If the covid-19 pandemic has taken the life of someone you love, or closed your business or otherwise reduced or eliminated your income, then I’m sorry. I have never heard anything useful follow from a statement that started, “At least…” or “Everything happens for a reason…” This post is not going to be like that. A disease like covid-19 brings death and destruction and I’m sorry that it included you.
Covid-19 won’t end soon, either. Many more people are going to die and much more harm will be done before it stops, but it will stop, and our certainty of good things on the other side of the pandemic will get us to that day. That day is coming and we need to expect it, believe it, know it, and prepare for it.
We need to expect it, because that sets the goal which organizes the thoughts and feelings and behavior that cause us to reach the goal of that better day, but we are better off if we don’t try to imagine a time without covid-19. There’s good science to tell us that when we imagine something in the future, we are not good at realistically imagining the challenges between here and there. We don’t know how hard it will actually be and so we can’t prepare ourselves, and that makes the actual journey seem longer and feel more painful (Dean, 2013).
Clear beginnings and fuzzy endings
Disasters have a way of dividing life into pre- and post-incident eras, with a sharp and sudden contrast between the two periods. Way back in February 2020, and my perception that February was long ago is part of that contrast, an indication that a radical and profound change has happened between then and now, I was in a crowd of thousands of people for the Polar Bear Plunge in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Two weeks later, I was among tens of thousands of school psychologists at a national convention in Baltimore. At the time, there was nothing remarkable about the plunge or the convention, but now their memory is almost shocking. Neither would be even remotely imaginable now, just two months later. Disasters do that, create a line in our memory, the pre- and post- eras.
Disasters tend to have abrupt, clear, discrete beginnings. For example, Hurricane Katrina was forecast to have a possibility of striking New Orleans on 8/26/05. The storm actually did strike New Orleans on 8/29/05. If you lived in that area, you had a few days of preparation, when the anticipation of the storm may have preoccupied your thoughts, and then the wind picked up and the rain started and Hurricane Katrina had arrived. The storm didn’t exist at all, then it was possible, then it was outside your home.
Disasters tend to have fuzzy, unclear endings. Continuing with the example of Hurricane Katrina, there was a moment when, if you lived in the Gulf Coast, you might have noticed the wind and rain decreasing, and later there was a day when you noticed that the flood waters had receded, but when did the storm really end? Maybe it ended when the clouds lifted, or the land dried, but I’m going to suggest that it ended when you stopped thinking about it, when it was hard for you to notice the impact that the storm had on your life, and that moment was not nearly as clear as the moment when it started.
Along the same lines, the start of grief is often very clear. In one instant, a person was alive and part of your life, or you “felt married” by whatever standard made sense to you, or any other connection that you had to another person or group was intact. In another moment, that connection was broken and the grief, the process of adapting your life to the absence of that connection, began. There was a clear beginning to your loss. Sometimes you can catch an indication of the end of that time of loss, like noticing that you have driven past a cemetery and did not think of the loved one buried there, but more often, you realize much later that you have stopped thinking about it and, more importantly, that you have built a new life without that connection. You miss the person or the sense of belonging a bit, when you think about it, but the loss no longer occupies your thoughts.
I suspect that covid-19 will have a combination of both a clear end and a fuzzy end. There will be a day when government officials, I hope guided by science, will announce that masks and social distancing and restrictions on group sizes are no longer necessary, when business of various types can open and under what conditions, and finally when the last of the restrictions will end. We seem to be getting closer to that, moving toward a “yellow stage” here in the Philadelphia region.
These changes will be clear and public, but the danger will linger for awhile, and the impact of the pandemic will last longer, will be less clear and more private. Pandemics usually last 12-18 months (Crimando, 2020) so we will be hearing about covid-19 well into 2021, no matter what restrictions are in place or not in place. How long after the end of those restrictions will it be before you shake hands readily, or don’t feel an urge to wash your hands after touching something in public, how long before you can hear someone cough and not instantly turn your head? When you reach that point, sometime after government restrictions have ended, sometime after the last time that the news has led with a story about covid-19, that is when the pandemic will be over for you.
The problem with science
Good science takes time, and bad science is not worth the time. Science moves carefully, building incrementally on what is known and sure, checking and rechecking to be certain. Those steps are essential when the endeavor involves life, like developing a vaccine or a remedy. We need to know that the drug is effective, and how often. We need to know under what conditions it has side-effects, and what those are, and we have to decide when they are too dangerous. We want to know how long the drug works, for example how long a vaccine confers immunity and when a person needs a booster.
Scientists can take shortcuts in that process but each one increases the possible risks and has to be weighed against the expected benefits. There’s much more to it, stuff that I don’t understand, but the delays increase the fear. If someone is breaking into your home, you call 911, and you don’t want to hear the dispatcher say that the officer needs to drive safely in order to arrive at your home in a condition to be effective in protecting you. You want the officer there immediately, and that wait can seem like forever.
Good science takes time, but junk science, not even worthy of the second term in that phrase, moves rapidly. When your goal is simply to make a few bucks from terrified people, with a plan to disappear before they realize that you’ve stolen from them or hurt them, you can move quickly. We are going to get where we need to be, with an effective vaccine for this coronavirus and probably a remedy of some kind. It will happen, but it won’t happen as quickly as anyone wants.
Myth and reality
We have talked before about the American myth of the solitary and righteous person, typically a man, who alone knows what is right, both factually and morally. By sheer force of his iron will, he makes happen what should happen, brushing aside the weak and foolish masses who contradict him. In the end, he stands alone, triumphant and vindicated, and perhaps brings salvation to a few of those fools, despite themselves.
It’s a good story. We’d like to believe it. We might even want to be that figure, from whatever era makes sense to you, John Wayne or Dirty Harry or John Wick or whoever else, but those are just movies.
In reality, that guy loses and dies. Let’s take another look at the qualities that we know, from research, are found in people who survive hard times and thrive afterward:
· Tolerance for uncertainty
· Working independently when needed and as part of a team when needed
· Attention to detail (Crimando, 2017)
One of the other excellent books that I can recommend, at any time but especially at this time, is The Survivor Personality by Dr. Al Siebert (1996). He identified some of the personality traits that are common among those who thrive during adverse times:
Still, that solitary survivor is such a tempting figure. How does he emerge, triumphant? Those movie characters typically rely on a combination of violence, street smarts rather than academic learning, anger, rigidity, polarized thinking, and mistrust of others. These are good qualities to have during a back-alley brawl. How far will they get you against a virus?
Flexibility and innovation
There will probably be outbreaks and spikes and setbacks along the way to removing the influence of the coronavirus from our lives. We might hear, say, on a Monday, that our region will go from Green to Yellow, say, on Thursday. When that happens, we will know how to get into Yellow mode, and then perhaps a few weeks later, we will hear that we are going back to Green in two days. That ability to shift gears, to do what is necessary in the moment and to set ourselves up to do what is necessary in the following moment, is what will carry us along.
This is not a pep talk. You can’t use happy thoughts, any more than angry thoughts, to defeat a virus. However, the virus simply is what it is, does what it does, and you can take the only power that you have, over your own thoughts and actions, to sustain yourself until better days come along. What works better for you in the table below?
It can’t be done
It hasn’t been done
We haven’t tried it yet
Words become thoughts and thoughts become words and both become habits and actions. How can you do something for which you don’t have the words?
It seems likely that some of our ways of being and doing and living will eventually return exactly as they were. Some others will return, but in a different form. Some are gone forever. The businesses that have found a way to thrive online might not return to storefronts and you may no longer visit some of the places and people that you once visited, but new places and people and ways will take their place.
What is lost?
Any disaster, and we can return to the more familiar example of a hurricane, causes death and destruction, and these consequences are evil, but the cause of the disaster is not a moral agent. A hurricane is just wind and water. A virus is just an organism. They just do what they do, and the result is that we lose things. Some of what we lose is good, or good for us, but some of it is not.
We are all hoarders to one degree or another. We gather and collect objects and connections and obligations because we need them, or think that we do. We think that these collections are good for us, and sometimes they are. Sometimes they start out good for us but then we change and the collections become burdens. Sometimes we pick up garbage that was never good for us and we complain about the burden but we forget what we are carrying and we never put it down.
A disaster removes your choice about what (obligations, relationships) to keep, in that it either takes them away or it doesn’t. As you plan your future, you have a choice about what to resume, what to replace, what to release entirely. Where, and who, do you want to be?
Are you getting weaker or stronger?
You may have gained some weight during quarantine. There’s a joke about how “COVID-19” refers to the number of pounds that people will gain, akin to the “Freshman 10” that you pick up in your first year of college. It makes sense if that is happening, from a combination of reduced activity and increased stress, which often leads to stress-eating. Our brains are wired to keep us alive during famine and other hard times. When we hear, “DANGER!” we stock up on food and eat what’s available when we have time.
Weight gain is a normal reaction and nothing to be worried about, unless your doctor says otherwise. In the warmer, longer days of late spring and into summer, we will be more active, and as restrictions on social distancing ease, there will be opportunities to exercise. Meanwhile, do what you can to keep your body strong. It’s good for your immune system and for your thoughts and feelings.
Apart from gaining your COVID 19 pounds, what are you doing with your time? Are you learning things? Are you sustaining your important relationships? Are you building things, building skills, building your life? Are you getting weaker or stronger?
Things are already different. Some aspects of life will return to how they were before the pandemic started, but others will not. Further, the coronavirus has not disappeared and we don’t yet have a vaccine to prevent it or a treatment to cure it. We are going to need to be agile and flexible and alert, not on edge but ready, for awhile. The virus just exists, it just is. What happens to us depends on what we do and who we are and who we become. We can control some of those things and at least influence the rest, and knowing that will keep us steady and healthy.
Crimando, S. (2018). Operational stress control and Psychological First Aid: Approaches to psychological force protection.
Crimando, S. (2020). Are you ready for the next pandemic? Behavioral Science Applications LLC.
Seibert, A. (1996). The Survivor Personality. New York: Penguin.