I’ve written about how wonderful the Hope Lodge is, a compassionate and revitalizing pitstop while enduring the barren desert of radiation and toxic chemicals. But still, it was not home. As a result, I’m beginning to feel like a plant marooned in a plastic pot, uprooted from my native soil. I felt that way in Vietnam, waiting my turn to come home. And I feel that way today.
But this time around, I have a better idea of where this alienation is coming from, both in my own life and in the societal turmoil raging around us today. We are rapidly losing a foundational component of who we are as humans: our sense of place.
We have long been losing our sense of place, forced to move frequently, like nomads, to satisfy the demands of modern society; we are programmed to work hard all week so we can binge on the weekend. Then on Monday, we begin all over again, like Sisyphus repeatedly pushing that boulder up the mountain for eternity.
Nevertheless, we have persevered: it’s the American way, and we are good at it. That is until the boom fell.
First Covid-19 erupted out of nowhere, throwing a hand grenade into the orderly routine of our lives, locking us claustrophobically in our homes, away from the comfort and camaraderie of friends. Like a giant experiment, it has unhinged us. While the rich cavorted in nature, we atrophied in the stale air of our rooms. Meanwhile, social media bombarded us with tales of doom and gloom from an endless barrage of fake news.
Solitary confinement is how you break prisoners. And that’s what Covid did to us. Over time, we became delusional, incapable of trusting ourselves because the world has gotten too complex to figure out on our own. And we lost trust in experts because they talk in a thousand different tongues — which seem to change by the week. Meanwhile, we’re besieged by conspiracy theories — some even by our former president — that may sound at first glance as believable as anything else.
What a can of worms!
We used to be empowered because we knew how to play this game of life. But now the rules have changed: we no longer are the exceptional people, the most favored of all nations, the king of the hill. Instead, we feel climate change’s hot breath burning our backsides while Covid mows us down. Polarization has caused our neighbors to become our enemy. And now, a significant war, erupting like a sulfurous volcano, threatens to engulf all of Europe, if not the world.
Explaining this malaise, naysayers have pronounced that the old game of democracy is dead. They complain that the Big Truths honoring morality and fair play are holding us back. In its place, these malcontents are busy devising new games with simple, easy-to-follow rules. I’m talking about folks like our neighbors who have fallen down the rabbit hole of alternative realities like QAnon.
My ravings are not just that of a patient, addled by too much radiation: it’s the conclusion of the philosopher and game theorist, C. Thi Nguy ễ n, who in his recent book, “Games, Agency As Art,” came up with this notion. He writes that the lure of conspiracy theories, like QAnon or the Flat-Earth Society, is about putting yourself in charge of your own little world, “in which you can manage everything, in which you can understand everything.”
His research reveals that people hooked on conspiracy theories “say over and over again” how it has empowered them. And the reason, he says, “is the conspiracy theories fit inside your head. They’re the right size for you just like games are the right size for you to take some kind of action.”
These conspiracies, which conjure up alternative realities where everything is relative, anything is permissible, and morality doesn’t exist, have had a hypnotic appeal to extremists. That is, until recently, when objective reality reasserted itself: Overnight, Putin’s barbaric and brutal invasion of Ukraine popped the bubble of all these pie-in-the-sky fantasies.
At last, old virtues, like human dignity and democracy, are back in vogue. Once again, we are witnessing how a sense of place is worth fighting for — and even dying for — as Ukrainians stream back to their spiritual homeland from around the globe to take on Russian tanks with crowbars and Molotov cocktails.
Regaining our sense of place is a vital component in rebuilding trust in each other, necessary to building a better world. Otherwise, we are like salmon swimming in circles biting each other in frustration because we have forgotten the way home.