A Dead End Year
Monday Notes
A Dead End Year
What, if anything, have we learned from COVID? That there will never be a new normal.
Published on: Dec 27, 2021  |  

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This year, like every year, I went to visit my folks in Croatia for winter break. Unlike in normal times, we didn’t have the kind of boisterous Christmas where we saw extended family and friends. People of my parents’ generation are getting on in years, and most were nervous about gathering given the virus (even though everyone I know is vaccinated). Last year was of course much worse: vaccines weren’t yet available, and Croatia was in complete lockdown, with even inter-city travel banned. Still, this year wasn’t Christmas as I knew it. It was a much more muted affair.

Maybe it’s not COVID that caused it, but getting old itself. My parents’ generation is starting to die off, and death tends to make people withdraw into themselves—even sometimes from each other. I have not yet felt what it’s like to have all your peers start to disappear around you one by one, but I did have a close friend die some years back. It’s different; it leaves a mark. It’s not like having a beloved older relative die, even if prematurely. That can be a grievous loss, but it also feels like a natural part of life. It points to the passage of time—to mortality in more general terms. But it doesn’t point the finger at you quite like the death of a friend does.

It’s natural to recoil in such circumstances, to withdraw into oneself. While we might tell ourselves that we do this to process what has happened, I think it’s more primal than that. Despite knowing better, we hide from death’s gaze, crouching and looking down, hoping not to catch his eye. And in so crouching, we disconnect from the world around us, at least for a time. It’s not fear of death per se—we know our chances of actually dying young are reasonably small—as much as it is a recognition of our vulnerability. We all know we are going to die sometime, but we don’t necessarily appreciate that it could happen at any moment, statistics be damned.

A friend of the family stopped by for lunch earlier today, here in Zagreb. Her husband had passed away before COVID, but not too long before. I hadn’t seen her since. She looked the same, but her way of talking was different. Perhaps not yet adjusted to living alone, she seemed to monologue a bit more. Out of the blue, she said that her kids had recently told her to be more charitable to people around her—to both strangers and loved ones alike. She was at first taken aback, but as she thought about it more, she understood what they were trying to tell her. She had always been a bit short with people, she said, but her husband had been a check on her worst impulses. Now, not only was his moderating influence gone, she was also spending more time alone.“And when you are alone all the time, you become more hardened,” she said. “Less tolerant.”

COVID may have played a role in taking my uncle last year, and it has killed a close friend of my parents’, but it has not taken any of my immediate friends. Nevertheless, it has, by virtue of crippling collective life, imposed some kind of solitary crouch on each of us. We tell ourselves that we remain connected through technology and social media, and that all that’s missing is more face time with people. But I suspect that’s not exactly right. Speaking for myself, throughout these last two years of the pandemic, I have been fortunate to have a close group of friends whom I have seen regularly. Yet I am without doubt more hardened—less tolerant—than I was before. I am not lonely, nor even alone much of the time. I am not wanting for connection. But the change in me is real, the product of some kind of isolation.

It’s less depression and more shell-shock. Events keep coming; it’s just one damned thing after another, no rhyme or reason. The ordered rhythm of what we knew before is gone. We bear witness to a senseless procession, mute, staring with incomprehension. Maybe, like with the death of a friend, our COVID crouch is about vulnerability. Maybe it’s about recognizing not so much our own mortality, but rather the fragility of our entire lives and the broader societies we are embedded in.

Rarely do we speak about life getting back to normal any more. And if we do, we smirk knowingly, ironically. “This is the new normal!” I have screamed more than once, with some venom, at strangers on Twitter clinging to the idea that COVID will at some point be vanquished. With the apparently less deadly but much more transmissible Omicron variant now worming its way across the world, we catch glimpses of what is to come. Even with the vast majority of the infected reporting nothing more than flu-like symptoms, many countries are flailing about. The mildest variant still represents radical uncertainty. Just this week, we learned that the most effective vaccines carry tail risks of their own, and that long COVID may be quite a nasty thing.

Maybe as the variants get less deadly and we get better at managing sporadic outbreaks of novel mutations, something approaching the previous normalcy will re-emerge. But that’s not really what we mean when we say “getting back to normal.” We want to have our innocence restored, to once again believe in a kind of permanence to our lives. I think that’s gone for good, though. That longed-for permanence is similar to the sense of ourselves we have before we experience the death of a friend. We implicitly believed we were somehow indestructible. Not immortal, but that the same rules didn’t exactly apply to us. A friend’s death shows us that in fact they do. It’s the same with COVID.

It’s a lesson we can, with time, choose not to dwell on but can never unlearn. It’s a part of growing wiser. Eventually we move on, having internalized these hard lessons. Eventually, we straighten up out of our crouch and re-engage with the world. We may memory-hole much of the emptiness that characterized the last two years of our lives, but we won’t regain that sense of boundless optimism born of a belief in stability that we had before.

What would moving on entail? For me, it would mean getting back some sense of the possible. The pandemic has been all about what we cannot do, and the crouch it has imposed on us has had us dwelling almost exclusively on limitations. I’ll know I’m getting better when that frame has shifted for me—when I’m planning and strategizing rather than watching life passively with detached horror. I’ll know I’m no longer crouching when I’m moving forward again, even if cautiously.

It’ll take some time. In the interim, maybe it’s good to heed the advice that my family friend’s children offered: let’s try to be more charitable. It’s good to recognize that we’re all crouching down, trapped in time, mute, helpless.

I guess I have my New Year’s Resolution.