Here we all are, cocooned and protected from the invisible threat lurking outside, enduring time moving slowly and watching television news for the latest statistics that rise exponentially. We ask ourselves: Which country is now the leader in infections? Is the US infection rate stabilizing? Which new state is now experiencing an onslaught of cases? Why are so many not taking this seriously?
In the US, no group has been spared of this new plague, as we recall the words of Elizabethan poet Thomas Nashe (d. 1601), “Rich men, trust not in wealth, Gold cannot buy you health.” Dread is a new and common feeling we all share, as the virus is an equal opportunity assailant.
We have become germaphobes, wash our hands obsessively, wonder if we have enough food despite our bulging pantries, and hoard that most precious commodity, toilet paper, as if it were gold, notwithstanding Nashe’s observation. Personal hygiene has become a paramount issue for the entire world.
As if that is not enough, we are stressed at the change in our routines and children who are suddenly demanding attention incessantly as schools are closed; worrying about our families in distant locales; concerned about elderly parents alone at home or in nursing homes, shuttered away from the world, left to their memories and their solitude; and worrying if we have jobs to which to return to or businesses that will still be viable. The youth are not exempt from worrying either, as graduates this year will have fewer job opportunities. These stresses can cause strains in family relationships and need to be recognized and addressed with patience and understanding.
Communication During Crisis
"We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men...," wrote Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. As social animals, communication with others is a lifeline that reaffirms our own humanity and connectedness. The cellphone has now become the indispensable communication tool of the day, as we search for ways to entertain ourselves. What would we have done in the days of the Spanish Flu? More than likely, we would have read books, a pastime many have neglected and are now rediscovering. Books may experience an unexpected resurgence in popularity, a welcome change from the intellectual detritus fed to us on television screens.
Social Distancing is not an accurate description and portrays a reality that does not exist. We are not distant from others but more socially connected than ever before, as we text, call, and otherwise communicate with family, friends, and colleagues all over the world. What is different is the physical distancing between us, something to which we are unaccustomed. Better six feet apart than six feet under, however.
This distance has led to a realization that texting ad nauseam is not enough - we actually miss human contact and virtual reality is a poor substitute for face-to-face interactions. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, it has been said, and perhaps there is a silver lining in all this.
Travel has been redefined to walking in our gardens and walking our dogs to the end of the street. However, we notice flowers as never before and finally meet the neighbor whom we have never spoken to, at a safe distance, of course - an alligator’s length, as they say in Florida.
When we dare to venture out, we see empty roads, eerie sights of vacant and darkened buildings, a void of activity, as if a giant vacuum cleaner has sucked the human race into a vortex of an invisible black hole. We may recall the 1974 film, Where Have All the People Gone? that describes earth after solar flares end most of life. The ones we do see are unrecognizable in masks, walking across the street to avoid us. The eyes may be windows into one’s soul but today all eyes seem to show the same hesitancy and fear.
Time and the Future
We may “measure out our lives in coffee spoons,” as the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, but we may now redefine history, not in terms of BC, AD, or even CE. We may refer to this dark period as BC and AC - Before COVID and After COVID.
Yet, all is not lost and the end is not nigh, even though the world today may be different than it was a few months ago, and may not be exactly the same in the future. Nevertheless, it is a universe away from what people faced a century ago; we will survive this disruption and ultimately triumph over this disease, wiser and more prepared for the future, though saddened at the loss of innocent lives.
Although we may feel powerless, we have the communal strength to find a resolution to this health crisis as the human race is resilient and has an innate instinct and intellect, not only to survive but to overcome obstacles to its security and longevity.
There are positive opportunities offered by this crisis besides that of closer familial ties. “Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend,” said Theophrastus over 2,000 years ago. The time available to us can be used for introspection to evaluate our goals in life, how to best achieve them, and to focus on what is essential and important to us.
Facing this pandemic has brought our mortality into sharp relief, and uncomfortably so. From there it is a short step to a focus on spirituality, however one may approach it. As Rumi noted, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Only the soul is eternal, we have been told, and only a sheet of white linen awaits us here.