Who Will We Be a Year from Now?
There are many things to wonder about the future after the covid-19 pandemic. Will national and local economies still be functional? Will government services for the unemployed and ill be exhausted or still able to respond? Will there be a vaccine? Will people adapt to the virus and societies develop immunity? I’d like to know the answers to those and many other questions.
But what concerns me today is who we’ll choose to be, once this has settled down and the prospect for a new normal seems possible. Because most of us, right now, are unconsciously preparing ourselves for two mutually exclusive futures.
Today I had to drive somewhere. Along the almost empty roads, I saw three children riding bikes, one sitting on the stoop with his dog, and one training her 4-H calf. There was a man with an expensive camera, crouched on the sidewalk a few inches above a clump of purple crocuses. This is far more outdoor activity than I typically see during a weekday, or ever.
I also see on the internet that people stuck at home are reverting to older human behaviors in whatever form they can. Italians are harmonizing from their balconies, and Spaniards are sharing group exercise routines on the rooftop. The sale of puzzles is up, and more people are doing board games and crafts together. Parents are coming up with creative hands-on activities for their children to do. The humble helpers we all count on every day, the mail carriers, trashmen, grocery workers, food producers, and janitors, are appreciated for the essential work they do. Merchants donate to those in need, the young and healthy help the old and infirm, and shoppers even divvy up that precious twelve-pack of toilet paper in the parking lot. As a bonus, by staying home and living more simply, we are producing measurably less greenhouse gas.
In some ways, and for an awful reason, this pandemic crisis is reminding us of the important things, by showing us what we have but also by showing us what we don’t have. Community seems beautiful, now that we’re alone. Outdoors is calling to us, now that we’re stuck inside. We miss going to church, hanging out at the coffee shop, sticking our heads into the neighboring office at work and saying hi. We miss funerals, weddings, baby showers, graduations, and housewarmings, the rituals of connection that ease us through life’s transitions.
It may be, when this crisis is past, that people individually and corporately will choose simplicity, nature, and community over the busyness that has absorbed us since the Industrial Revolution. Society will seek equity in pay and respect of workers. Economies will be measured by human well-being and not by growth. Global warming will slow. Those would be wonderful outcomes from a terrible challenge.
Today I've also crouched for many hours over the computer keyboard. My neck hurts, my eyes are blurry, and I’m stiff and sore. All my interactions have been typed, and my typign si gtthing wi=eird. I have sent the same chipper messages and memes indiscriminately to the people I would love to talk to for hours and the people I would generally avoid. My room is darkened to keep sunlight from interfering with my Zoom video conferences. Of course, millions of you are in the same situation. I’m grateful that I can still work, still earn a paycheck, but I’m not doing my job the way I think is best, and you probably aren’t either.
What’s scary is that I could get habituated to this way of living and working. I don’t want to, and I’ve always fought against it, but I can see the symptoms of habituation developing. Talking to the flesh-and-blood people in my house seems like an interruption to the important and exciting work I’m doing in my darkened room. I find myself thinking about how I can make my future face-to-face classes easier for myself now that I’m recording video lectures and creating exhaustive slide shows – as if that were how I wanted to teach.
Even worse, I’m constantly checking for updates, leaving tabs up and the sound on so that I can hear the bloop that tells me I have a new message or email, even when I leave the computer for a minute. Thirty years ago, the height of excitement was checking the mail once a day or answering a phone call; now I want there to be something new every minute. Number of cases and number of deaths; changes in state and employer policies; updates from friends and families – I keep clicking to find something to satisfy my hunger for stimulation.
And while it’s heartwarming to see the support and sharing being manifested around the world, we are also seeing the dark side of our response to the pandemic. Not everyone is putting the needs of their community first. Meme-makers laugh about the hoarding, but it’s an ugly impulse. Hackers are breaking into online video classes and posting pornography and racist symbols. Neighbors call the police when they see people out of their houses taking a walk.
The darkness is not limited to individuals and communities. Governments around the world are now able to impose drastic restrictions to individual freedoms; these restrictions may be justified, or they may be unjustified but understandable in the circumstances, or they may be naked grabs for power. Citizens could become unquestioning followers who turn on others who dare to question. You know this can happen; it’s happened often enough in history. This dystopian future of indoor gnomes and totalitarian governments is not too many steps away.
So who are we training ourselves to be a year from now? Will we thank Nature for staging an intervention and continue living out our new sanity? Or will we habituate ourselves to a world more like Orwell’s 1984? Either one is possible. Most discouraging of all, though, is what is probably most likely of all: we won't change much at all. That's what happened after World War One, which was supposed to end all wars, or after 9/11, when people believed that we had become more united as a country. Maybe, in a year from now, we’ll have forgotten the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic and resume our thoughtless slide into resource depletion, climate change, and globalized threats. Please, prove me wrong.