Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Coronavirus Disease 2019

'You Don't Know What You've Got 'Til It's Gone'

COVID-19 has upended our lives, but will we have learned anything important?

“Don’t it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone.”

That wonderful lyric, from a classic Joni Mitchell song from the 1960s, is especially timely now. It comes to mind as major parts of our lives which we took for granted suddenly appear to be “gone.” The coronavirus pandemic has seemingly changed the ways we live, at least for now.

“Long ago” (in reality, a few short weeks) we were all living very different lives, which we thought would simply carry on, or even get better.

We weren’t exactly carefree, as we did have concerns “back then.” But in “those days,” we could shop whenever and wherever we wished for needed and available groceries and goods, as well as for indulgences. We worked out or played sports, gathered for social occasions with family and friends, and attended work meetings, performances, and games. I even “remember” sitting close to other people, communing, and enjoying discussions about all kinds of topics.

But that was then, and this is now.

Those past activities have been summarily suspended or drastically modified. Our conversations, mostly on the phone or internet, are dominated by dreaded COVID-19 and our markedly changed lives.

Words and phrases seldom used before permeate our discussions: “quarantine,” “lockdown,” “social-distancing,” “face-masks,” “hand-washing” “20-second rule” and “shelter-in-place.”

We are mandated to remain sequestered in our homes, and schools, most stores, and businesses are closed. We obey rules of hygiene and prevention: We wash our hands, use disinfectants, maintain social distances, avoid social gatherings, wear gloves and masks when shopping.

We are daunted and hypervigilant, but we’re also confused. We wonder why our country was so woefully unprepared, with embarrassing shortages of testing kits, protective apparel (masks, gloves, suits) for medical personnel and first responders, and for its citizens.

We hear assurances from optimists in our leadership at the same time as we hear stark warnings from alarmists about our dire situation. Cooler heads ask us to be patient, but we feel unsettled.

We wonder when (or if) these restrictions on personal and social behaviors will end, or if this (or worse) will be the “new normal.” We worry about our loved ones and ourselves, about the fate of our country and even our species. Most poignantly, we ask ourselves, “Will my spouse or children or parents get sick? Will I succumb? Will any of us die?”

A wise old Yiddish and German expression states, “Mann Trach Un Gott Lacht” (“Man Plans and God Laughs”), metaphorically meaning that even with elaborate planning and positive circumstances, “fate” can intervene to make our plans go awry.

Our lives thus always have a modicum of uncertainty, because unexpected and unpredictable events can upend our desired goals.

The pleasures and loves which we experience are of course real and deeply cherished. So much so that we aspire to them and expect them to always be present. When things are going well, we’re prone to take for granted that our lives will unfold inexorably in a positive direction.

But we learn soon enough from our life experiences, those of family and friends, and from world news that our lives are unpredictable and capricious, and can be suddenly transformed, just as our current life journeys have been upended by this flash of fate.

After the challenges of these past few months, we’ll hopefully reach a point when this virus is controlled or eradicated by medical interventions and/or an effective vaccine. By then, we will have been living for months under imposed “draconian” controls and longing for our past “easy” lifestyles which seemed “gone” (as in the lyric). We’ll breathe a huge sigh of relief, and surely savor our “freedoms,” being active outside our homes, shopping, working and playing, and communing with others.

Will we be looking forward to a return to “the good old days,” the identical lives we led before COVID-19? Do we carry on until the next “force majeur” (destructive act of nature)?

We know there will be some major changes, but will we have learned anything that could make a difference in the way we conduct our lives?

In contrast to living in quarantine, our lives before were indeed pretty good. But even when things were progressing well, we sometimes felt overwhelmed by pressures of schedules, childrearing, bills, relationships, obligations … the “stuff of life.”

As soon as COVID-19 went on its rampage, however, we longed for the lifestyles we recently complain about. Perhaps that prescient lyric, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” is telling us that we didn’t appreciate our lives until many of our freedoms were “gone.”

Severe human crises like coronavirus—or a world war—threaten our very existence, cause serious disability and loss of life, severe stress on individuals and families, economic upheavals, shortages, and hunger.

But these tragedies also bring out human benevolence, acts of kindness, caring, help, cooperation and empathy. This pandemic has brought people all over the world together under our shared stress of a common invisible “enemy,” and we feel increasingly connected with other humans.

We will have an opportunity to build on that interconnectedness after the viral threat is over, and we should be considering what we might do differently or better when we are “free” again.

Might we become more grateful for the fulsome bounty of our lives?

Might we spend more quality time with our loved ones, parents, siblings, children, and friends?

We can be much more respectful, empathic, helpful, and kind to others in our daily lives.

Surely, we should avoid being demeaning, narcissistic, bullying, mendacious, or hateful.

We can be more appreciative of the natural beauty (flora, fauna, vistas) and human-created beauty (art, music, literature, architecture) that abound in our lives.

Educating our young is crucial so that they can appreciate this world and the scientific expertise and discoveries which can help us in pandemics and other forces majeurs.

We can do much more to think of humanity as part of a common community in which we live, work and play cooperatively, and respect and honor our different customs and beliefs.

We can be both “pro-human” and “pro-Earth” by supporting causes that mitigate global warming, reduce inter-human aggression and violence, and overcome the disparities of extreme poverty amidst opulence all over the globe.

All together now: “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve lost ‘til it’s gone?!”

More from Saul Levine M.D.
More from Psychology Today