Indefinability is a central theme in two beautifully written articles by our columnists last week. Elena Shao and Zora Ilunga-Reed both grapple eloquently with — something. “I try these words: devastation, tragedy, concern. Loss. It’s not the right word, either,” Elena writes, of her attempts to name the weight of the present climate crisis. In searching for words to describe a slow awakening into a post-pandemic world, Zora tests “shift, alteration, return, transition” — but ends with “loss”: “In reawakening from a dystopian year,” she writes, “we are irreversibly losing the emotional and physical state that belonged to this period.”
In this conversation, we explore some of the themes of their two articles: not only indefinability, but also connections to the timescales of the pandemic and of global warming, and how it alters our sense of the word “normalcy.”
Adrian: I want to start with a question about timescales. Both of your articles felt very “timely” to me, but when I thought more about it, I wasn’t sure why. Both climate change and the pandemic have been, on different scales, extraordinarily slow-moving catastrophes, and perhaps that’s what made your articles seem urgent, even though nothing about right now, the last week of May, makes it so. Does the slow-moving nature have something to do with the difficulty of defining the feeling?
Elena: I think so. In any one day I might feel five different ways about the climate crisis, and those emotions change with every new experience I have or piece of new information that I take in. So it’s hard to find that one word or description that can encapsulate everything that I feel over the course of months or years. I think I have gotten used to feeling like I’m forgetting something.
Zora: I have to agree with Elena. I remember hearing somewhere about the use of whale song to attempt to adequately vocalize the slow pain of ongoing environmental devastation. I think something about the way we communicate (the very words and sounds we use) makes it difficult to verbalize these extended experiences of loss.
Adrian: Elena, you write that the right word to describe the current state of the planet might be “abnormal.” This contrasts with the desire of many to describe the transition out from the worst of the pandemic as a “new normal.” Can you say more about the power of the name “abnormal”?
Elena: The distinction between those two phrases became most obvious to me when I was having a conversation with some friends about how dire the drought and wildfire situation is in California, how extended the wildfire season has become. One of them said, “Yeah, it’s just something we’re going to have to get used to.”
And I know they didn’t mean for it to be insensitive at all, but it did get me thinking about how crude it is to refer to these fundamental and permanent anthropogenic changes as a “new normal,” how incredibly passive it is. Like an almost permanent state of drought is something that we were thrown into, and not something that we had an active role in creating and exacerbating.
“Abnormal” is a word that’s scary to a lot of people, because it suggests that it is not supposed to be this way. I don’t buy into climate doomism, and I don’t think it’s useful, but I think it’s important to understand that the climate catastrophes we’re facing now and will continue to face in the future are not meant to be incorporated into our lives. We are supposed to do something about it.
Adrian: Zora, there is a striking sentence in your article: “Better to do something with loss.” It acknowledges the draw of naming feelings, but suggests an alternative. What is the power of something like the Samā’ ceremony to provide something that words cannot?
Zora: I learned about the Samā’ in a CompLit class I’m taking this quarter, and the embodied nature of the performance through dancing and music is what really stood out to me about it. This is perhaps a little cheesy, but feelings need to be felt, which means allowing them to inhabit your physical self as well as your emotional self. At least, that’s how I’ve been thinking about it recently. I think there’s an important communal aspect to this embodied emotion thing, too. Concerts, though they’re another pandemic loss, are a good representation of the power and energy that comes with shared physical space. Dancing to Flo Milli’s set on the Blackfest livestream this past weekend gave me a glimpse of a mosh-heavy future.
Adrian: At the risk of a clunky segue: Our shared experience on Earth is perhaps the largest communal experience possible. Elena, is there a connection between Zora’s words above and the shared nature of climate change?
Elena: We have a tendency to overcomplicate things, debate over how we got to the point we are at now. But I think the source of exploitation of the earth comes down to a misunderstanding of just that: this earth is a space that we share, both with other humans and also with a host of other living creatures and nonliving things. Knowing that we have a shared experience on Earth isn’t incredibly informative until you understand that it’s less about an experience that we all share simultaneously and similarly, and more about the meaningful contact you could have, by virtue of existing on this planet, with anything or anyone in a specific moment, in a specific space.
Adrian: Zora, you ended your article with a quote from the Aeneid: “Perhaps, one day, it will be pleasing to remember even this.” Can you say more about the significance of this line to you, and what keeps drawing you back to it?
Zora: The Aeneid is near and dear to me. Since reading the “forsan et haec” line for the first time in high school Latin class, I’ve found it beautifully apt. It’s kind of like “this too shall pass,” but with a little more optimism and, perhaps, naivete. I’m drawn to it in trying moments both for its sentiment and for the high school nostalgia it bears for me.
The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.