calendar and assigning possible improvements to future days. “All good?” I write seventeen days ahead of my first symptom. By day fourteen, it’s vigorously cross-hatched.
Of course, it’s been clear for a while that my predictions don’t always come to fruition. While it’s true that my partner B. and I heard the news from Wuhan in January and immediately foresaw our national crisis, we’d taken pride in all the wrong preparations. Fearing supply chain shortages, starting in late February I’d spent most evenings in grocery stores. Hearing the calls for diligent hand washing, I gave myself skin rashes scrubbing at work. We owned N95 masks, but didn’t wear them because the CDC told us not to. We imagined the virus on our hands, in our groceries, and smeared across our mail. We never thought we’d contract it through the air because the entities protecting us didn’t warn us about COVID aerosols. I was convinced that our preparations would prevent us from getting sick, while those very same preparations made it possible.
No, predictions are off limits. Whatever happens next will be unimagined—perhaps unimaginable. But I try anyway, and find myself weeping to Crosby, Stills, and Nash over a sink of dinner dishes with my dark imaginings, the greyhound distracted for a moment from her wall, looking on with vague concern.
It’s no surprise to me when Harari devotes a good segment of Sapiens to our “extraordinarily large brains,” since I seem to lack any control over mine. But I hadn’t realized how big they are. “Mammals weighing 130 pounds have an average brain size of 12 cubic inches,” Harari tells me, and as I happen to be that exact weight, he estimates that my brain measures at least seventy-three cubic inches, and as many as eighty-five. This feels outrageous; utterly unnecessary. Six to seven times the average mammalian size?
Early on, B. and I found a few recommendations to separate sick residents in a household to prevent exchange between their “viral loads.” I set up an air mattress in our living room with strict resolve to keep our viral loads locked down, but as soon as I closed my eyes that night, I registered the air mattress’s cold. I imagined the first night I’d spend without B., then the second, then the third if he was rushed to the hospital, or died, and I began to sob.
“All right, this was an experiment,” B. consoled, crouched at the foot of my air-mattress in the dark. “Now what do you say about coming back to bed?”
“I think human consciousness is a misstep of evolution,” Cohle said. Harari concurs—an unprecedented genetic mutation permitted brains of such unprecedented size. But in light of the air mattress experiment, I wonder if these are understatements. How much fluid had I generated in my lungs by crying that hard? How poorly had I slept? How much ground had I forced my body to concede? I’d felt doomed to my imagination for a while, but here emerged the possibility that my imagination would doom me.
This isn’t far from the truth, I discover. Harari is quick to tell me that my enormous brain is pretty difficult to carry around, requiring that I balance two to three percent of my body weight on the tip of my spine. It’s even more difficult to feed. While I’m lying on the couch with the greyhound, twenty-five percent of my energy is expedited to my brain without my say. That’s a quarter of the smoothie I sip slowly with a spoon, one of the four crackers I take with my meds, two to four hours of the additional sleep I carefully accumulate so that my body can fight the virus, to end this nightmare—a quarter siphoned off so that I can worry.
Harari concedes this point. Post-mutation, ancient humans used most of their energy finding food, and even so, their muscles “atrophied,” to the extent that sapiens had to rely on their brains to anticipate and outsmart every threat they faced. To imagine their way to survival.
Yet another angle: At seven years old, I watched The Titanic on repeat, alone, having promised my parents that I’d shut my eyes during “the car scene.” Being an only child, I obliged, and mostly watched the second VHS tape anyway. The first tape was just the prelude—the warm glow of the life I was already accustomed to. I wanted the ice and shadow. I wanted Rose on that wardrobe in the ocean among the bergs, and that beautiful contradiction at the end: her hand letting go of Jack’s and her lips saying she’d never let go.
What was I looking for in that second tape? I understood my desire to plot my own imaginary survival of a nautical disaster. But subconsciously, I think I also wanted to picture the end of my own life, though my mind seemed to know better and held me back just an inch. Five years later, my brain’s newfound ability to conjure death’s shadow threatened to overtake me. I watched my hands complete my homework and imagined how they would decay. I stopped showering before bed, because my mind transformed the shower into a coffin. I couldn’t bear to look up at the night sky for fear of imagining its endlessness.
Would I have preferred to live out my middle school years concerned chiefly with each co-ed dance? Definitely. The upshot of my “success” in imagining my death was, of course, something I hadn’t fully considered—something, of course, I couldn’t fathom.
The greyhound seems capable of selective purpose. When I take her into the backyard in the afternoons, sometimes she tears around, kicking up dirt like a tiller and skidding into tight curves. Her muscles gleam in the sunlight under her sleek black coat. After she’s done, her whole body shakes with exhaustion and triumph.
Other times, I wave my arms and holler, trying to get her to tear around and get some exercise. I throw toys and sticks. She looks at me as if to say, What exactly do you think I should do? Sometimes, she just lies down.
It’s different for humans, isn’t it? Certainly, Cohle would be a top candidate for giving up on a purposeful existence, but he can’t.
“Why homicide?” another detective asks.
“Somethin’ I saw at North Shore [Psychiatric Hospital]. Quote from Corinthians: ‘The body is not one member, but many. Now are they many, but of one body.’ I was just tryn’a stay a part of the body.”
I think of my impulse toward Sapiens again and my own desire to “stay a part of the body” while feeling so many light-years away. While I most identify with the passages that tear us off our big-brained pedestal, I can’t ignore Harari’s insistence that the imagination was responsible for the success of homo sapiens. Without it, we wouldn’t have organized into tribes larger than one hundred and fifty, wouldn’t have outsmarted the predators that otherwise might have wiped us out, wouldn’t have dealt beyond bartering or endeavored to cross an ocean.
In this sense, imagination has always been essential to our survival. Was it not essential to mine?
When Hart says to Cohle on a drive, “You ever wonder if you’re a bad person?” Cohle replies, “I don’t wonder, Marty. My job is to keep the other bad guys at the door.”
Every reason Cohle supplies for his survival relies on imagination: the notion of a greater whole, the concept of a more peaceful world, the story of a man who sacrificed himself so that everyone else would be saved. Cohle has discovered his animal nature—no doubt a “true detective”—and following this, he survives purely by the ability that separates man from animal. Could it be that Cohle’s imagining mind replaces his instinct to survive?
No, “replaces” isn’t the right word. Cohle is still interested in the survival of others: he’s haunted by the dead women and children that populate his files and fixated on those still alive who may or may not join them, knowing their fates may depend on the success of his careful investigations, his well-laid plans. I realize Cohle has expanded his instinct to survive. Instead of rejecting his churlish ego, he’s draped it carefully over the rest of humanity, casting aside his realist reflex that tells him it won’t do any good.
Through his lens, I catch a bird’s-eye glimpse of the battle that embroils our species: the invisible enemy everywhere, transmitted in the very air we breathe. Bigger muscles are no use here, let alone smaller brains. The entities that guide us are imagined, our treatments imagined, the possibility of a vaccine, imagined. So are the consequences of a gathering to your life or mine. The tactical planning of grocery pick-ups, school days, and votes.
It’s not that I’m finally arriving at the notion that large brains are useful. Rather, I’m seeing, maybe for the first time, that human consciousness gave us egos to cherish, while removing our physical strength to protect them. Our imaginative powers can save our species from a plague, but I use them most often to imagine personal perils. We all spend time in that garden, not contemplating our crucifixion exactly, but wrestling with the notion that we are designed to survive as a species, not as individuals, holy as we hold ourselves. The question at hand, in our pandemic moment, has never been whether to trade brain for brawn, or whether the imagination destroys or protects us. It’s always been whether we’ll use this imagination to coddle ourselves, or to expand our definition of survive.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.