I wake up most mornings feeling like life is at a funny angle, tilted just a few degrees to the left. It’s as if we got out of bed one day in an alternate universe. We are living in a fundamentally different world than we were a few weeks ago, and we can’t pretend that nothing has changed. The time for pep talks has come and gone. I’m not going to motivate you to be your best self. Forget about chasing your dreams. Forget about fighting your fear and conquering the world. Our old notions of productivity and individuality don’t belong in this new abnormal. They won’t help us get through our dread.
These are not conditions in which to thrive, not for any of us. This is a time to survive. Your only responsibility is to get through today.
I understand the impulse to reframe this moment as an inspiring opportunity. Wouldn’t it be nice if this pandemic — this period of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders — was a no-strings-attached gift of free time and focus? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could take all that time we spent commuting and attending obligatory social events and instead use it for ourselves? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could prioritize our true purpose: our creative ventures, our unlaunched hustles, writing our King Lear?
That would be nice. But that’s not where we are. We still get to live with all the bullshit we dealt with before, only now there are more layoffs, fewer healthcare benefits, more push notifications, less safety for our loved ones. Rent still needs to be paid. Debt payments still need to be paid. Groceries still need to be bought. We live with more uncertainty, more danger, more grief. This is not a #coronacation, it’s a psychological onslaught.
Just get through the day.
As our minds struggle to process this new normal, our muscles tense up and brace for the unknown. Our bodies throb with stress hormones as we live in a state of constant hyperarousal. All of that stress builds up in our bodies until we release it through exercise, which is easier said than done when we’re trapped inside our homes. If you’ve broken down in sudden caustic sobs, that’s your body searching for an outlet for all that cortisol.
We are not going to be as productive as we were before. Anyone who urges you to keep striving has a product they’re trying to sell. Our energy is pulled in too many directions: watching the kids, worrying about our parents, flinching at the thought of our bank balances. Our bodies are operating with less. This is not weakness; it’s biology.
Social distancing and shelter-in-place orders also cut us off from crucial parts of our identities. We don’t get the office chatter, the weekly dinner with friends, the daily coffee from the bodega down the street. As my friend Bruce King put it, “Finding meaning and purpose is now up to each of us more than we have known in a very long time. So much of what has defined us has disappeared or at least been put on hold.”
That project you’ve been working on for months, the culmination of which was going to be the highlight of you career? That’s suspended. The apartment hunt you were in the middle of? Postponed on account of pandemic. We need to recognize how much that sucks, and then we need to mourn the lives we knew. Hopefully we’ll get them back, but we may not know them for a while.
“We are all grieving our lives as they once were,” Anne Helen Petersen wrote in her March 22nd newsletter. “It’s already clear that those lives will not return as they once were: there will be no all-clear signal, no magical reversion to 2019 day-to-day-life. What happens over the next few months will affect how we think of work, and domestic division of labor, friendship, and intimacy.”
One part of life pre-COVID19 that we need to throw out immediately is the portrait of heroism we know best. There is no time for the office overachiever or the “move fast and break things” entrepreneur. Heroism now looks like the stranger who pitches in to help his elderly neighbors, the student who skips her spring break vacation, the manager who cuts their employees slack. Heroism is the parent trying to homeschool his kids. Heroism is the local journalist covering hospital updates from her living room sofa and the White House correspondent pressing the President on his lies. Heroism is embodying the spirit of our parents and grandparents who lived through World War II, keeping calm and carrying on.
The truth is this moment isn’t a gift. It’s an unwanted trial. It’s this era’s international crisis that we must rise to meet, the likes of which we haven’t experienced in decades. For many of us, it’s our first in living memory. If this is an opportunity to unlock an elevated version of ourselves, it’s as generous and responsible citizens who sacrifice for the common good.
There’s a meme floating around that says, “Our grandparents were asked to go to war, we’re just asked to sit on the couch.” But this moment demands a lot more than sitting idly at home. Our homes are not always safe places, especially for domestic violence victims. Home isn’t safe for those of us who fight a personal war against mental illness, struggling to keep the darkness in our minds at bay. Home may not exist for the suddenly unemployed if our elected officials fail to push for a rent-freeze. Home doesn’t exist for the hundreds of thousands who live on the street and are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
This is not going to be inspiring or invigorating—it will be terrible. It already is terrible. Here in the United States, it’s a totally predictable worst-case scenario come to life during a corrupt and incompetent Presidential administration. This will fundamentally change our world, and in the short term, that change is for the worst. People are already dying. The economy is tanking. Families are fighting and grieving and separated and afraid. A billion little tragedies play out behind closed doors every single day. It is too much for the human mind to process and too much for the heart to handle.
These are not conditions in which to thrive. Just get through the damn day. If that’s all you accomplish, that’s enough.
I’m proud of you. Stay well.