If hope seems inaccessible, be assured that subconscious can’t become hopeless. Entropy ensures possibility: fear holds a glimmer of hope.
Over the past several months of unprecedented, sudden and sustained changes, the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered a plethora of common emotions. In the spirit of conciseness, let’s zoom our focus on two behemoths: grief and insecurity.
The role of grief in the timeline of loss is unavoidable, and with over 3000 U.S. deaths per day, the volume of heartbreak is massive. In my recent world, one politely defiant non-masker remarked that “the Spanish flu was much, much worse...”, so I looked it up: estimated 650k U.S. deaths in a population of 100 million. In addition, affliction age demographic was a “W” curve, the flu most deadly with the very young, very old, and prime 20-40 age range. With our current population, equivalent deaths would be around 2 million; instead, about 700k maximum deaths are projected by April 2021 for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yes, the Spanish flu was worse, but this fact has NO relevance in our present-day choices. Uh oh...here comes anger banging on the door, the third emotion insidiously, yet appropriately sneaking its way in. WHAT are people thinking? Whether death is 700k or 2M people, the order of magnitude is ABSOLUTELY in the ballpark of Spanish influenza: tenths of percents, or a few to several in a thousand. HOW FAR will human beings go to rationalize their own selfish behavior, inflexibility, insistence on being sanctimoniously difficult? Apparently, QUITE. We’ve heard all the excuses by now. Now that anger has had a chance to vent, it’s now hanging loose on the couch.
Grief, instead, sits outside in the rocking chair and stares solemnly at the motion of the sun. We face significant levels of illness, long-term medical consequences, and loss of life. Today, we grieve for those we have lost, for those we will lose in the next year or so, the family of friends, friends of friends, and various other regulars: the friendly clerk at the tiny post office, the grocery store manager, or that special yoga teacher. We miss the multitudes of small businesses that have permanently closed, as well as the mistaken idea that such enterprises are robust if the community shows enough love. We grieve for our former lifestyles, forever changed and ready to take a back seat to our human flexibility. We’ll keep certain elements, and discard others, by choice or lawful requirement.
The pandemic has also amplified pre-existing economic inequality, and therefore the insecurity hiding in the closet, sometimes crouching in the corner but at other times re-folding the sweaters with nervous energy. Before the novel coronavirus up-ended the world, the U.S. had already been experiencing historically high fatalities for young adults into mid-life. Analyzing longitudinal data over several decades, a late-2019 review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that U.S. age-adjusted death rates were increasing, with a clear uptick since the Great Recession for the 25-44 age group. Additional studies with specific focus on socioeconomic factors indicate statistically significant connections between economic insecurity and mid-life fatalities. A 2019 multi-institutional study on the socioeconomics of despair examined the origins of the phrase “deaths of despair”, publishing a multidimensional concept map for quantifying the causal connections between economic turmoil and subsequent factors leading to early death. The same year, epidemiology and public health researchers used county-wide data to unfold statistically significant relationships between economic insecurity and “deaths of despair”.
It seems the minister of despair and the coronavirus pandemic are now doing a slow, conscientious tango, energized by fear and delighted at the personal obstinacy driving the rates of infection.
With anger, grief, and undercurrents of uncertainty, the emotions become one big heap of evidence that our identities are actively deconstructing. Bit by bit, pieces are falling away. Our hearts and minds are being broken, again, and again (and again). Each news cycle brings with it something new for the emotional response to further flex its muscles, having its moment while cradling a very strong margarita (and crying). The sense of despair is readily accessed right now, and a calling for hope seems almost ridiculous. What does hope contribute to our daily lives? The other feelings seem to serve more purpose: anger can spawn constructive activity, grief is an established healing step, insecurity can inspire a stronger sense of justice. What does hope actually do?
In a scene from Frozen, Elsa’s hiking up the impossibly snowy mountain in an evening gown (an impressive feat). As she comes to a flat spot, she sings “Let it go…let it go…can’t hold it back anymore”. Elsa’s definitely running away from her problems, but she’s also saying NO to the status quo of keeping her magic secret, and simultaneously surrendering to her identity. This moment is one of deconstruction, followed by conscious connection to her true nature. We can similarly deconvolve with our heartbreak, finding an identity closer to the fundamentals of human dignity…for everyone. Everyone. Before being fed all that nonsense about the Other, our intended nature carries the courage to acknowledge bias, regularly catching ourselves in the act of Othering, expressed regardless of how much we try to control our public faces. Because that Other is you. That Other is me. All of us are here, together in collective socioeconomic distress. If you can think of a single person as Other, you’ve drawn a line. The privileged must be vigilant in erasing those lines in the sand, again and again (and again). In this way, we deny our human instinct to categorize. Education, critical thought, and secular humanism take us to the egalitarian society of the future.
Within our understandable cynicism, hope may seem hard to come by. But our subconscious obeys the laws of nature, and it knows better than to succumb to hopelessness. You and your ego don’t have to do a thing. No matter how dark things become, the concept of entropy (or disorder) ensures there’s a bit tucked away in the psyche. If you’re fearful, you’re hopeful.
Entropy can be better understood with crystals: highly regular arrangements of atoms that are mostly perfect, the atomic positions fixed. Within this apparent perfection, however, there are flaws, such as missing or displaced atoms. For example, a sapphire crystal phone screen has a few atoms missing (Ok, ok...a LOT of atoms: about 1017, or 100 million billion). The amounts vary depending on crystal growth temperature, but before you imagine your phone screen whittling away to dust, relax. At the melting point of sapphire (2040 °C or ≈3600 °F), where a crystal can be grown, the fraction of missing or misplaced atoms is about one in a million. When the crystal cools, the defects are frozen in place, the amounts so tiny that the the capacitive and optical properties of the screen are unaffected. To give a larger picture of that fraction, this is like a single missing brick in a solid wall the size of a garden patio (say 30 x 30 sq. ft), about 3 stories high. One brick missing in a million is no big deal.
Like the missing atoms in the crystal structure, the missing brick creates entropy. Within the laws of thermodynamics, there are few important rules governing entropy:
How might entropy relate to hope? Because entropy can never be zero, even the depths of sadness contain some “disorder towards better”. In the tortured soul, hope is the very thing that saves us: “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” (Emily Dickinson) Hope is Dickinson’s fluttering bird, that little bit of entropy in an otherwise fixed, dark space. Even in the lowest of our lows, we wake up to another day, and something – an elusive internal pilot light – is carrying us forward, ready to be lit with the fire of better days. Challenges merely test us, and all bets are on entropy, the forever winner in life’s thermodynamic hand. As in our consciousness, the future awaits with a variety of outcomes. That something enabling us to begrudgingly move forward, even with minimal aspiration, is hope: vast possibility.
With despair, in contrast, what do we have? A single possibility, loaded with mistaken ideas that things will never change, everything is permanent, and there is no space for creation of entropy. With only one possibility, entropy is zero. In this dark space, there are a lot of musts and shoulds, always and nevers. However, zero entropy is an unphysical concept, and ideas of zero options are illusions. Hope nestles closely to our own life force with the promise that everything in this life is transient. What doesn’t change is our inner light, our identity outside of all the impermanence.
As the situation grows darker, colder, and more frozen in muddling through COVID, the “true freeze” of zero entropy and zero options is fundamentally and thankfully out of reach. Let’s allow ourselves to be with our heartache, uncertainty (and, yes, anger) to help crack our identities open a little bit more. We’re not going to break, because hope and faith—possibility and entropy—hold us through the mess.
Maria Gelabert, Ph.D.
Science and Mindfulness