The Two Pandemics: COVID-19 and Existential Anxiety

Understanding loss of identity and fear of the future in the time of COVID-19.

Posted Aug 26, 2020

I was contacted this week by two prominent members of my community: a member of the clergy and the director of a highly visible community choir. They each expressed their despair and fear for the future of their organizations.

“Some of my parishioners tell me they want services to remain exclusively virtual. Church staff now prefer to work exclusively from home. The pews are empty. The church is a forlorn place. It is hard for me to put my heart into my prayers. I can’t tell if my sermons are helpful to my parishioners or not. Is this the future? What is my place in it?”

“How can our choir sing together when we are not together; I mean live-and-in-person together? We cannot hear the resonance of each other’s voices. There is no transfer of the energy among all of us if we are not in the same room. We can’t hear each other’s breath; the harmonies are displaced. Some of my singers prefer it this way because it is easier to meet from home. What will happen to the music? What will happen to us? Will we be singing in forty little on-screen boxes to an unseen audience also many screens of different boxes forever? Is this really what people want?”

Despair and hope are both ways of managing our emotional responses to the increasing feeling that the COVID-19 pandemic will be endless, that the way things currently are become the way things will ineluctably be, like it or not. The pastor confronts his existential anxiety: I have devoted my life to prayer and study, to sermon and pastoral care. Will it ever be safe for me to sit in hospital holding a parishioner’s hand during his last moments of life? How can my sermons be meaningful in the void of an empty church? Will I be able to officiate in person at a wedding? Will I be able to help offer meaning to my parishioners?

And, the bottom line. Have I lost my life’s meaning? Will I ever be what I was? The pastor is confronting, in the end, his mortality as well as questioning the meaning of his very existence. He confronts existential anxiety. And, of course we do not know the future.

How can the choir direct a choir if there is no choir together in one room? How can he help reach an audience if there is no audience in the room; all there will be, he fears, is an electronically distant group of singers singing to an electronically distant audience. If I have no living choir to direct, who have I become? Is there a place in the world for me, for what? And, of course, we do not know the future. The pandemic has caused the choir director to confront the purpose and meaning of his life, the ultimate question. He shares the same existential anxiety as the pastor. They both mourn in anticipation of what they fear is a permanent loss of who they are. “What will I be when I’m no longer me?”

This  pandemic has forced a great number of white-collar workers to join the smaller ranks of those who already work primarily at home. Work meetings are virtual. Conferences are virtual. Kibbitzing in the hallways is gone. Sharing a meal or a cup of coffee and a danish is gone. Office-based distractions are out; home-based distractions are in. Access to colleagues and clients is more inclusive and global in reach. However, this access is limited to looking at a group of people arrayed in small boxes, often on multiple screens, and only one person can talk at a time. This condition creates a forced artificiality onto the work environment. Conversation become formalized, one person at a time speaking to an onscreen box with the picture of person in it. People are forced to speak in order. Side conversations take place also artificially through a written chat room. Thus, words on a screen are typed and responded to by words on a screen

The positive aspects of working at home do, for some, outweigh the negatives. For some, there are few, if any, negatives. They would like to work from home permanently.

Others, forced home by the pandemic, are already making premature decisions about whether to work at home permanently. It seems that projecting into the future a work-at-home-permanently preference is based on a defense against the anxiety about the pandemic. When will it end? What is the future? When will the future happen? Dare I hope for life to be better?

Thus, we have two pandemics, two health crises, medical and psychological/existential. The  pervasive, oppressive question is “What hath Covid-19 wrought?” And: “Can I fully protect myself, my family? What will happen to my other loved ones and my friends?” And: “When will there be a vaccine? Will it work, for whom, for how long?” Am I living the new normal? As time goes by, will all of this become second nature? When will I stop mourning what I have lost as I watch the boundaries of my life become more and more limited? And anxiety mounts, individually, but it also spreads communally. Under the right circumstances, anxiety on a broad social level is contagious.

Individually, we do not have the power to eradicate this virus. The virus remains, in general, uncontrolled.

So what else can one control under these enduring, seemingly endless, pandemic conditions? For one thing, we can prematurely decide that the way things have become is the way we want them to continue. Thus, for some people, “I want to work at home permanently. I like it this way.” I am not saying that this, in its time, is a bad decision. But it is a decision made under duress. It is too soon, but it is a way of attempting to get a handle on the virus by deciding that the way things now are, are the way I want them to be.

Marc Nemiroff
Pandemic Masks
Source: Marc Nemiroff

Having made that decision, anxiety diminishes. But quite possibly only for the time being. The immediate positives of working from home have overshadowed, or excluded, the experience of living with the negatives of working at home for a longer period of time than six months. For the pastor, congregations need to congregate; otherwise they are not congregations. For the choir director, choristers need to sing together; otherwise they are not a choir. Regarding working at home, I don’t think the eventual decision about working at home is the problem. The problem is the prematurity of that decision, essentially as a preemptive strike against intolerable anxiety of not knowing the future and of trying to keep at bay the existential anxiety that the pandemic has awakened.

As always, what will serve us best is to become acutely aware of our anxieties, live with them, consider them, and not react to them impulsively.