I used to have these night terrors as a child, and even occasionally through college. I would be half awake, struggling to break fully free of sleep, but find myself paralyzed. I would push, and strain, and try to scream, afraid that if I stopped, I would fall backward into a state from which I would never come back. Eventually, I would wake up.
That’s what this current state of suspended animation feels like. I’m pushing, straining, trying to get to the end. Accepting parts of this would be easy…always being virtual, the end of busyness, staying “safe.” Just assimilate, stop fighting. But, while I’m discovering that placing such a high value on busyness was wrong…that I had become the person I had never wanted to be…so is giving into the throes of despair, a darkness from which one cannot awaken.
Eventually, we will wake up. We will. And there will be sunlight. There will be joy in the morning.
I’ve been intending to put down some thoughts here about this pandemic gripping our world for a few weeks. The problem is that, as it has kept evolving so rapidly, I feel as though I can’t keep my thoughts straight. What I think I know today I suddenly don’t know tomorrow, and the intellectual jostling and resulting emotional whiplash has been difficult enough to manage internally, to say nothing of writing anything that’s remotely coherent.
That said, there’s a theme that I’ve seen, a through-line that’s been pervasive from the last week of February until now, and it’s a concerning one. Everyone is terrified.
The first two weeks of March, Karen and I were with my parents to see them through an important medical procedure. When we left for the trip, the dreaded pandemic was confined to the West coast…troubling news in the paper, but not impactful to us otherwise. The area in which my parents live was among the last in the country to have anyone test positive. There is some providence in the fact that we were essentially self-quarantined just by being there for two weeks. A week before our return trip, Boston experienced its first surge, but the town in which we live was free of cases. By the time we returned, restrictions were beginning to be put into place, but by that time, the underlying mood was already at a fever pitch.
As Karen and I were leaving the town in which my parents live, we stopped for gas, to find that there was none. Just as everyone was running on grocery stores for toilet paper (a topic of its own), in that town, everyone was running on gas. We finally located a station that wasn’t sold out, an older station in which I couldn’t pay at the pump. I went inside and conversationally asked the cashier if they had been this busy all day. She affirmed that business had been crazy. I commented that we were leaving for our road trip home, and I hoped that this wouldn’t be common everywhere (my overactive imagination was painting apocalyptic scenarios of being stranded by the roadside on a desolate interstate with no fuel and no one venturing out to come to our aid for fear of some Andromeda Strain). She responded, “I just hope you don’t have to through one of those states that are closing their borders! Some of them aren’t letting anyone in or out. I heard we’re going to start doing that soon.”
I’m going to be honest…by the time I returned to the car, I was a nervous wreck from hearing this (remember my aforementioned imagination). Karen and I talked it through for a moment. Were a state to do this, the amount of police and military presence required to seal a border entirely from its neighbors would be unsustainable. We decided that this was unlikely at worst, impossible at best, and, though we kept NPR’s hourly updates streaming on the drive, went on with the trip.
That gas station attendant, while meaning well and having no malicious intent, had succumbed to, and was disseminating, the fear that was beginning to grip the country. She was paying it forward, and not in a good way.
Fear is a poison. Its presence brings a toxicity to all that it touches. It drives people to purchase toilet paper, despite the absence of a logical reason for doing so (nowhere in the dreaded virus’ symptoms are diarrhea). It also spreads with a voracity unmatched by any virus. Quickly, it seeps into decision making, and there is an inversely proportional decline in the quality of those decisions when it does. Because a lack of ability to engage in critical thinking is also pervasive in our culture, the popularity of those decisions become mainstream, resulting in pressure on others to conform, resulting in blanket political decisions that do harm.
Regardless of where you stand on steps being taken or opportunities missed to handle this pandemic, our interactions with each other (especially as they become virtual and knowing that social media is a breeding ground for rage culture and mob psychology) would do well to be dialed back a bit. Advice that is meant well (there’s a big difference between staying at home and staying inside) takes on a fervor and becomes implanted with the effectiveness of the most insidious marketing campaign with enough repetition. We lash out at each other, we spread rumors which are unvalidated, we contribute to a phobia.
When we do so, we rob each other of hope. And right now, we’re all in desperate need of a bit of a hope.
A few days ago, I read some history of how the town in which we live handled the influenza outbreak in the 1900’s. The steps that were taken then were remarkably similar to the steps that we are taking now. The difference lies primarily in scale. Yet, a favorite phrase among media professionals today is “unprecedented times.” This isn’t at all unprecedented, but rather the first occurrence in our generation of something of this magnitude. We’ve dealt with it before, we’ll deal with it now. Life will be changed, but it will go on. It just will, because that’s what life does. And yes, many will get this virus…likely most of us will. And the toll will be tragic, too painful to speak of for some, and I grieve for them.
We need to take a breath, though, a deep breath. And then, we need to each love our neighbor. And then, we need to make calm, rational decisions, even though they may be unpopular and incur Twitter-rage. If we do so, we may just get through this more quickly, and certainly with less of a scar to our collective psyche when we do.