100,000 stories, and not all of them bad
“Is it bad to say on balance, I prefer this life to the one I had before?”
I texted this to a friend two days ago, in reference to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the fact that I have been “sheltering in place“ for over a month now. I was reluctant to admit these feelings. They felt subterranean, heretical even, especially given the fact that so many people every day are dying from the COVID19. My friend, a fellow college professor and a colleague, texted this in reply:
“I do too, for the most part. That seems to be true for a lot of us. Not bad or weird at all.”
I was relieved to read her response because it allowed me to surface some of the positive things I’ve been feeling and experiencing, even in the midst of this terrible crisis. Allow me to share some of them:
The liberal arts college where I work closed its classrooms five weeks ago, and I am now teaching online. This means that I am no longer commuting an hour each way across the breadth of Metro Atlanta to do my job. Consequently, I suddenly find myself with at least two hours a day more time than I had before. I am reading more. I am cooking and baking more. I am eating healthier. My garden has doubled in size. All of this is a direct consequence of having more time.
I am home all day with my wife and my nine-year-old daughter, who is no longer going to school and is doing her classwork from the computer on our kitchen table. We have bonded as a family unit. We are playing more games together, even during the week. Card games. Board games. Even video games, which I normally never play. We are laughing together a lot more than before. We are eating more meals together. In almost every respect, our relationships with each other have improved.
My wife was laid off two weeks ago. Prior to this, we were the classic harried two-income American family. Many things fell through the cracks in our old life. My wife and I always felt stressed because we couldn’t handle basic household chores and parental duties to the level of our satisfaction. Already, the house is cleaner, more organized, and generally a more pleasant place to be.
The air is outside is cleaner; I can smell it. The traffic is lighter; I can hear it—or more precisely, I can’t hear it. I am paying more attention to the details of my life, especially as it relates to the world I can see from the patio in my backyard. The spring is spectacular, not because it is quantifiably better than any other spring in recent memory, but because I am paying more attention.
I will stop here. I will not balance the ledger at this time with all of the negatives of sheltering in place while a virus rages across the country, and there are many. I listed the positives for a reason, to Isolate the good things that have emerged—as good things always do in a crisis of this magnitude. How is it possible that I prefer this new life? My mobility is severely restricted. Basic human contact is curtailed. Our household income was suddenly halved. I can’t get all of the things I need from the store, and when I do go out, I am wearing a mask over my face. How is it possible that I am happier?
But I am.
I do not pretend to speak for everyone in America, or even for those most like me in class, experience, or geographic location. Many Americans are suffering, bitterly unhappy, terrified, and losing hope. All of these emotions are entirely justified in this moment. But I know for certain that I am speaking for at least some when I say I do not want to go back to the way things were.
And I think I know why. When all of these shelter-in-place orders were activated, the collective effect was to hit the ”pause” button on consumer capitalism. It was as if a gigantic balloon on of economic activity suddenly deflated across the entire country and at a micro level, within every household in America. Suddenly, most of the buying and selling and consumption and frantic to-ing and fro-ing between malls and activities and school and work and restaurants came to a screeching halt. That much is obvious to everyone, but what might not be so evident is how this deflation freed many of us from everyday anxieties and stressors that we have simply grown accustomed to (some would say numb to). When fully inflated, this bubble presses many of us against a wall, stealing the air from our lungs. Now that the balloon is gone, we can finally breathe normally.
Though I am well aware that “deflation” is also an economic term, what I am describing is not an economic phenomenon like the Great Depression or the Great Recession. It cannot be measured in jobs lost or a plummeting stock market. This form of deflation is better described as a psychological and social phenomenon. The virus came, economic activity paused en masse, and then Americans collectively begin to notice and respond to the absence of this activity, not in their bank accounts or work lives necessarily, but in their relationships, family dynamics, and overall sense of well-being.
I can see a variety of responses emerging already. For some people, the deflation is an existential crisis that cuts to the bone. Their lives make no sense without a roaring level of economic activity. They interpret its absence as a threat akin to, or maybe even worse than, the virus itself. Some of them are thinking, saying, and tweeting things like, let’s make sure the cure is not worse than the disease. Some of them are protesting at the gates of state capitals. Others are beset by a crisis of faith in capitalism itself, but they do not have the language to articulate it.
For others, the deflation is a personal crisis that can be measured in the lack of things—consumer products, services, amenities, accessories, etc. These people are struggling with the visible diminishment of their lifestyles. We are all feeling this, but some more acutely than others.
There are other people—and I count myself among them—whose value system never entirely aligned with the socio-economic status quo to begin with. For us, the deflation feels like the realization of prophecy—not through the virus itself but in the validation of feelings we have long harbored about the inadequacies of our way of life. Some of us were already profoundly disturbed by aspects of consumer capitalism and therefore not distressed to see it retreat a little from our lives. Others are simply happy that society has suddenly realigned itself to put relationships with family and friends back at the center of our lives.
Some of us are just happy that the treadmill has stopped long enough for us to catch our breath. Novelist Don DeLillo, writing in The Guardian a few months after 911, said that America was now living with a new consciousness-altering awareness of terrorism: “It is our lives and minds that are occupied now. This catastrophic event changes the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come, and steely years.” He goes on to say that there are “100,000 stories crisscrossing New York, Washington, and the world.” We are in a similar moment, but greatly magnified, and our stories will eventually coalesce into a cultural force that has real momentum, as our grandparent‘s and great-grandparent’s stories did after World War II. We do not yet know what form this coalescence will take, but I am certain that somewhere within it will be the voices of people who found solace and solidarity and the seeds of a new world in the pandemic. They will someday begin sentences, as my grandparents did about the war, with “It wasn’t all bad you know....”