COVID may well be remembered with a national sense of schizophrenia. If not it’s going to be very interesting to see how we as a society integrate such different experiences into a comprehensive and satisfactory narrative. If not, in a society already polarized by politics, religion and left-vs-right Twix, COVID may layer on yet another bifurcated lens through which we can misunderstand one another even more thoroughly.
On one hand, in some parts of the world we’re currently living through hell on earth. I read a day in the life of someone on the front lines in a Brooklyn hospital and it honestly scared the shit out of me. Lest we rest easy thinking that’s so far away as to be irrelevant, right next door Detroit is apparently worse. In these epicenters, people are dying so fast that they are not only running out of places to put them, but they’re even running out of space to transport them to the places they don’t have to put them. Medical workers are somehow compartmentalizing what must be abject terror at their situation to such an extent that they can function in their hospitals-turned-warzones (creating a doozie second order problem of a glut of PTSD cases reminiscent of an actual warzone), but even they are starting to drop as well. In some parts of the country COVID is a horror movie, and it’s far from a foregone conclusion that the good guys are going to get away from the guy with the machete.
Where I live, on the other hand, an upper-middle-class suburb of Grand Rapids, MI, is pretty quiet. People social distance and stay inside for the most part, but they also heavily sigh to one another from across the street about how hard it all is while cavalierly delegating the 6-feet rule to their unsupervised 10-year old kids. Meanwhile, there’s a significant undercurrent of conversation centered around the macro implications of this situation that goes something like “maybe, and I know I shouldn’t say this, but maybe this is good for the world. Maybe it’s the world somehow adjusting for everything humanity has done to her, maybe this pause is important…” A topic of conversation that would be horrifying in Detroit is rampant in the comparatively quiet GR suburbs, less than 2 hours drive away. I spoke with a friend of mine in an upscale area of Ann Arbor who reported much the same thing.
I actually, believe it or not, have had such thoughts myself (admittedly from my cul de sac). This is all happening, and it’s awful, but it is also forcing people en masse to stop rushing everywhere so goddamn much, a forced stoppage of consumerism which strikes me as valuable and needed to the overall health of our species within our interdependent relationship with the environment. But those thoughts are the perspective of an incredible privilege. I’m fortunate to be distant enough from the carnage (I literally don’t know anyone, yet, who has COVID) to have the luxury of taking the long-view, a view that people with loved ones waiting for ventilators don’t get.
It frankly could be that COVID will end and my predominant personal memory of it will be the layoffs, the economic toll on everyone, and being cooped up in my house with toddlers for two months. I’ll recall the time playing with my kids, the stress of trying to juggle two jobs and a family under one roof without going to the store, the anxiety around money, the masks, the neighbors shouting conversations to one another from deck chairs parked at opposite sides of the street. Meanwhile my friends in Detroit, New York, Washington, and whichever metro is next will remember death, raw and brutal.
Neither of these perspectives is wrong, but both are incomplete. In this, COVID offers a microcosm of American duality.
Each of us personally feel a sense of sacrifice, whether we were close to the carnage, were laid off, or simply binged Netflix against the pull of our self actualization. This feeling is intense and real, and if we’re not careful this personal sacrifice may serve as a sort of mental stand-in for the actual, complicated, multifaceted tragedy in the same way that you assume that everyone likes the same type of TV that you do, when I know clearly Breaking Bad is the best TV show ever. Or the way that universal health care is so clearly, objectively correct, but so is the free market. Even though it doesn’t look like it, both of those things can be true. But we can’t take a binary choice as a given — we have to stretch to see the whole.
If our COVID myopia is left unrecognized or unchecked we’ll all find yet another spectrum across which we can distinguish Us from Them, and further divide our country and our people. We do this reflexively, and the habit is so deeply grooved it may be inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be. Whether our personal sacrifice happened in a hospital or a subdivision, we can take this opportunity to recognize that our story about COVID isn’t the whole story, and stretch ourselves to get a sense of the whole.
If we can do that with COVID, maybe we get slightly better at stretching. And then, maybe we can also take on things like Politics, Religion and even left/right Twix. There is a holon to each of these apparent dualities, if we only look.