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  • Jan Flynn

Emerging From the Pandemic

Lessons from the last year I hope not to forget

The dark winter of 2020–21 is behind us, giving way to an uneven spring. Depending on your circumstances — your profession, your age, where you live, whether or not you’ve been vaccinated, or if you’re one of the millions grieving someone dear who’s been lost to COVID — you may still be slogging through each grim day or feeling a sense of renewal, a return to something like your old freedoms.

In any case, if you’re reading this, you’re a survivor. With each passing day it’s increasingly likely you’ll make it to whatever will mark the final page of this chapter. Now, as the earth warms and the days lengthen in the Northern Hemisphere, you and I and everyone we know who’s still above ground get to figure out how to negotiate the post-COVID world.

We all yearn to get back to some kind of normal, but there’s a collective understanding that it won’t be the same normal. We’ve been through too much for too long. In some ways we couldn’t recognize, we were innocent, and now that innocence has been shattered. Whether that’s crippling or empowering depends largely on our ability to move ahead while making use of the lessons the pandemic has taught us.

These are truths we already knew on a certain level, or paid lip service to. But now we have a visceral grasp on them. Here are some I hope we don’t lose sight of while we find our way to equilibrium.

Life is fragile

See what I mean? This one’s obvious. All you have to do is read the news to understand that people’s lives can be turned upside down and inside out or snuffed out completely in the space of a heartbeat: an episode of road rage; a party that ticks over from raucous to violent; a mass shooting; a car bomb in a marketplace. Or the familiar litany of mishaps like sudden cardiac arrest or fatal car crashes. You can be here one day and gone the next. We all know that.

But now, with over a half million of us gone in the space of a year, lost to a baffling, invisible germ, we register our vulnerability in a more concrete way. And not only have we faced literal, physical mortality: we’ve come up against the frailty of societal forces and institutions we often took for granted. Like, a robust (if arbitrary) economy and the supply chain of materials that fed it, or our face-to-face social connections, or our sanity. We’ve experienced the disruption or tenuousness of all of these in the past year.

We can accept the truth of this without lapsing into cynical or nihilistic attitudes if we’re brave enough to face the ephemeral, ever-changing, yet enduring nature of life itself. We can count ourselves fortunate to be along for the ride, wherever it takes us.

Mental illness is like physical illness; none of us is immune to it

Tell me that during the past year, especially the past year in America where in addition to the COVID crisis we’ve endured societal division like we haven’t seen since the Civil War. Tell me there hasn’t been at least one moment in all of that time in which you didn’t feel a little nuts.

Ongoing isolation, uncertainty, and chronic, unrelenting stress: it’s a perfect recipe for anxiety and depression on a collective scale. Others of us have succumbed to anger, with its desperate illusion of power, and sadly some of us have been lost not to COVID but to despair.

The silver lining to this particular cloud is that we should be able, now and at last, to sweep away the remaining shreds of stigma attached to mental and emotional illness. Expecting that we should get through the course of a full human life in continuous mental tip-top shape — without even trying — is like thinking we’ll go cradle-to-grave without a single sniffle or stomachache. Just as unreasonable is the notion that if we do experience mental or emotional distress at some point, it means we’re damaged goods.

We’re human beings, gifted with unique consciousness and susceptible to all manner of maladies of body or mind or spirit. Nevertheless, we persist. How about we cut ourselves and each other some slack?

Crisis brings out the worst in us, and the best

All the stuff that makes us crazy, especially fear, can make us mean or petty or even dangerous. We’ve seen how this manifests in aggressive denial — raging anti-maskers, people brandishing weapons at state legislators and threatening the lives of governors who ordered lockdowns to try and save lives, the massive capitulation to mindless violence that marked that awful January 6 at the nation’s capitol.

Those are undeniable, and they’re the kinds of things that get news headlines. But just as undeniable are the thousands and thousands of instances of extraordinary selflessness, of generosity and good will, of willingness to help strangers at the risk of one’s own safety. Health care workers and first responders leap to mind here, but a moment’s reflection will remind you of the people you know, maybe you included, who have extended themselves for the common good: getting groceries or running errands for a higher-risk neighbor, making and giving away face masks, donating or buying gift cards to keep local businesses and services afloat. And then there have been the outpourings of appreciation, the upwelling of life-affirming joie d’vivre all over the world that kept our spirits going through the darkest days: spontaneous concerts from Barcelona apartment balconies; nightly choruses of appreciation in Denver; countless funny or consoling or inspiring videos offered up on YouTube.

Another oft-repeated truism that we now have a firmer grasp on: we can’t choose what life throws at us, but we can choose our response to it.

When there is no escape, you need somewhere to go

In case you’re not (yet) a fan of the RadioLab podcast from WNYC Studios, I highly recommend giving a listen to their March 18, 2021 episode, “Escapescape”. It was prompted by the sense of ongoing, global claustrophobia of one of its producers — something I’ve battled since my first, stomach-dropping realization that there was nowhere on Earth I could go, or run to with my loved ones, where life wasn’t threatened or constrained by the pandemic.

She put out a call to listeners, asking what forms of escape they had found in the time of COVID. The response was wondrous — a montage of recordings people sent in from their personal oases. One woman found solace in running; someone else in his greenhouse; a new mother had built a blanket-fort haven for herself and her newborn; one man and his child found the sound and motion of a drive-through carwash an entertaining sensory departure from the world outside.

This, perhaps above all, is the post-pandemic takeaway I aspire to hang onto. Discovering and cultivating internal resources, nurturing an ability to create a haven, however modest or unlikely, when the world presses too hard from outside — that’s a skill we all need, even when we’ren not in lockdown. It can mean the difference between mere survival and living.

And if the pandemic should have taught us anything, it must be, now and forever, this: whether or not we agree on much and regardless of how we feel about politics or religion or what-have-you, we need each other.

If we can grasp that single fact, we might just make it through the next pandemic.

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