Seven months into the State of Emergency, and the virus has not changed. The ways it spreads have not changed. It’s degree of fatality has changed only slightly for all but the richest and most privileged. And the patterns of government and behavior that have escalated the spread of the virus have also not changed.
“How do we cope with all this?” is the question I often hear from clients and friends, and one I not-infrequently ask myself. But I do have an answer.
A couple of days ago, I read an article in The Scientist magazine reporting on a Harvard study that showed that the United States, in addition to having the most cases and the most deaths, also has the highest rate of per capita deaths in the developed world. We are doing far worse than Italy and Germany, and orders of magnitude worse than some Asian countries and New Zealand. We are even doing 29% worse than Sweden, and Sweden did almost nothing to control the virus. To do worse than a country that did nothing means we are doing things to escalate the virus’ spread, not to contain it.
Much of our failed response to the virus originates at the top. But we don’t have to follow their lead, acting as if we’re done with the virus, when the virus is nowhere near done with us.
I hear many people saying that the alternative is to “live in fear” and “cower in our houses, gritting our teeth and waiting for it to be over, while the economy comes crashing down around us.
These are not our only choices.
We don’t have to behave as if there is no pandemic, and we don’t have to cower and hide. Instead, we can adapt to life in the pandemic – each of us finding a way to live meaningfully while it continues, for however long that is, adapting to each moment as it comes.
I believe that’s our best option.
In these bizarre times, I think about Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby, a Parisian journalist and magazine editor, was stricken, at age 43, with a massive stroke that put him into a coma for 20 days. When he awoke, he was completely aware and alert but also paralyzed, able only to blink his left eye.
His mind was locked in his body.
Miraculously, we know what happened to him because he wrote a book about his experiences, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, from inside this locked-in state.
He wrote his book literally one letter at a time, blinking his left eye while a transcriber recited the French alphabet in order of letter frequency, recording a character when Bauby blinked to indicate his choice. Each word took about two minutes to write and the entire book took 200,000 blinks.
It’s been some 20 years since I read Bauby’s book, but the contrast between his external and internal worlds is still vivid, particularly now, when we are all experiencing a much less stringent form of locked-in state.
Bauby found a way to have a full and meaningful life in what most of us would consider unendurable conditions by living in his imagination.
Take, for example, his experience of food. Bauby had been something of a food connoisseur and he’d enjoyed many fine meals. After his stroke, he was fed through tubes, perhaps never to eat again. But he “ate” like a king by recalling past meals and rearranging them in his mind.
He traveled widely – also in his mind. “My diving bell becomes less oppressive,” he wrote, “and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.”
If Bauby could do it, so can we.
I haven’t been in a public building or to an indoors gathering since mid-March, and I’m not planning to do either any time soon. I’m adapting to a world and a country that was unimaginable 10 months ago by focusing on what I can still do within my own “diving bell.”
I see clients through video sessions. My girlfriend and I have “movie dates” at home. Our “trips” are to open spaces where we can wander uninterrupted by other people. Our meetings with affinity groups are on Zoom. We see friends for socially distanced walks. And as memories of casual interactions with other people fade into what seems like a distant, fairytale past, we accept that this is how it is for us, now.
I’ve also found that doing something that feels purposeful makes me feel less powerless, so I’m also doing what I can to try to ensure a different direction for this country.
In my case, that means spreading insights I’ve had about how – and why – the pandemic has been mishandled in this country, and what that says about our future if dangerous trends continue. My hope is that in some way this message will help to shift that trajectory; to encourage others to be more careful with their own behaviors; and to stop some from unwittingly spreading untruths about the pandemic itself.
This week, after a month of sending my essay Pandemicide out through every means I can think of, I got a message from a Biden campaign staffer saying she would pass it on to “the team.” Maybe something will come of it, though the odds seem slim. Still, it’s something I can do, and so I’ll continue to spend much of my non-work time doing it.
So far, the societal effect of the pandemic has been to greatly exacerbate division and even to politicize public health measures to add to that division. If Biden wins, I hope his administration follows through on what they’ve been saying about handling the pandemic, the economy, and especially about uniting this country.
My larger hope is that from this global experience we will learn that we are all interrelated, that the worst problems facing us affect every person on this planet, and that it takes all of us to see and act on this reality in order to solve them. In a world with so much interconnection, there is no “us” or “them. ” There is only us, and what’s best for us as a species is also what’s best for us as individuals.
I’m not optimistic that we will learn that lesson, but I hope we do.
Meanwhile, I’m staying loose, riding the wave of uncertainty to wherever it leads us.
Stay safe –
Copyright 2020, David J. Bookbinder