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4 Life Lessons From COVID-19

The pandemic has a lot to teach us about being human.

Sam Osherson
Source: Sam Osherson

1. Our Masks Tell the Truth

I didn’t want to wear a mask. The whole thing felt foolish, dramatic, maybe unnecessary, and a tad unmanly. And if it wasn’t an N95, did it really protect me?

Yet I’ve come to love wearing the DIY version a kind neighbor made for my wife and myself. And I love seeing so many other people in public spaces wearing a mask as well.

For me, these masks have become a sign of solidarity and shared vulnerability. In our local supermarket, the profusion of masks among us telegraphs that we are all in this together. Masks have the dual function of protecting myself (a bit) and you (a lot, since their primary function is to prevent those who may be asymptomatic but unknowingly infected from spreading the virus). So, these masks signify a double consciousness, if you will, of my safety and of yours.

Yeats once famously wrote, “Give me a mask and I’ll tell you the truth,” implying that staying hidden allows for greater honesty. In these days where everything is topsy-turvy, it’s our masks that tell the truth: they are a visible signifier of our shared fate, that we are all in this together, that our fates are intertwined.

2. COVID Doesn’t Care About The Money

In the old days (a month ago), one of the ways many of us measured our emotional well-being was through our material wealth. No one needs to be reminded that the virus has disrupted the economy and that most of us are poorer than we were a month ago. Can anything good come from that?

Perhaps so. Watching my retirement account shrink has brought a number of sleepless nights. Yet recently a new thought has been percolating: my financial net worth has always been one of the main ways in which I made sense of the world. Does it have to be that way? Is that as healthy as I assumed?

From an early age, I have been preoccupied with money—how to accumulate enough of it, how to save enough to provide for my future, how my net worth stacks up with others. This likely doesn’t separate me from many readers. I have felt safe when I have “enough” money. And how much is “enough”? That has never been clear to me, so I’ve always answered the “enough” question with "more .” Inside the bubble of my privilege as an older white professional, money has enabled me to feel secure, it has bolstered my self-esteem and my sense of well-being.

The virus has changed all that, and not just in terms of economics. Now, my well-being is, literally, tied to how communally other people behave. How much money I have, or had, is beside the point. If we all do this “stay-at-home” thing, if we all wear masks and gloves and wash our hands, then my security is strengthened. If I wear my mask, your security is strengthened. I worry about my kids, my wife, our neighbors, our friends, and myself. I hope that people I don’t even know will have the good sense to do what needs to be done in order to avoid an avalanching epidemic of loss and grief that goes on for years. Now, it’s the common good that determines my well-being, not my net worth.

There are crucial life questions these days that I am sorting out: What would it be like to judge my well-being in terms of the well-being of others? How much is my happiness tied to the common good? What would it mean to think more in terms of our shared vulnerability as a people, rather than securing my own individual lifeboat, economic and otherwise?

3. Clapping Is Not Enough

Keeping social distance, I thank the cop on my street for doing his job, made more dangerous by COVID-19. I clap for the hospital workers, for the supermarket cashiers, and all the formerly invisible people on whom I now realize I depend.

And they depend on me. Do I come through for them? Most of the people who are keeping all the supply chains going need to work and cannot afford to stay-at-home. Even before the epidemic, they worried about health care expenses, rent or mortgage payments, college debt, putting food on the table. All these matters have now become more burdensome as our economy tanks.

What more do I owe my fellow citizens beyond clapping for them? The irony is that the COVID-19 epidemic has arrived on the heels of a primary campaign that exposed the obscene wealth imbalance in our country. For all its faults, the Democratic primary process was an education in the fantastic amount of wealth sequestered among the wealthy and the unconscionable amount of suffering hidden in plain sight among the same people who are now stepping up for the rest of us.

Will I now come through for them? Clapping is fine for now. As we move forward, I wonder: Can I give up some of my wealth to make other peoples’ lives more secure? Will I give up my time to work for a better life for them? What are the consequences of my taking from others without in turn being willing to give to them?

How wonderful it would be if the COVID-19 epidemic became the means by which we all realize that the common good is healthier than I, me, mine.

4. What Are We Zooming Away From?

My therapy practice has moved online, I stay in touch with friends and family over Zoom, and my work meetings now routinely take place there. When my new book appeared two weeks ago bookstores were closed for events, so I went onto Zoom and Facebook for book chats and readings.

Self- isolated in our homes, we have moved our lives onto the internet, accompanied by avowals that we will not let this virus beat us, we will forge ahead with our treasured activities. While there is of course merit to this “stay calm and carry on” approach, I also have a nagging sense that I am zooming away from my pervasive sense of loss, and I wonder how to make room for that. The temptation—particularly strong in our society—is to hurry past a loss and “get on with living.” The problem is that without normal mourning we have less ability to deal with the changed world that comes with any loss.

And certainly COVID-19 has changed our world. I can Zoom all I want but I cannot see my 8-month-old granddaughter, too young to realize that those tiny figures waving at her on her parents’ laptop are her grandparents. I can go online to see patients but I don’t have their very real physical presence to help me understand more deeply what they are going through, and both they and I miss the familiar office where we would normally do our work together. No amount of FB time will return the canceled school consultations that were a routine part of my life—and which provide me a deep sense of meaning and satisfaction.

How do I make room psychologically for the emptiness in my life that COVID-19 has created? How do I fill that emptiness?

Maybe this very emptiness provides an opening and opportunity. Our relentless consumer consumption has ground to a halt. We are now listening to scientists and experts explain the new world to us every day. The skies above our polluted cities are blue again. We have an unexpected window now to deal with climate change. The destructive impact of income inequality and disparities in health care is now plainly visible. We have an opportunity to focus on the common good and build a more humane society.

The post-COVID world offers many possibilities, including a dramatically reorganized set of priorities and engagements. If I can leave the psychological space open enough—not allow myself to fill it with ersatz substitutes for what has been lost or a desperate rebuilding of the past—perhaps I can learn more fully what kind of person I want to be in a new world.

Can I open myself to that? Can you ? Can we ?