Keeping It Together in a Post-Pandemic World

The value of hope vs. certainty.

Posted Jul 20, 2020

Niwa No Hanami/PICRYL
Source: Niwa No Hanami/PICRYL

Here are some events that were canceled in New York City on account of the pandemic:

  • New York City Peace Film Festival
  • Annual Dinner of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center
  • Women in the World Summit
  • New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade
  • New York Auto Show
  • Architectural Digest Design Show
  • New York International Auto Show
  • GLAAD Media Awards
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 
  • All the Broadway openings
  • New York Pride Parade (except for a few splinter events)
  • Puerto Rican Day
  • Celebrate Israel Parade
  • The Mermaid Parade — Coney Island
  • Graduation ceremonies at Columbia, NYU, Yeshiva, Fordham, and City universities
  • Governor’s Ball
  • The Season at the Metropolitan Opera
  • Intellectual Property Law & Policy Conference
  • The Met Gala
  • About Time — exhibition at the Met
  • Record Store Day
  • Irish Arts Center Book Day
  • Studio 54: Night Magic — at the Brooklyn Museum
  • Major League Baseball Opening Day
  • Smithsonian Museum Day
  • “The Art of Impermanence” at the Asia Society

This minute sample of what didn’t happen during the pandemic is a catalogue of trashed plans and shattered aspirations. But here is what did happen in New York during roughly the same period:

  • Over 200,000 infected with COVID-19
  • Over 22,000 dead
  • Half a million jobs lost
  • 90%+ drop in MTA ridership 
  • Nightly demonstrations against police brutality
  • A city budget deficit of $9 billion
  • Thousands of stores closed

What all these have in common — what didn’t happen, and what did — is the suddenness of their occurrence. During February, we were still told to “go about our business,” while some cases appeared on the West Coast. Then on March 1, the first case was confirmed in New York City. Two weeks later, the lockdown began. Suddenly, everything stopped, except for massive efforts to contain the virus. Store shelves emptied of toilet paper. The stay-at-home routine kicked into gear.

As I talk with patients now, as the City inches towards reopening, I realize that all the suddenness had a cumulative, traumatic effect; the suddenness itself was the problem, even apart from any single closure or cancellation. 

There were supposed to be parades and shows, and then — boom! — there weren't. Patients ask why, if everything good just collapsed and everything bad just exploded, they can expect any stable progress towards normality. That is, won’t we be in for more shocks – for example, a second wave that we won’t even see coming? There’s no way to answer such concerns with surety.

But at a deeper level, my patients project the jagged trajectory of our recent experience into a weltanschauung. They worry that the sudden massive failure of normal expectations, manifest in the sudden onset of epidemiological/economic/social catastrophe, suggests that so much of what we plan for and expect is illusory. A mirage. Anna, a 30-something programmer who lost her job at a downtown start-up, wondered, “Why did I bother to move here when I could have been unemployed back home? I feel so pointless and fragile.” The idea that nothing is at it seems — that we are all wisps in the wind as things topple about us — is existentially terrifying.

Is it also legitimate? That is, do our understandable anxieties after a sudden intense trauma reflect a papier mâché reality that (up until now) we have failed to acknowledge? After all, if you add climate change, overpopulation, and a ballooning national debt to a pernicious virus, then it’s not hard to believe that there is no point in counting on anything. Anna used the word “fragile” to describe herself, as if she could be broken into pieces. 

As I spoke with Anna, I understood how the suddenness of all the closures and cancellations segued into specific disappointments — this closed, that was canceled — and gave a particular, personal shape to her despair. Anna loved the rallies, parties, workshops, and lectures associated with New York’s Pride Month. She loved the parade, which stopped traffic for a day in Greenwich Village. She had signed up to be a volunteer and had hoped to start networking. Her goal was to become a speaker, maybe next year. She knew already what she would say (“Midwestern conformist breaks out in full color”).

But suddenly, her plans vaporized. “I feel frail,” she said again, “because I think that everything has been exposed as frail. We were so naïve.” For Anna, her own disappointment was an emblem of the human condition. It stood in for how we think we know what’s going to happen; how we confidently make plans; but the universe mindlessly cancels it all.          

I said “But you’re here now. You know it’s important to keep trying.” She indicated that, of course, she knew that, but that her heart wasn’t in it, saying, “I’m afraid to want anything too much now.” She spoke about love, and how she left the Midwest to recover from a failed relationship.  “But that was just a relationship,” she said. “This seems different, like it’s the whole world.” She was arguing, in effect, that there was nowhere to go, and that relative to a “whole world” of disappointment, she was incommensurately fragile.

I told her that one element of resilience is recognizing that one is not alone and that other people comprehend our feelings. We can, at the very least, proceed on the assumption that we can share our feelings — even if that requires finding new groups who will listen, provide support, even demonstrate how to carry on. Disappointment is not new and leads to creativity.

As evidence, I cited an exhibit at the Asia Society that had been canceled, “The Art of Impermanence.”  It included Japanese calligraphy, painting, sculpture, ceramics, and textiles that referenced transience over the past several thousand years. In the catalogue, a scholar said that “Although cultures have decried the impending end of civilization through the ages ... impermanence takes on a poignancy — and particular irony — in today’s world.” I found these claims very moving. I also found them, in a way, to be an antidote to the shock that we felt when everything we’d planned on was so easily crumpled.

“You see,” I told Anna, “people have lived with the realization that things fall apart. They have survived, even thrived at times. Think of striving within impermanence as our steady state for now.” 

It may be that at least for the near term, we cannot rely on science and technology to obscure the human condition — and maybe even make it go away. Life is going to be iffy. Of course, we shouldn’t live only for the moment and never make plans, but neither should we be so invested in our plans that we see no way to be happy except through their explicit realization. At least in part, happiness may become the support we receive from others. It may be more about community, less about ourselves.

In this sense, the new normal should be characterized more by reliance than will. For fulfillment, we should draw on people — and the commitments they make based on the strength of their character — rather than on the timely manifestation of our personal projects.

Timelines and certainty are suspended.

If one good thing comes out of this pandemic, therefore, it may be that we fall back on friendship, and on the support of people who think like we do and share our fears and concerns.  If we feel fragile, they can help keep us together. 

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