We just had a strange and quiet celebration in my state – our first day without a registered COVID death in over two months. People have been dying every single day for the last eleven weeks without cease. With this one-day respite, we are invited once again to make meaning out of numbers and statistics, and decide what we think is happening, and come to our conclusions. No doubt, competing essays will emerge over the coming days, parsing out what this break in our death count means, and how we should understand it. Folks will use it to prove their foregone conclusions of hope and despair, blame and praise.
Does anyone else feel bombarded? Even as we practice mindfulness, avoid the news overload, try to spend time out in nature, and appreciate the life and health that we have at this moment? Does anyone else feel like we are constantly having more pieces of the puzzle thrown at us until our psyches are bruised and avoidant? More shards of colorful facts shooting out from the broken kaleidoscope of our media system, leaving us with cuts and scrapes and an overall feeling that we have been knocked off our feet, and have tender wounds to protect?
I think back to everything I have read, mostly literature, about the various plague times and pandemics, and how people dealt with it in those distant times. The information traveling at that time was of course slow and limited, and rumors and religion stood more strongly than any science and statistical analysis. But from the perspective of the individual human, I wonder if it was easier in the past. Forgive my nostalgia.
Imagine a community where you know all your neighbors, and live where you were born, among kinspeople with ties going back through generations. Your world is small yet complete unto itself. You eat locally, shop locally, and support each other very naturally. And in most places, you have a collective way of processing changes in weather, harvests, and health. Things sweep through. You don’t have to “figure it out”. You just accept it. You don’t have to become an expert. Of course you are scared. But I would guess that you accept the mystery. You don’t have this modern need to grasp it, make sense of it, read about it, study it, watch videos and podcasts, attend zoom meetings and share scientific and pseudo-scientific information and misinformation ad nauseum. You don’t have this need to become an expert, or make yourself safe by presuming others are wrong. You wouldn’t feel called to “have an opinion” about it at all.
I work in a major research hospital that is a global center for pandemic studies. We have had a rolling roster of 70 to 125 hospitalized COVID patients each day since the pandemic hit our area. I have personally had COVID patients among my cases most days at work, and along with my colleagues, I am constantly trained, informed and updated at work. Enough is enough! I really don’t need or want to give this disease any more of my time or attention. But I cannot go online or walk around the block without someone telling me in the strongest of terms what COVID is, what it does, and how it works, citing everything from scientific research to their old Uncle Harry.
They know! And they feel strongly about it! They speak and write with such grave certainty, and they forward studies and videos, or cite something from the newspaper, as seriously as if they knew that what they read was accurate, complete, and unbiased. My friends and acquaintances have heated online arguments about wild edible bats versus nefarious biochemical labs, the clear perils of sheltering in place, vaccinations, herd immunity, and more. They “know” their facts and relentlessly cite their sources and cannot understand how others can doubt this or that study proving this, that, or the other.
I sympathize, as a need for certainty is one of my core personality traits. But perhaps because I work closely with COVID patients, and have easy access to grand rounds, meetings, and research results, I feel strangely distant from any further need to seek out and ponder the typical mass media editorials and internet theories, like how far a cough carries biohazard in a cyclist versus a runner, or how long COVID may survive on wood, metal or cloth, and at what temperatures. Or how essential businesses are coping, and whether the economy will recover to the satisfaction of the stockholders. Or what plots the various interested parties are hatching to use or misuse COVID, and how the disinterested parties are interested in having us get involved on their side.
I think I may have done better in the middle ages in a more collective community. Accepting the mystery of it, infusing it with my own personal meaning within an unknowable cosmos, recognizing myself and my loved ones as miniscule sparks of life destined to be here for the mere blink of heaven’s eye. To the degree I can replicate that simpler life in the face of so much bombardment, I will do so. And one important step will be to put myself on a very intentional COVID diet, which may include covering my ears and closing my eyes while humming or singing, which is what we did as children to effectively block out what we instinctively knew would be too overwhelming. I hope my neighbors and friends understand.