“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine,” we used to sing, back in the early Nineties. Everyone in Generation X knew this was coming, and that’s why we spent so much time cooped up in our rooms.
We had no idea how great things would be when we would find ourselves doing it all over again at some near-future point.
When we were young, we had to pay $16 for an album, or $1.99 for a cassette single, or try to record stuff off the radio. There was none of this free streaming on demand business. We had to go to the video rental store if we wanted to watch a movie or an old TV show - assuming they were available - and if someone else was watching it, we had to wait until next time.
WE HAD NO INTERNET
If we wanted to use the phone, we had to do it in the living room or the kitchen, where the entire family could overhear us and would often chime in on the conversation. Nobody could tell who was calling, so anyone might answer the phone. I recall an old roommate telling me, two days after the fact, that “some lady” had called for me... about a job posting...
Nobody had seen grocery delivery since, like, the Fifties. The only hot food you could really get delivered was pizza. Avocados were fairly expensive. If you ordered any kind of “stuff,” like from the Sears catalogue, everyone knew it took 6-8 weeks for delivery.
Okay, I hope I can get away with saying what I’m going to say next, because I’m a COVID-19 survivor, and I can claim that it seems to have warped my brain a bit.
If this is The End of the World as We Know It, it... isn’t as bad as it could be?
I’ve been comparing notes with some of my friends on what year would be the worst possible year in their life for COVID to happen. For me, it would have been either 1982 or 1999. Both of those were tough years anyway, but adding a pandemic to the scenario would have been devastating.
So far, everyone I’ve talked to has agreed that this is not the worst possible year for their personal timeline that this could have happened. The year of the divorce. The year of the cancer diagnosis. The year one of their parents died. Their brokest year, the year they had their worst roommate. All sorts of times that would have been harder.
Of course this isn’t going to feel true for everyone. A friend of mine lost her dad a couple months ago - he was a COVID doctor - and this is probably always going to be the worst year of her life.
Which brings me to an interesting, though somewhat taboo, point.
If this is the worst year of our lives...?
Does that not imply that if we get past it, at some future point, everything else will be at least a bit of a relief?
We’re at the midpoint of 2020, and this has been a truly rotten and terrible year in my life. I mean, bag it up and haul it out to the curb, right?
Still, I have to acknowledge, I did not die of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in December. My husband did not lose sight in his eye in February. I did not die of COVID-19 - I didn’t even have to check in to the hospital, and what’s more, I didn’t even have to pay for any of my treatment other than $10 for antibiotics.
This is the beginning of strategic adjustment, when we realize that hey, things could be worse.
It wasn’t all that long ago (two months, but who’s counting) when I was still feeling actively surprised each morning. Hey, I woke up! I don’t know how I would know if I didn’t? But I did notice and I did feel a sense of awe and wonder. For at least 45 seconds, before the day’s symptoms kicked into gear.
Nobody likes forced gratitude exercises, so let’s call it something else, something more hard-headed and practical. Let’s call it: inventory.
What is working? What is not a dripping bag of situational trash?
What resources do we have at our disposal? (Internet, literacy, running water and flush toilets, an education, pens with no caps, half a dozen USB cables, etc).
Example: I started saving all our cardboard for my little parrot, and built her a fort to keep her busy while we’re on work calls. She won’t play with a $15 bird toy from the pet store but she will play in her fort all day.
The other thing that is very important to consider is, what if dying is not the most pessimistic possible scenario? People forget to plan for this.
What if we live through all this, and in fact we live to be 90 years old, and because we assumed we’d die tragically young we didn’t save any money? Or wear sunblock or take care of our teeth?
For me, the most pessimistic baseline scenario is that I live to be 110 with no money, no house, no living family, and no friends. Whenever I think about future planning, whenever I’m at a choice point, I think of Very Old Me and what she would like me to do today.
There are two things I’m doing during this TEOTWAWKI-lite scenario. I’m working in my dream field and packing away money like a trembling hamster. I’m also scheming on how I can get paid to go to grad school for free. I figure the young ones are going to be more likely to put their educations on hold, because paying full fare for virtual classes is a giant rip-off. I’ll be 45+, though, and I don’t mind, so there will be less competition for slots. I have all the focus and self-discipline that I never did 20 years ago, and in fact I doubt there are very many young people who could beat me in that department.
This is TEOTWAWKI in lots of ways. A couple of them are probably good ways, and we won’t really have time to think about that until later. As long as I’m going to be cooped up indoors for what I assume will be the next three years, and I accept this depressing situation as my temporary reality, I am free to try to spin it in the most productive way that I can.
Is this the end of my world in its previous phase? Is it then the beginning of a new phase?
The sense of a fresh start can be incredibly motivating and invigorating. It’s important to remember, though, that fresh starts are fake.
What that means is that a fresh start is really a figment of your imagination. As such, it can be created at any time, and if it feels real on an emotional level, then it is real in fact. Just as valid a psychological spur as any other.
In some ways, I have a legit fresh start right now. I’m still not over the novelty of narrowly surviving a deadly, lingering illness. Hey! I can stand up on my first or second try! Watch this, I can roll over without the room spinning!
In other ways, everything else in my life is exactly the same.
Same credit history
Same neighbors insisting on approaching and speaking to me with no masks on
This is the trick: finding the sparkling newness in the midst of the stale, old, boring, annoying, and/or disappointing.
(Not to say that every consistency is disappointing or boring! Just that some of them can be).
I’ve used my physical fresh start to give me a push in physical areas of my life, such as starting to work out again and changing bedtimes. There is a ripple effect whenever a keystone habit is fitted into a routine, so that everything else adjusts around it - which of course can be good, bad, or neutral.
The hardest thing to wrap your mind around, when it comes to habit changes, is that they all fit into specific time slots. Doing one thing displaces another thing. A minute spent in one way cancels spending it in a different way.
This was a bit more obvious when the slow process of recovering from COVID started to feel like non-time, like I would feel just as bad forever and always, that there was no time when I was not ill and that everything would simply go on like this, far into the afterlife.
Every minute that I lounged around being ill was a minute I was not visiting my family, training for an ultramarathon, reorganizing my closet, going to grad school, folding laundry, or anything else at all.
This has actually been great, because even the tiniest little things, like fixing my own bowl of instant oatmeal or unloading the dishwasher, still feel that little bit magical.
‘Magical’ is precisely what we seek when we’re looking for that fresh start feeling. The trouble comes when we believe that magic comes from somewhere outside, rather than realizing that we generate it inside ourselves. It is our act of seizing initiative and creating something out of nothing that makes magic happen. All we have to do to make a fresh start is to snap our fingers... or not even that.
We decide it.
I decided, even in the depths of my illness, that I wanted to get a new job. I kinda meant ‘someday’ but it all happened very quickly. My dream job suddenly opened up when the previous person got a promotion and left the department. They were looking to fill it quickly, and the window for applying was closing at the end of the week. I was far too ill to do it myself, but previous efforts had left me well enough organized that my husband was able to put my application together for me.
These are important factors to notice.
Two straightforward, common, ordinary things happened in my life. I got over a condition that literally millions of other people have had, and I got a new job at a time when dozens of people are being hired by my organization. There is nothing rare or special about either of those things.
Statistically, at any rate!
The events of my personal life are special and rare to me because this is the only life I have.
Likewise, the events of your life should feel magical and fascinating to you, because what else are you going to think about?
You don’t need a change in external events before you create the sensation of a fresh start. You can do it any time you like. Or, you can take advantage of world events such as the pandemic, or the rising tide of justice, and decide that THE TIME IS NOW to make major changes.
The time is always now. That’s another reason that fresh starts are fake, because every minute is a fresh new minute anyway, exactly the same as the last one.
Here’s a little bit of hope for the tired people, the injured, the ill. It can get better. Little by little, it can.
I started recovering from COVID-19 about six weeks ago. I’m back to working out, doing 60 minutes of cardio a day. It feels great!
I just realized today that I couldn’t remember the last time I had vertigo. That was a symptom that lingered for so long, I sort of thought I might just have it for the rest of my life. I figured every time I rolled over in bed, the room would spin, and I’d just have to get used to it.
Then, finally, it went away.
It’s important to notice these small victories, because it’s very easy to start believing in illness and injury as permanent conditions.
The body doesn’t just “get stuck that way.” Sometimes it takes surgical intervention, sometimes it takes prescriptions, sometimes it takes many months of physical therapy. But the body can change and heal. That’s what a body does.
I keep thinking of this as I watch my surgical scar heal. It’s almost completely invisible now, thanks to my obsessive twice-daily slathering with scar cream. What I thought would be a large ugly mark in an unfortunate location is now basically gone six months later. In fact, it looks so good that I’m going to take a picture of it and email it to my surgeon, a nice side-by-side before/after for her records. Satisfaction of a job well done, that is one thing that never goes stale.
Yep, it’s been a rough few months. First the surgery, then COVID. I might also mention that I had quit running several years ago because of an overuse injury to my ankle. Year after year, month after month, there always seems to be a good excuse to roll over and quit.
Legit doctor’s notes!
This isn’t P.E. though. I don’t have a desperate desire to escape gym class any more; now it’s more the opposite. Let me back in!
What do I need to do today to make my body feel at least marginally better?
For me it revolves around quality of sleep. No matter what else is going on, if I’ve slept poorly I feel terrible. I believe that sleep is the main factor for a strong immune system. As a recent COVID survivor, this is understandably high on my list of priorities.
Sleep depends on a few things, which are also very important to me as a person with a parasomnia disorder. (Yeah, I didn’t really appreciate having night terrors WHILE I was sick with the coronavirus, as if I didn’t have enough problems). These things are meal timing, hydration, and cardio.
For night terrors, the absolute most important factor is to stop eating three hours before bedtime. I front-load my calories for the day, making an effort to eat about 3/4 of my fuel by the afternoon. Parents of tiny kids should note this, because night terrors are common in kids and they often get a bedtime snack. I think those things are related.
Hydration is shockingly under-rated for insomniacs. I’ve found that if I’m even a single glass of water short for the day, I just can’t drop off. My sleep quality is dismal. I use an app to track my fluid intake, which is admittedly very boring, but not as boring as lying awake in the middle of the night for hours.
I’ve tried out a bunch of different types of exercise, and they are good for different reasons, but in my experience cardio is the best for mood elevation, pain management, and sleep quality. When I can’t do it for a while, due to schedule, injury, or a cough or whatever, I start to feel the difference within days. There are different types of peace available from other types of workout; for instance, martial arts somehow magically removed my fear of needles and yoga is great for releasing old emotional junk. They just don’t hit the same physiological targets as running, biking, or the elliptical.
It is so good to be back to reconsidering my workout!
In April, I felt like I was dying. Now it’s mid-June and I don’t constantly think about being ill anymore.
I put some effort into small improvements, in a process that is known as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve something by 5-10%, it may be enough to make a disproportionate difference in your results. For instance, 5% of one hour is three minutes. Getting ready three minutes earlier could be enough to start being on time for most things instead of chronically late. Cutting spending by 5%, as another example, could make the difference between being in debt or financial freedom. Little things can add up quickly.
My small improvements in recovery were:
Increasing our intake of cruciferous vegetables
Tracking my fluid intake
Setting a bedtime alarm
Arguably, starting to work out again was not a small improvement but rather a “keystone habit.” It does tend to make the other steps, (drinking more water and going to bed earlier) just that little bit more attractive.
More sleep. Better quality of nutrition. More water. Hard to argue with this strategy, two parts of which are free of charge.
Right now it’s hard to tell whether my mood has improved so much just because I’m getting well, or because I’m something of a cardio junkie. Does it matter, though? Right now, I have everything I wish I did when I thought I was on my deathbed: my new dream job, the ability to do the laundry without tipping over and crying, maybe even the chance to run an ultramarathon in a few years.
It’s so hard to be seriously ill and feel like it will last forever. It’s so depressing and boring and lonely and exhausting and painful. Every day we’re still here to complain, though, is another day we’ve made it through. Every day is one day closer to feeling better. One day, maybe even so much better that it didn’t even seem possible.
I was asked to give an impromptu speech about civic engagement today. This is an awkward kind of question for me, because it’s almost impossible to talk about in a neutral, nonpartisan way. Yet that’s the only way to really get anything accomplished any more.
Right now it seems like a lot of people are more motivated to stop their “opponents” from doing anything than they are to do anything specific themselves.
We have to pull back from that image of “winning” and find a way to frame our projects as non-zero-sum. Meaning, there is more than one winner and there are many ways to win.
I mentioned five things in my speech, which I wish was as organized when it was coming out of my mouth as it is here:
Most people are complainers. Everyone complains about things - I think it is the main driver of all innovation and progress - but most people are *only* willing to complain.
I’m a helper by nature, with many years of training in social services. When someone has an issue, I often know how to get it resolved. I’ll ask someone, what do you want to have happen?
Almost nobody ever has an answer.
If someone I know very well is annoying me with a complaint, I will ask, Do you have a request?
Meaning, if you want me to do something for you, ask me and I will probably do it, but otherwise, shut the heck up.
For example, if I’m late all the time, I probably deserve to be told off in some way, but I’m never going to stop unless you ask me for what you want. What counts as “not late” to you? Get specific. If you want me standing by the door with my coat on by T-minus whatever, believe me, I can’t read your mind. You’re going to need to spell it out.
It’s very much the same thing with local issues. People will go on until they turn purple about “traffic” or “this place sucks” but they don’t usually have an actual, specific plan for what they would rather see instead.
You can show up to town hall meetings, campaign for various candidates, write letters to the editor, vote for every single thing, sign petitions, apply to get propositions on the ballot, host a podcast, march with a sign over your shoulder... but if you aren’t clear about exactly what you want, nothing will happen.
How would you even know that you got what you wanted if you were never sure exactly what it was?
Part of this is an issue of empowerment, the feeling that you can ask for things and get them, the feeling that if you try to make something happen, it probably will happen.
What I’ve learned is that power is not given, it’s taken.
Power can also accrue through various unofficial means. It comes in different forms: charisma, leverage, influence, gravitas, money, job titles, specialized knowledge.
An example would be someone like my husband, who sought out special training as an EMR. I’ve seen him in action several times. He will rush up and identify himself as an emergency medical responder. Then he starts asking questions. No matter where this happened, people would probably react in the same way, by making space for him, watching and listening. At that point, if he called out for someone to call 911, someone would obey, no questions asked.
Most people don’t want to be in power during a crisis. They don’t want to be the one with the fire extinguisher. They don’t want to be the one to get the snake out of the toilet. They don’t want to make decisions, they don’t want responsibility, and they certainly don’t want to be held accountable for the results.
Likewise, most people don’t want to bother learning whether something is handled by their city, their county, or the state. They might be able to get their request granted almost immediately by their district rep, but when it comes down to it, they’d rather complain for eighty-five years than spend twenty minutes typing into a web form.
People have more power than they think they do.
We all have the power to pay attention, to introduce ourselves to others, to ask questions, to learn new things. We have the power to imagine all the ways that things could be better. Not in the abstract of “things” like “the universe” or “land of rainbow unicorns” but *specific* things. Things like potholes or noise ordinances or how fast the traffic flows through a certain intersection.
When we have a more specific idea of how we want the world to look, what we want to see happening around us, then it becomes more obvious that a lot of the time, we can start making it happen, all by ourselves.
My parents taught me this when I was a preschooler. They got together with some other parents in our neighborhood. Each family took a street and a garbage bag. We all picked up trash and empty cans, and we turned in the cans for the deposit and bought popsicles with the money. I was unclear on the concept that other kids were doing this, too, because I couldn’t see them (and I was 4), so of course I thought I deserved all the credit.
There are some policy decisions I’ve made over the years that make it obvious what I should do in certain situations. I always pick up broken glass at the park, even if I have to get a stick and dig it out of the mud. I sleep with my phone by the bed in case I hear someone screaming in the night, so I can call 911 right away. When I find a wallet or an ATM card, I turn it in. I don’t have to ask for permission to do any of these things.
I’ve done what anyone can do to be more involved and engaged. I’ve decided that if I can easily help others, I will do it. Sometimes I will help others even at considerable effort, like writing them a reference letter or revising their resume. I do nice things because it’s fun, and also because it helps me to feel like I am a person who knows how to get things done. I like to be where the action is.
Anyone can make decisions about what they are willing to do and what they refuse to do.
After that, it’s just a question of how many things you think you can do and how many people you think you can help.
So you want a job where you can work from home, but you aren’t sure how to get one. Maybe I can help.
One of the first things that happens when people are out of work is that they start doubting themselves and aiming low. They feel insecure about their abilities, maybe even defensive about their track record. Rather than think, Hey, now is the perfect time to learn a few things and become more competitive, it’s more common to think, I wouldn’t even make a good doorstop, or, I can’t even cast a good shadow.
What I’ve learned is that employers don’t care what you did before. They only care whether you’ll show up and do something for them tomorrow and the day after.
I spent a lot of time preparing for my new job. I read at least a dozen articles on tough, tricky interview questions. I scoured my resume and reviewed all my talking points from every major project I did over the last twenty years. I rehearsed answers to what I thought would be a sore point, which was, What had I done since I quit my last day job in January 2010?
Imagine my surprise when none of that came up?
In two phone screens and a five-person panel interview, nobody asked a single question about any of my past jobs. A couple of things from my resume were mentioned, indicating that it had been read, but that was it.
I put two important things on my resume: a list of all the software I know, by category; and a list of my skills.
I’ve read that “skills resumes” are frowned on because they can be used to disguise a patchy work history. I don’t know if that’s true for most places, but it seemed to serve me well - and I *had* a patchy work history. I was transparent about the fact that I hadn’t had a traditional day job in over a decade. In my case, the majority of my most valuable skills were things I had picked up in between.
The point isn’t whether you can prove that you’ve 100% done something under an official job title at an official employer. It’s whether you know how to do it, whether you can learn new things, and whether you are enthusiastic about giving it your best shot.
This is where being unemployed, even for a very long time, can be an asset. It gives you the opportunity to study up.
Someone close to me did this a few years ago. She had never really used a computer at work, literally did not even know how to right-click a mouse or copy/paste. She did a self-study Excel course, got over a 90%, and now knows all the advanced features I never learned even though I started using Excel around 1990. Since then she’s been promoted twice, has an impressive new job title, and makes a significantly higher income.
That is my first piece of advice: Go through a bunch of job listings and look at what requirements keep coming up.
(That’s why I went back to college. I kept reading job listings for which I was qualified in every single respect, except the bachelor’s degree. It was infuriating until it became simple and obvious).
Stories keep coming up about young candidates who are shocked, stunned, and amazed that the job requires Microsoft Word and Excel. For those of us who are familiar with these programs, this might seem funny. Instead of laughing, we should be taking notes and realizing that we have been taking for granted what are actually very desirable professional qualifications.
When we get mopey and fall into doubting our employability, we focus on ourselves and our shortcomings. We have no way of realizing that our supposed “competition” may be severely underprepared. I got my first temp assignment in an office because the woman before me quit two hours into her first day, saying, “I don’t have to do this.” They were looking for 1. Someone who would work for 8 hours and 2. See #1.
It’s a similar situation with work-from-home jobs. They’re looking for applicants who are ready, willing, and able to work from home. Not everyone can do this. Sometimes these issues are not their fault; a friend of mine lives about five miles away from us, but the internet is so poor in her neighborhood that she needs two separate devices to try to get a better signal.
If you have electricity, good wi-fi, a smartphone, and a computer you can use all day, you’re ahead of the game and more employable than you realize right now.
Learning the basics of even one in-demand software title can be enough to put you over the edge. If you can pass a quiz, do a demo, or answer a few questions about what you can do, that’s usually enough. Start writing down all the programs that you have used, even if you only feel a passing familiarity. It may surprise you.
Another approach is to take on a volunteer position and build your skills there.
I spent the past three years in leadership positions in Toastmasters. They stepped up in responsibility, and I learned so much that I got back more than I put in. I’m absolutely sure that I reached a higher level of leadership through Toastmasters in that brief period than I would have if I had stayed in my previous line of work for ten years.
Again, it isn’t what you’ve been paid to do under your official job title; it’s whether you can demonstrate that you know how to get things done.
Unemployed people, and their friends, family, and neighbors, often say the same thing, which is: “There are no jobs out there.” This is demonstrably false. Also, you only need one.
Talking about what doesn’t exist, or what you do not want, is a pretty useless way to spend time.
Much more interesting to talk about what you do want to do. If there is something you really want to do because it fascinates you, that will shine through. If it is true about you that you really want to do a good job and be proud of yourself, that will show too. Right now, there are thousands of WFH jobs available. Some of them have been open for months or years without the right candidate turning up. Maybe that person is you.
Some stuff you can learn for free:
Microsoft Office 360
Jira / Agile
I’m still struggling and it’s been over two weeks since I got over COVID-19. My mood and energy level from day to day, or hour to hour, have everything to do with whether I am proud of my body, or frustrated with it.
Is my body a miraculous healing machine
Is it my adversary?
On good days, I think, Wow, my immune system is incredible! Great job! How fantastic is it that a brand-new virus got inside me and my body figured out what to do?
On bad days, I think, Why is this taking so long? Why can’t my tired old carcass keep up with my brain? Am I just... old now?
It would help if I had something familiar. Then I could hit the books and figure out what to do. This worked well when I was diagnosed with a thyroid nodule. I went directly from my appointment with the endocrinologist to the public library, where I checked out a couple of books on thyroid function. I’d already read a few chapters before my bus made it home.
(That was before Wikipedia and Google, if you can believe that! And smartphones of course)
My way of dealing with physical distress is to compartmentalize it. Try to ignore discomfort and distracting sensations. Get into a clean blank head space and try to figure out a plan.
The trouble with this method is that it can start to take over, until “the body” starts to feel like a separate entity. It can be like the head is a floating balloon, or like the mind is a driver riding around in a car. This is when we start to see “the body” as a stranger, or worse, an enemy.
Then again, the advantage is that it’s possible to ingest new ideas and new frameworks. We can take in new information that changes our perspective. We can also learn from other people and try out things they do.
One example of this is that my husband’s doctor told him not just to drink fluids, which everyone knows, but *why* it matters that we drink more fluids than normal when we’re ill. Mucus gets dry and stringy, and that makes coughing, sneezing, and stuffy noses much worse. Water, herbal tea, etc keep it moist and help keep it from building up. Now that I know that, I have been focusing much more on keeping a mug of tea next to me.
Another example would be a little more mystical, the sort of idea that takes more imagination and less practical effort. This approach tends to work more on the emotional aspects of illness, which is important because being sick can cause sadness and pessimism.
It’s one thing to intellectually grasp that you have a statistical chance of certain outcomes, such as being loaded into an ambulance, put on a ventilator, or going into a coma.
It’s another thing to physically feel your life force draining away, to have a continual stream of new sensations worsening day by day.
It’s yet another thing to confront the emotions brought up by this, almost all of which were dark and unhelpful, at least in my case. The combination of alarming research data and severe illness defaulted to a low mood and fatalistic thoughts.
Overcoming those black tides took considerable effort.
One of the ideas that came to me in the second week, when I thought I would be dead in another day or two, was the concept of “hiring” the virus. I kept getting warfare imagery, from the media and from personal advice, and it was awful for my morale. Advice in general was awful for my morale. It contributed to my overall sense of shame and failure for getting sick.
(Can’t people just send sweet photos or share memories of better times?? I mean, ARE YOU A DOCTOR??)
I liked the idea of hiring the virus much better. It made me feel like a founder or a CEO. Yes, I’ve hired this special consultant to teach me how to make antibodies for COVID-19, potentially one of the most precious commodities in the world in this year of grace 2020.
Then something else occurred to me, something I had been thinking back in December, when I had a terrifying drug-resistant bacterial infection that led to surgery. I had to take three courses of antibiotics, and I wasn’t thrilled about that, but I chose to reframe it.
MAGIC BLOOD, MAGIC BLOOD, I HAVE MAGIC BLOOD
I would just keep repeating this to myself as I went through the day, especially when I was swallowing the pills. I visualized the antibiotics flowing through my body and making me glow in golden light. Magic blood!
Not the same scenario, but in the context of potentially donating convalescent plasma, that same blood of mine suddenly became that much more magical!
Could it be?? Blood that I make inside my own body, without conscious effort, could save the lives of up to four people?? Doctors and nurses? Talk about magic!
The idea that I might be able to generate a life-saving elixir was sometimes the only thing that kept me going. I thought, if this works, it might even be worth it. (Not really, but...)
An irony of my illness is that I’m still tending the surgical scar, rubbing cream on it twice a day. I was able to watch it slowly, visibly healing. External proof of my body’s sorcery at work. The irony came in because I thought that infection and the surgery and the half-inch scar in my midsection were so scary and painful. Now they were barely noticeable. I could laugh at myself a little for being a coward, while at the same time appreciating that I had come such a long way and gained so much grit.
If you pray for strength be sure that’s what you really want.
I’ve resented so much of this process, felt so impatient and frustrated and disappointed in myself. I’ve watched my physical decline, from multi-sport athlete to dizzy, weak softbody, and it has made me dejected and miserable. I want my old body back and I want it immediately, not months or years from now!
At the same time, I recognize that hundreds of thousands of people confronted the same challenge that I did... and did not prevail. There is really no other response than to be awed, impressed, and grateful that my body did all this, alone, with no instruction manual. I’ve overcome other health challenges, and it’s when I feel I’ve won that I feel total unity with my body and what I consider to be my self.
I just found out that I was definitely exposed to COVID-19.
So, yeah, that happened.
Might have exposed my husband and two other people.
Sitting with that knowledge for a moment.
I’m the only person who was exposed that day who hasn’t been sick for the last two weeks. That’s why I was the last to find out. Also, the test results just came back. It takes a while to even get the test, much less have it processed.
Can’t blame them
That’s what this is about, really. How do you feel the full range of feelings about something truly awful, while knowing there is nobody to blame?
Well, not my friends, colleagues, or neighbors anyway. Only a psychopath or a malignant narcissist would deliberately infect someone with a lethal pathogen.
Emotionally there are so many ways to deal with world events, with the unfair sickness or death of anyone you know, with your own incipient demise. I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of them.
Denial - everyone on Nextdoor who keeps complaining that the whole world is “overreacting” - to something with a worldwide kill rate of 19%? This thing is killing more people than botulism. Come on, folks, get it together.
Anger - like that matters to a microbe
Disgust - see the neologism ‘COVIDIOT’
Fear - remind me to tell you about my coronavirus-themed night terrors
Sadness - this is where I have been over the past week, choosing what outfit I want for my memorial and crying over photos of separated families every day, and that was *before* I found out I was exposed
Embarrassment at being the kind of trainwreck who couldn’t see the future and who thought that following social distancing recommendations would be good enough
HEY, what gives? I followed all the rules to the letter, so why am I being punished?
The problem of suffering is a challenging one, a stumbling block that disrupts many philosophy students and spiritual thinkers. It’s related to the problem of evil, although of course we understand that evil and suffering are not the same thing, right?
Epicurus had basically this to say on the subject:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Interesting point, not exactly the final answer. The tricky thing here is assuming that any kind of suffering is evil, whereas it seems transparently obvious to me that not everything that happens is... about us. A coronavirus, one of many, pops into existence, and it just so happens to cause illness and occasionally death to humans. Was this *on purpose*? Or was it just something that happens?
There’s no real law about stuff that makes humans sick. Technically there could be several competing pandemics circulating at the same time. We’re not all suddenly immune to measles just because this dog-toy looking round piece of junk showed up. Yeah, I said it, you look like a dog ball, nobody wants you, get out of here Covid and go crawl back up Batman’s... *ahem* sorry about that.
If there is a hurricane and people die, is it evil? How about it if happens in the middle of the ocean and only some fish die, is it evil?
How about if it happens on the planet Jupiter and no sentient beings were within four hundred million miles, is it evil then? Really really big storm?
Getting hung up on the problem of evil is basically saying that no human should ever suffer anything. But why? Says who?
I have trained myself to ask myself, because my biggest flaw is that I am violently prone to self-pity, Why *shouldn’t* I suffer?
Not like I’m asking for it or anything, but if anyone... why *not* me?
My neighbors across the street many years ago? One got meningitis, one had a quadruple bypass, one got brain cancer, and the other got to be caretaker for the whole lot of them for several years. These were nice people, so what the heck? Why did all of that land on one house?
A friend of mine? Her house burned down while her husband was being treated for prostate cancer, right after he got laid off from his job. Nice people. Why them and not me?
Or... you, for that matter? No offense, just for illustrative purposes...
I tend to hear these types of stories because I’m a sympathetic listener (and a bit of a gossip) and because I have the sort of gloomy disposition that records the dark stuff and saves it for later.
As a good Stoic, I consider the prospect of suffering before it happens: premeditatio malorum. As a medievalist I think about the prospect of dying a lot, memento mori, and the reason they did it is because they had a lot more experience with epidemic illness than we do. As a yogini I do my savasana, “corpse pose,” and I’ve done a certain amount of Buddhist meditation on the subject, marasati, as well.
In a way it’s been almost soothing for me, to assume that I know the manner of my death. I’ve been sick in bed before, I’ve had nasty respiratory infections and coughed up blood, I can visualize this. I can construct a counterfactual that helps me cope, such as, At least it wasn’t a shark after all, or, Thank goodness I won’t be taken by a serial killer, or, I’m so glad it wasn’t a fire. I’ve found this strangely satisfying, although of course I could just as easily go in a massive earthquake tonight.
I have no reason to expect or demand safe conduct through this world.
Nobody ever promised that we would carry our mortal bodies around for eternity - or if they did, wouldn’t we all be taking better care of ourselves? Especially our teeth? Wouldn’t we have been wearing more sunblock all this time? Of course we know that our time will come one day.
I used to pray that I would die like a Stoic, without whining or crying WHY ME? Now I pray that when I go, I go alone, and that I’m not responsible for taking 400 other people with me. At least let my conscience be clean and clear, knowing I tried my best to protect others and obey quarantine rules. Let us make it through this as best we can.
“The Afterlife tastes like chocolate chip cookies.” What does this mean? I don’t know. I woke up with it in my head after a dream a couple of weeks ago.
“He’s going to kill more people than Stalin.” What does this mean? He who? I don’t know. I got that from a dream too.
I can say, as an historian, that there remains no consensus on the final tally nearly 90 years later. If someone had asked me as a trivia question, I would have said “about six million.” It turns out that I may have remembered only one of several categories that need to be disambiguated. How many people died under Stalin? Well, that depends; do you mean specifically in the Gulag, do you count executions, or are you including famine?
How many people are going to die of COVID-19, all told?
That depends largely on the compliance of the vast majority of humans, excepting those currently in Antarctica or on the ISS. They can probably rebel away as long as they keep the doors closed. Actually, come to think of it, pretending that you are in either of those locations might be a great idea right about now. Maybe print out a picture of a rocket porthole and tape it on the wall. Or a blizzard. For that I guess you could just use a plain unruled sheet of paper...
Where I live, people are complying very poorly, which is to say, enough of them are aiming in the direction of extreme personal autonomy that it will continue to amplify our mortality statistics for weeks. Since we were given orders to Stay at Home, I have seen:
A young woman bicycling around playing music off her bike rack
People flying kites
A shirtless young man vigorously using the pull-up bar on the neighborhood walking trail
A group of young people playing croquet
A father bringing his preschooler to a play area festooned with hundreds of yards of caution tape, examining each piece of equipment, and then playing on the only piece that didn’t have tape
All within arm’s reach of other people, outdoors, in public
An argument sprang up on our local Nextdoor. Someone had posted a photo of a young man who broke the law by climbing over a barricade to work out at a park that had been formally closed due to quarantine. (Shirtless. Same guy I saw a few days earlier?) Almost immediately, someone commented that this was public shaming and we had no right to judge because we didn’t know why this guy was doing this.
Uh, the “honey, this isn’t what it looks like” argument doesn’t really fly when someone is dressed in workout clothes and doing pull-ups. Like, what the heck else could he be doing, looking for his contact lens? Donating blood?
What we have is a failure to understand the premise of the categorical imperative.
What if everyone did this? (Whatever it is)
Anything you do, has to be okay for everyone to do.
You endorse it as something that could be a rule for everyone in the world, all the time.
It’s the right thing because it is right in itself, not because it gives you a warm feeling, improves your reputation, you can write it off on your taxes, etc.
‘Categorical’ means always, as opposed to a “hypothetical” imperative. Like, hypothetically, if I donated blood I might meet cute nurses in the bloodmobile, and that might motivate me, but that motivation might not work on others.
‘Imperative’ means that it’s something we must do. It matters. For instance, it’s imperative to stop human trafficking.
Obviously it’s an imperative to stop a pandemic, even if hypothetically it might kill someone who once got away with murder.
The selfish people who are refusing to comply with basic social distancing and hygiene are doing more than being selfish, which is well within the range of ordinary human behavior. They are putting others at risk. They are doing it because they refuse to pay attention, to read, or to think harder. This is why I’m spending so much time on this abstruse philosophical concept, to help people explain morality to those questioners and rebels who aren’t getting it.
This is how I have been explaining the categorical imperative to children for years:
“If you brush your teeth, you’re saying that everyone should brush their teeth.” *nod*
“If you’re nice to animals, you’re saying that everyone should be nice to animals.” *nod*
“If you yell at people, you’re saying that other people should yell at you.” *blink*
What selfish people are saying with their actions when they break quarantine is basically, I am willing to take a risk that endangers almost every living human being. Breaking the rules isn’t just breaking rules now. It’s potentially infecting people who won’t even know it for as long as two weeks.
So that guy uses the pull-up bar, thinking it doesn’t matter because he is the only one to be that clever. What he doesn’t know is that there are 25 other guys using it as well, each one thinking the same thing. Coronavirus may be able to survive on metal surfaces for several days. Same with the playground equipment. Not only is a single user potentially contaminating the area and directly spreading a fatal and highly contagious disease, but his very presence is undermining the entire idea of social distancing.
The most dangerous diseases that we spread to one another are pseudoscience, toxic skepticism, and callous disregard for others.
People don’t always take something seriously until it happens to them, or to someone close enough to them in their social group. Texting and driving is a perfect example. Everyone does it even though they obviously know it’s both wrong and a bad idea. I think the most extreme toxic skeptics won’t take COVID-19 seriously until one of their close friends or family members dies from it. Or when they themselves are getting a ventilator hose down their throat.
You know me, and that means you are three degrees of separation away from three people who have tested positive. One of them died. Most people probably won’t be motivated by an anecdote like this. It’s just statistics until it happens to you.
Okay, now for the part that I am asking you to show to others. This is a list of links that I have been checking regularly. (I won’t lie; I check them several times a day). Ask them to scroll down to the trend lines and PAY ATTENTION.
COVID-19 coronavirus cases and deaths, US
COVID-19 coronavirus cases and deaths, global
Coronavirus cases, US map
Coronavirus cases, world map
The book that caught my attention was called Rats, Lice, and History. It sat on the shelf at eye level where I used to sit and study in the public library. I thought the title was hilarious. After a few years, it occurred to me that I could check it out and read it. To my surprise, it was not a dense scholarly tome but rather an engaging piece of darkly comic commercial nonfiction.
The premise: Epidemiology has a huge impact on history and human culture.
By that we mean the spread of contagious diseases. You know, like now.
I’ve been getting worried notes from friends and I thought I might as well share my perspective as an historian with a long-standing fascination with epidemics. It’s pretty bleak, I won’t lie, but humanity has bounced back from mass plagues many times.
Justinian plague - and now we have the internet
Black Death - and now we have, well, now we have streptomycin
Spanish Flu (actually from Kansas) 1918 - and now we have a Mars rover
Did you know that leprosy and bubonic plague are endemic? These contagions were absolutely terrifying in the past, and they are still here as pathogens, so what happened?
As usual, a number of things: increased knowledge, better sanitation, better nutrition, antibiotics... and simply the fact that we are descended from the survivors. Two hundred years from now, our progeny probably won’t even know what COVID-19 was. For them it will be weak sauce.
What about today, though?
I’m sorry to say that we have plenty of evidence available from living memory. (‘Living memory’ means that someone is alive right now who can tell you about something from direct personal experience).
At worst, an epidemic, just like a war, leaves a deep and dark stain on history. Every person loses at least one person from their closest circle, and sometimes an entire family can be taken out in days. Burials become a serious logistical problem. Supply chains collapse and it becomes very difficult to find food or any other material goods.
Britain did austerity for eight years after the end of WWII.
In the Nineteenth Century, tuberculosis was responsible for something like 30% of all mortality. (Depending on where and when). It mainly hit people in their youth, 15-44. That doesn’t include all the other contagious diseases like smallpox or measles. For most of human history, chances of a baby living to age 7 were so poor that a lot of cultures didn’t bother naming their kids until they were toddlers.
In many ways, we in the Twenty-First Century are wildly, unfathomably lucky. Not only did we survive infancy, but our lifespan is double what it would have been in the Victorian era. DOUBLE!
Nobody wants to hear perspective on forced gratitude, though, in general and especially not when everyone is in grave danger. History doesn’t really matter on the individual level. Your personal risk of dying from something is either zero or 100%.
Now for the interesting news.
Okay, an argument could be made that the Justinian plague plunged Europe into the Dark Ages (500 words, due Friday, cite your sources). Remember, readers of these words are not only literate but benefiting from the existence of the internet. We made it through.
Extra credit question: What made the Dark Ages dark?
There is another argument that the Black Death was what finally ended feudalism.
So many people died that labor became scarce. Survivors could negotiate for legal rights, higher pay, and better working conditions. Aristocrats who didn’t like it could either come to the table or start doing their own scutwork. Serfs up.
Here we are again. Service workers are either being barred from going to work, or required to go in even at mortal risk. We depend on them and we also give them the least rewards, such as access to health care, paid sick time, or financial security in old age.
That’s, ah, probably going to change.
Broad social currents are really only observable in hindsight. We can guess at what future humans will think about our era, if they think about us at all, but we can’t really know unless we’re there to experience it ourselves.
I can say right now, though, that Boccaccio would have recognized the blindingly foolish behavior of everyone who went out to go buckwild the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s what people do. They run amok like a bunch of morons, rioting, fornicating in the streets, getting falling-down drunk, running around naked. The wheels always fall off the party bus.
Again, though... we survive this stuff. Humans are resilient. Culture is too. Stoic philosophy, for instance, has been in constant use for millennia. (It’s what works in harsh times).
What am I expecting to see in my little household?
Ugh, I don’t even want to tell you, but I promised. It’s BS to wait until after the fact to say that you saw something coming. Future predictions are almost always completely wrong, nay, ludicrously wrong. Maybe it’s good luck to put my concerns into print?
Rationing (i.e. one per customer), including food, medical supplies, and other material goods
Total unavailability of certain categories of product
A thriving black market
People waiting in line all day for something like a single loaf of bread
Economic, um... opportunities? 😬
On the other hand, I also expect to see incredible resilience and feats of courage. Times of crisis are often the making of the greatest among us. There’s a strong correlation, for instance, between major achievement and people who lost a parent in childhood. Crisis deals out trauma with one hand and builds strong families and leaders with the other. Grit, resilience, and thrift could be ours.
Can’t trade them in for bread or toilet paper, but hey.
The other good news is that it looks like surviving childhood illness and/or famine may actually contribute to greater longevity. There are a record number of centenarians alive today, and they all survived some rough decades, including the Great Depression of the 1930s.
It could be that a month from now, we’re all laughing off what was a very scary first quarter of 2020. Or, it could be that this is just the beginning of a major watershed, after which everything will be totally transformed. We are in the middle of the Place of Uncertainty. Those who do not understand history will be condemned to repeat it. When we are prepared to learn our lessons, though, we can move forward quite rapidly.
The last few days have felt like 87 years, am I right? I’ve been doing what I usually do when I’m in the Place of Uncertainty, which is to gather as much information as I can. What I’m picking up right now is chilling me to my very bones. There is misinformation and highly dubious behavior everywhere right now.
What do we do about it?
Last week I found myself in the position of thought leader. We were having an emergency meeting, and I discovered, to my astonishment, that I was the best-informed person on the call. How does this even happen when nobody really knows anything?
I scrolled through my blog, trying to remember which day I posted that “We Prepped for Coronavirus.” (March 3) We... actually bought our supplies at the end of February?? Has it been that long already? It seemed simple and obvious for anyone who reads the news to be aware that the trend line wasn’t going in the right direction. Time to mitigate risk.
“Up and to the right, up and to the right” for INVESTMENTS, not epidemiology
As I started hearing from more of my friends and colleagues, and reading more reports on Nextdoor, and even scrolling through Facebook (which I haven’t done in several years), I started to realize that what is standard operating procedure in my household is actually very fringe behavior for our culture.
Start with deep background, supplement with updates from trusted sources and subject matter experts, apply critical thinking skills, and run scenarios with favored sounding boards.
Isn’t that how other people react to current events?
I’m writing about the problem of fake virus news in this way because a bulleted list of conspiracy theories and actual facts NEVER WORKS. That kind of thing palpably does not work on the people who need it. I’m writing for the benefit of my fellow thought leaders, because the designated “smart person” in your circle of friends is probably you, yes, YOU, the one who is reading this.
You have to look them right in the eye and talk them through their pseudoscience, piece by piece. Praxis. One at a time, patiently and with all the lovingkindness you would show to anyone you care about, if you knew they had only months to live.
I live in a bubble, not just of privilege but of highly educated and brilliant people. A bunch of people in my social group have PhDs and a couple of my dearest friends are actual professors in STEM fields. The smart people are staying home, partly because their employers sent them and mostly because they know higher-level math. They look at the data and nod and trust the experts.
Ah, but I also know people with advanced degrees who are *not* getting with the program.
I was talking one such friend who was trying to convince me that we have nothing to worry about, because there were “only about 320 cases” in “all of California! The entire state!”
All the blood drained from my face. The last I heard, it was... six.
I’ve heard several people repeat the idea that “it will go away when the weather gets better” because “warm temperatures kill it” when they are missing the obvious, which is that the inside of a person is almost always significantly higher than that.
Only about a dozen people in my acquaintance seem to understand the concept of social distancing, or how viruses spread. “For those of us who need a break from ‘social distancing...’”
I love you, and you know that’s not how that works, right?
Do you understand that you could be contagious for two weeks before you even felt any symptoms? And that’s why we have community spread?
PRETEND YOU HAVE CHICKEN POX
People have been panic-buying at the grocery store in our neighborhood. Store hours have been cut back. People are showing up at 5:45 AM every morning and standing in line for over an hour so they can stream in and buy toilet paper. Which is fine, but... People are bringing their entire families into the store and cramming themselves into these tight lines. Panicking their way into the exact opposite of what they should be doing. Can’t one parent go and have everyone self-isolate at home? Or at least wait in the car?
The way people are reacting is like they are preparing for a cross between a hurricane, a terrorist attack, and... werewolves.
Quick, buy bottled water before the storm hits land... NO
We have to keep shopping and going out or the microbes will win... NO
We have to stay together, hold my hand, we’re going in... NO
Y’all been watching the wrong horror movies
It breaks my heart to know how many families have already been impacted by this thing, and how it’s spreading farther because so few people are as educated about basic public health concepts as they are about, say, helping a dog that has been left locked in a car in hot weather.
We do gradually learn, as a species. It’s fairly rare for people to die in structure fires now, for instance, when it used to be a constant problem in the Victorian era. This is because we have worked very hard on institutional inputs like smoke detectors, fire drills, crash bars, EXIT signs, and fire codes. Same thing with airplane crash fatalities. Little by little, every time a disaster happens, people take notes and start trying to avoid it ever happening again.
At least we have the scientific understanding of germ theory. That was not obvious to past humans, not by any means. The first thing the medievals did during the Black Death was to cull domestic cats, not realizing that the vector was actually... rats and mice. Oops.
The silver lining to this pandemic is that it has everyone talking and taking it seriously. Pop culture is eventually able to absorb new ideas, like “stop the shooter” and “don’t let the terrorist take over the plane” and “don’t leave a dog in a hot car.” We start adjusting to new social norms. We aren’t there yet with basic public health concepts, like how viruses spread, but we’re, um, going to learn it now. On the fast track.
Please won’t you help me by using your social capital with your friends and family, and making sure they understand what is going on?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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