Hope is the thing with the feathers
On the fleetingness of joy and the illusion of control
Things look calm right now. They may even stay that way—but we won’t know for sure for a good long while.
That, above, is the subhed of a very ominous article delivered to my inbox via the Atlantic newsletter. The article is about Covid, which might be over, but also might not be, and it is on the latter possibility that (the Atlantic insists) we must dwell. Did you think we had come through something, emerging as we are into the first almost-entirely-normal springtime since 2020? Oh, you sweet summer child.
“I would hope our standard for saying that we’ve succeeded and that we don’t need to do more is not, Are we doing better than some of the highest-mortality years in history?” sniffs a quoted expert, before this kicker from the writer: "Perhaps the better question is why we’re settling for the status quo—a period of possible stability that may be less a relief and more a burden we’ve permanently stuck ourselves with."
I have questions of my own (settling???) but look, let's answer this one. Let's suppose for a second that we are, indeed, unwittingly making do with a "period of possible stability that may be less a relief and more a burden we’ve permanently stuck ourselves with". (Let's also suppose this entire sentence makes any sense at all, even though it doesn't. A "period of possible stability", or a permanent burden: pick one, you can't have both!)
The implicit suggestion here, which at this point seems to be the exclusive purview of a very niche community of people — people for whom either livelihood, identity, or both remains centered on taking Covid seriously — is that we should reject this apparent return of normalcy. You can't trust it. You must remain vigilant, fearful, and dissatisfied. However good right now seems to you, it's not good enough. Do not, under any circumstances, get comfortable.
The idea, I guess, is that if and when disaster strikes, the person who rode out this period on misery cruise control now gets the satisfaction of never having gotten his hopes up. The less you expect, the more you'll be pleased, and all that. But man, what a bleak way to live — and for what? Whatever we do, the virus will do something unpredictable that results in a sudden resurgence of infections, or it won't. The nature of things is such that we won't know what's happening until it has already happened.
Indeed, if anything has become clear over the past three years, it's how much bigger nature is than we are, and how powerless we are to influence it. Truly, we're lucky to be here at all — on a hospitable planet, surrounded by billions of living organisms that could kill us all en masse at any moment but, by the grace of whatever, haven't… yet. The pandemic was a crushing lesson in the limits of both that hospitality and our own control. We survived it, but eventually, another lesson will come. If it's not a new variant, or a new virus, it'll be something else: a tsunami, a hurricane, an earthquake that remakes the entire state of California into a shattered archipelago. One day, the sun itself will burn out!
Obviously, there is a sort of cold comfort, in the face of all this uncertainty, to rage, rage against the temptation of normal joy. To swat hope away the first time it flutters into view. It's a self-protective impulse, a way to spare yourself the disappointment of being happy only to be sad again: I get it. And yet. If things get bad again, who among us intends to be the person sitting there, mask at the ready and arms smugly crossed, saying, "I knew it was too good to be true"? Wouldn’t you rather have lived?
Remember summer 2021, when vaccines were available and masks were off and nobody had even heard of the Delta variant yet? I was in a friend's wedding that June. It is one of my favorite memories, not just from the three-ish years of the pandemic, but ever. It was so beautiful. So beautiful. And this is not just because in that moment, things were, briefly, normal.
It's because very soon after that, they were not.
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