How Bad Are Things?
Pessimistic metanarratives tend to be disembodied. But in reality, our bodies frame the stories of our lives.
By Caleb Harmon
How bad are things, in general? On December 29th, 2021, a New York Times podcast called The Argument published an episode titled “The ‘End of an Ending’: Was 2021 Really the Worst?” The episode tackled a cluster of interrelated questions: “Was 2021 bad, taken as a whole?” “Did the world get worse in 2021?” “Was 2021 worse than past years?” To answer these questions, The Times presented a collection of interviews with their columnists and clips of audio submitted by listeners. Three themes emerged as the predominating concerns in the minds of The Times’ writers and readers. On the negative side of the ledger sat concern for the global fate of democracy and the coronavirus pandemic. On the positive side of the ledger sat a sprinkling of personal life events: new love, marriages, births, and newfound hobbies. I get the impression that The New York Times’ columnists think 2021 was essentially bad, given that most of them end their interviews by sarcastically shouting, “Happy New Year!”
The episode’s name comes from a remark made by the Times opinion writer Michelle Goldberg. Goldberg tells how the events of 2020 resulted in the worst year of her life. As the coronavirus plunged the nation into dread of death and disease, the Trump presidency reached its authoritarian apex. She held out hope that the COVID vaccine and then-candidate Joe Biden would jointly bring the pandemic and the Trump presidency to an end. Yet, when these victories came, Goldberg found that they did not bring her worries to an end. These imagined ends to Trumpism and the virus have now come and gone; Trumpism and the virus remain. Thus, Michelle Goldberg’s worst fears turn out to be permanent and without end.
Of course, not everyone sees the world the way Goldberg does. There are other gloomy ways to see things. Those interested in policy issues will tell us about economic stagnation, impending fiscal meltdown, climate doom, and the rise of tyranny abroad. At a grander historical level, we read narratives teaching that society has fallen into moral and political incoherence, or that we suffer from systemic economic exploitation, or that all our standards stem from resentment and pride. Most relevant to the focus of Perishable Goods, we confront broad arguments critiquing our modern understanding of the body: we distort the body with the internet, we distort the body with racialization, we distort the body with expressive individualism, and we distort the body with misfitted gender ideals and ideology. Each of these views posits a pessimistic metanarrative, telling us that society faces a grave problem and we have tried to fix this problem, but our efforts leave us with no clear way to heal society’s ailments.
These are just a few examples; if I tried to list them all, our menu of melancholy metanarratives would rival The Cheesecake Factory. If we engage deeply and habitually with any of these critiques the result is a heavy burden for our hearts to bear (another parallel to The Cheesecake Factory). When the media outlets and public intellectuals who are responsible for informing us about the state of society constantly tell us that the world faces so many dire problems with no clear way to overcome those problems, of course we adopt a pessimistic outlook. To be informed is to be pessimistic. However, I would like to argue that the question “How bad are things?” is basically unanswerable. The question is unanswerable for a human mind because of the limitations of our human bodies.
Without turning a skeptical eye to our favorite pessimistic metanarratives, cynicism can crowd out thankfulness and hope. Through the advances of the modern world, God has reduced poverty, disease, and hunger. We live in a less violent and less blatantly oppressive world. Our cities are far more sanitary than they once were. For instance, in 1184, the King of Germany and his nobles fell through the floor of the Petersberg Citadel into the latrine cesspit below, where about 60 of them drowned in feces. I bet that’s never happened at your local Hilton. From a grander point of view, pessimism distracts from hope. Consuming concern over the pandemic and political tensions distract from the joy and fear of divine ransom and divine judgment. The grand story of the moment isn’t the pandemic, or rising political tension, or the rot of modernity, but the imminent death and afterlife of every person. Some critical distance between us and the metanarratives of pessimism can make room for the metanarrative of salvation.
Emotions Mediate Evaluations
Our most apt judgments about comparisons of goodness and badness come through emotions and are stated in terms of emotions. This claim needs a few clarifications. First, emotion isn’t all that matters. Ebenezer Scrooge is happy at the end of A Christmas Carol, but his transformative redemption is a matter of learning to love others, not learning a new strategy to increase his dopamine levels. Second, emotions aren’t just physiological sensations or dispositions to act, but judgments about the world. If someone insults me and I get angry, then I may feel my heart pumping faster and feel a defensive disposition to insult the person back, but my anger involves more than changes in physiology and behavior. I am angry about the insult. The pumping of my heart and likelihood that I return the insult aren’t about anything. The feeling of anger is just what it is to perceive something as unfair in the same way that the taste of sourness is just what it is to perceive something as acidic. If we deny this, all scriptural references to divine anger and divine love become misleading metaphors. Third, because emotions present judgments about the world, they can be wrong about the world. Every part of us is fallen, and emotion is just as fallen as every human capacity, but no more.
Emotion plays a crucial role in first-person experiential evaluations, which give us our best insights in weighing different kinds of values (i.e. quality of public health versus quality of public education). This isn’t to say emotion is the right tool for every task. If you want to know about right and wrong, impartial hair splitting analysis can serve you better. Likewise, eyesight is the right sense for grocery shopping and taste is the right sense for deciding whether you’ve baked a good pie. If you judge pies using just your eyes or shop with just your tongue, be ready to fail. Emotion and analysis work the same way. Suppose you want to know how difficult and how rewarding the life of a new parent is. We can only get a good answer to this question by listening to those who have experienced parenthood personally. The significance of these experiences comes through emotions. Sheer statistical data about how often babies eat and sleep isn’t enough. The knowledge about the tactile and visual experiences of changing a diaper at midnight isn’t enough. What you need is a parent who can tell you about his or her emotions and the actions those emotions were strong enough to motivate: “I love him so much,” “I would do anything to keep him safe,” “I’m so beat down and frustrated,” or “It makes me want to stay in bed.” In short, what we need is a first-person perspective on an experience of parenthood in terms of evaluative emotions. We only turn to second and third-person perspectives when we lack the opportunity to learn from a trustworthy person with first-hand experience. If we only have these lesser perspectives, then sometimes we should just withhold judgment.
The Individuality of the Body Mediates Emotion
These pessimistic metanarratives are always third-person disembodied stories. For example, in the coronavirus metanarrative, the main characters are virus variants, public health guidelines, masks and vaccines, and testing kits. We cannot speak of the costs of the pandemic as a whole in terms of an individual life lost or a specific year of schooling wasted. Rather, the costs must be measured in statistics that defy imagination. Because these metanarratives follow broad sets of things—ideas, technologies, and institutional actors—they can only be told from the third-person perspective. If you want to know about art history, you can’t ask the unified first-person perspective of all paintings. If you want to know about pollution, you can try to find the Lorax, but you’d be better off finding an ecologist.
Meanwhile, in the story of my life, the main character is me. My body frames this individual story, because I experience the world through exactly one individual body, which is exactly one individual thing. Despite our best efforts, the individuality of our bodies will frame the stories of our lives. Certainly, one person can empathize with another, but this isn’t a means of fully transcending the individuality of the body. Even at its best, empathy doesn’t abolish the borders of the self, it just redraws them. To genuinely transcend individuality, I would need to experience and inhabit the lives of others, so that I become indistinguishable from them in my own mind. In other words, to really transcend the individuality of the first-person perspective, we would need to overcome the rule that links one person to one body.
Thus, we have a set of links between the individual body and reliable evaluation. Individual bodies frame individual lives. Through individual lives, we come to a first-person perspective of the joys and sorrows of an individual life. These joys and sorrows give insight into what is good and bad. Sometimes, that insight is even right. Immediately, this link between the embodied first-person perspective and reliability puts our disembodied third-person pessimistic metanarratives into question. Metanarratives concern vast trends, beyond anyone’s first-person experience. Let’s take the year 2020 as an example. During 2020, many people died and many people were born. Many people lost jobs and many people found a new direction for their lives. Many people made new friends and many people faced isolation. No one experienced 2020 as a whole and no one person can act as a representative for everyone. Presumably, 2020 was worse than 2019, but that doesn’t tell us very much. In order to make use of the embodied first-person perspective to judge 2020, we would need to flatten the context out of individual lives. Maybe social scientists should set dying unusually young from COVID-19 at -200 points and getting into the school of your choice at +10 points. Of course, we might as well try to make a mathematical theory of what makes for a good story. In trying to abstract our judgments from the context of individual embodied perspectives, we lose the vividness that allows us to weigh good against bad.
The Presence of the Body Mediates Emotion
Lacking good first-person experience, we rely on our second-person reactions to pessimistic metanarratives. I may not have communed with the zeitgeist of 2020, but I’ve looked at the COVID tracker. I have feelings about those statistics. Surely that counts for something, even if it isn’t the gold standard of first-person experience. Unfortunately, this approach has two glaring problems. First, emotions are like politicians: we need them, but they will let us down. Emotion is the tool most fitted to weighing broad societal trends, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually up to the task. Second, and more importantly, human emotion has a hard time responding to things entirely beyond our experience. If we can’t physically encounter something, emotion becomes a much less useful guide. This makes it tremendously difficult to grasp the significance of the broad trends that pessimistic metanarratives describe, let alone weigh those trends against each other.
Our emotions are built to evaluate the kind of circumstances we might bodily meet. We can bodily meet with a tragic death or even a tragedy where many people die together. Likewise, we can give a relieved prayer when modern medicine easily treats a friend's appendicitis, knowing the disease would have been a death sentence in past generations. Yet, when we turn our attention to statistics on deadly car accidents or to the proliferation of information and literacy, the experience is far less vivid. Obviously, the collective traffic deaths are very bad and the expansion in knowledge is very good, but not in a way we can really feel. It’s not just that the scale of the harms suffered and benefits enjoyed by large collections of people vastly outstrip our emotional response. Singular concrete circumstances have a greater emotional impact than sheer statistical data.
Personally, I feel more emotionally touched by the fact that, in the last minute, someone somewhere has died and, somewhere else, someone has just met the love of their life than the fact that people continue to die and to fall in love. The specific concrete facts feel realer than the statistics. I could physically encounter a death or a new couple, but not events spread over vast regions of space and time. Generally, the sort of goods and bads that we could encounter register emotionally in a way that diffuse unencounterable circumstances cannot. I am not omnipresent. I cannot possibly encounter and instinctively judge the events extended through space and time that constitute the drama of a pessimistic metanarrative. This means that grand historical trends defy second-person emotional evaluation. How could I weigh the many tragedies of the pandemic against the background medical, educational, and economic trends of the past century? I might have my suspicions about the balance between these factors, but bodily and emotional limitations give good reason to hold my suspicions at a distance.
Bodily Limits Mitigate Pessimism
In sum, the human mind just isn’t well equipped to make grand judgments on the state of the world. No one has a first-person perspective of the bigger picture and our second-person perspectives on the issue wildly fall short of the task. Both of these perspectives fail to capture the state of the world because of our bodily limits: our bodily individuation and our smallness. None of this refutes our dour metanarratives, but it puts them in perspective. Obviously the effects of the pandemic have been—and this is a piece of technical jargon in metaethics—very, very bad. Yet, that doesn’t mean that God has not been working in the last two years. On the whole, we are still tremendously blessed. I know this, not because I have done the math or had the right emotions about 2021. Our bodily limitations keep us from making a reliable assessment. We stand in the place of Job, whom God declared too small, weak, and new in the cosmic design to judge the world. Like Job, we should accept our bodily smallness and bodily limitations, choosing to rest in God’s omnipresent providence.
Caleb is a husband, father, lawyer, and philosophy enthusiast.