We’re in the middle of a pandemic, tens of thousands in the US alone are dying mostly preventable deaths, our federal government is doing a worse job managing the crisis than I could have ever imagined, the world economy has been shut down, millions have lost their jobs, and I have barely left the house in over a month. So why do I feel generally… okay?
I don’t feel good about any of this, mind you. But I see a lot of friends on social media who are really struggling, while I am mostly stressed out about normal things like deadlines and responsibilities at work and kids who won’t go to sleep. I’ve been trying to stay aware of how I’m feeling as we watch the world change in unprecedented ways, and I’m actually kind of disturbed by how not-disturbed I am generally feeling about all of this. In many ways the pandemic reminds me of a government shutdown, but worse: It’s a stupid, avoidable situation that is hurting a lot of people, but for myself it’s not too bad and actually has some perks. Of course some days are better than others depending on the absurdity of the day’s news and my own mental state. Of course I find much of what’s happening outrageous and infuriating (more on that later). But generally, I’m doing okay. Or at least, not significantly worse than what has become my new normal in the last few insane years.
I want to be clear before I get any farther with this post that my goal is not to say “look at me, I’m doing fine, why aren’t you?” If you are feeling Not Okay during this pandemic, you are having the correct, rational response. What I’m trying to do here is figure out and articulate some of the reasons that I am not having the correct, rational response.
Perspective and Gratitude
I am finding that this pandemic is having an effect on me similar to other momentous life events like births and deaths. These sorts of events offer a rare clarity: the distractions fall away and we are given a brief moment where we see what really matters. The clarity of this pandemic is showing me something that I already knew, but that despite my best efforts at being a socially responsible person, I am not normally reminded of so frequently or so vividly. It is showing me how astoundingly lucky I am. It is forcing me to practice gratitude, which is an effective way to improve your mental health.
I thought about listing all of the things that I am grateful for here, all the unearned privileges that allow me to observe this pandemic from a place of comfort and safety and ease, but it ended up seeming gratuitous and boastful, which was not my intention. My point is this: I know. I know how lucky I am to be able to react to this disaster the way that I am. And in some ways, being reminded of this fact so often is probably helping me emotionally deal with this situation.
I can’t resist calling out one advantage in particular, however, because in basically all other circumstances so far in my life it has been disadvantage. I’m talking of course about being an introvert. Being unable to socialize with people in person and instead doing any (limited) socializing over the internet? Mostly hanging out at home, or at most occasionally going outside for a walk? Needing to fill any spare time with hobbies rather than by going out and doing stuff with friends? Little did I know it, but I have been training for this my whole life.
Denial and Compartmentalization
One of the strangest things about this pandemic is how little it actually changes my day to day life. The nature of my job is such that most of the people I work with on a daily basis are not at my home institution, so communicating by email or by phone or video conferencing is perfectly normal to me. It’s just that I get to stay home and have lunch with my family, and I also have to do video calls with people I’d normally go down the hall to talk to.
The pandemic did cancel my trip to the annual Lunar and Planetary Science conference, which I have attended every year since 2006, and it forced Erin and the kids to cancel their trip to visit her parents in Florida the same week (her dad is on immunosuppressants for rheumatoid arthritis and is therefore high risk). But those cancellations came early enough that in a way they just added to the surreal feeling rather than driving home the reality.
The fact that my life is for the most part minimally disrupted is nice but it also has the side effect of making it very difficult to internalize how messed up things are in the world right now. As far as I am aware, nobody I know has gotten sick, for which I am very grateful. Like many people, I have been reading a truly unhealthy amount of news so I’m well aware of what is happening in the world, but on some deep level it doesn’t quite seem real. Intellectually I get it, but emotionally there’s still some disconnect.
There are of course moments where I imagine what would happen if I or someone I loved got sick or died. I read news articles, or hear the medical helicopters flying overhead on their way to the hospital, and I imagine disaster striking my family. When that happens, there is a gnawing dread that sits in my gut like a cold stone and crawls up the back of my skull. But, maybe this says something about me, but that’s nothing new for me. It’s the same feeling I get when I read about gun violence, or a car crash, or kids getting sick, or any of the many horrible events in the world that for some reason the news seems to think that everyone needs to know about. I think most adults, and especially most parents, become very skilled at compartmentalizing these sorts of thoughts. I know that if I didn’t I just wouldn’t be able to function.
So, don’t get the wrong impression. It’s not that I don’t worry about what would happen if I or a loved one got sick. It’s that it’s just one more thing in a world full of unpredictable dangers. My family and friends are for the most part lucky enough to be able to do everything possible to avoid this one. So I worry, but it isn’t consuming me.
Outrage and Vindication
To me, the worst part about this pandemic is the extent to which it was preventable. You’ve read the news: The Trump administration dismantled the safeguards that the Obama administration had put in place and ignored the pandemic training that was part of their transition into the White House. They fired key experts. They were warned when this new virus first appeared and did worse than nothing. They downplayed the problem and treated it like every other aspect of reality: they ignored it and hoped it would go away. Of course it didn’t go away, and since that became clear, the response has been so deeply incompetent and corrupt and confused that it leaves me speechless and furious. I mean, look no further than this week. We’re months into this crisis, more than 50,000 Americans have died, and the president openly wondered on national television this week if maybe ingesting cleaning products might be a good way to stop the disease. He suggested that scientists look into the idea. The he has been receiving briefings on this virus for months, and that’s what he comes up with now. The ignorance is genuinely terrifying.
I read an article the other day that suggested that 90% of the deaths we’re seeing now from the virus could have been prevented if the country had enforced physical distancing just two weeks earlier. Trump and his people downplayed and dragged their feet on this for many weeks. They have tens of thousands of deaths on their hands, and now they are agitating to open back up prematurely, which will set off a second wave of pandemic that is even worse and prolong both the economic and medical suffering for months.
So yeah. I am not at all okay with what is happening. How can I say that I’m doing okay through this? Because I’ve been not-at-all-okay with what is happening with our government since 2016. The Trump administration has been an endless cascade of incompetence and corruption. I reached saturation long ago. So while this situation is worse than anything that came before it, what came before was already so far beyond what is acceptable that I genuinely don’t have the emotional capacity to react to these new horrors all that differently.
There is also another facet to this that I think may be helping me cope, though I’m not particularly proud of it, and that is a feeling of vindication. I am a scientist. The bedrock of my worldview is that reality matters. Facts matter. Expertise matters. Good governance must be based on reality. This brief and imperfect life is all we get, so we must treat each other with empathy and the acknowledgement that bad things can happen to good people, and that society and government exist so that we can help each other.
The Republican party has been systematically undermining these ideas for decades, and the Trump administration is the culmination of all their efforts. The last 4 years have been a nightmare of lies and ignorance and selfishness, and for the most part Republicans have been able to get away with it. But this time is different.
This pandemic epitomizes why the Republican worldview is wrong and dangerous. You know what matters in a pandemic? Facts. Expertise. Good governance based on reality. Compassion for others. Personal sacrifice for the greater good.
The pandemic shines a harsh light onto all of the injustices in our society. The racial disparities, the wealth inequality, the lack of living wages for the people who form the foundation of our society, the absurdity of a for-profit system that links health care coverage to employment, the appalling treatment of native communities, and on and on.
I hate that it had to come to this. I hate that even as it has come to this, many people are denying the evidence right in front of them. I do not like that I feel this way, but I can’t deny that as I watch the world around us failing in precisely the ways that people with a left-leaning and fact-based worldview warned about, there is a grim and bitter solace in knowing that we were right.
Fascination and Hope
One of the strongest reactions I’ve had to this pandemic, and another one that seems inappropriate even to myself, is fascination. This pandemic has been a crash course in epidemiology, obviously. But also economics and history and civics and psychology and more. I’m reminded of a quote from The Once and Future King, which now that I look it up is even more apt than I expected:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”The Once and Future King, T.H. White
Learning stuff is already my default state, and in times of stress and crisis my instinct is to double down and learn more. I’m also reminded of another relevant quote:
I find it fascinating to see on full display how interconnected the world is. How our current situation so closely mirrors that in 1918 when a similar pandemic swept the world (and not just in the particulars of the disease, but the broader circumstances in the country and the world). How years of bad policy decisions which were mostly survivable during a period of economic growth are now revealing so much of our society to be a house of cards. How fighting a virus can so rapidly lead to unexpected consequences like inability to purify water due to a lack of CO2 gas due to the shutdown of certain chemical processing plants due to a drop in demand for oil. How the immediate economic catastrophe caused by “flattening the curve” to save lives is going to give way to so many ripple effects for months and years to come.
I know that to a lot of people the uncertainty and chaos we are witnessing right now is extremely stressful. It feels an awful lot like the end of the world. In a sense, maybe that’s true. But if it is the end of the world, it is an end whose time had already come, and it opens up the opportunity for something new and better. To me this feels less like an end than like a turning point. A culmination of forces that have been building up for many years, long before this virus arose. It is the chance to recognize what matters. To clearly see what aspects of our society, our government, our lives, actually serve us well and what needs to be changed.
I am not naive. I don’t expect to see our government suddenly and miraculously institute universal basic income and universal health care and nationwide vote by mail and everything else. I don’t expect it to proactively address the next, even greater global challenge – climate change – before it is too late. I suspect when this pandemic is over, we’ll see things mostly go back to the way they were before. But I think the illusion that “the way things were before” was acceptable will have been dispelled. Not for everyone, of course, but for enough people to make a difference. This experience is going to have a lasting effect on everyone. Kids in high school and college right now are learning lessons a lot more profound than what they’re learning in their online classes. We’re all learning from this experience. I think the memory of this pandemic is going to become a part of who we are, as individuals, as families, as countries, and as a world. Whether we are aware of it or not, it is going to guide us in the coming years, and despite the pain and chaos of the present, I choose to hope that it will allow us to create a better world.
As the lyric goes, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” That’s not exactly true for me, but through a combination of good fortune and some healthy (and some maybe not-so healthy) emotional responses to everything that is happening, I am doing okay. With things as bad as they are, doing “okay” is better than I have any right to expect. I hope you’re doing okay too. If you’re not, and you want to talk about it, don’t hesitate to reach out. If there’s one thing we are all learning right now, it is how interconnected we are. We will get through this together.