I woke up one morning one week into the coronavirus quarantine and wondered if I’d been wrong about it, if it really was the crisis everyone believed it to be. The 5.7 earthquake from the day before had shaken me up and perhaps loosened some of the stubbornness in my soul.
My initial reaction was that the world was overreacting to the new virus. The hysteria confounded me, I kept looking at the numbers, the statistics. It wasn’t good news, no doubt, but it didn’t seem like Armageddon. This attitude of mine stemmed not from apathy, I assure you, but from years of practicing the art of underreaction, an imperative skill for those of us with a propensity for anxiety. Ah, the catastrophizing I used to indulge in over every rumor or report. I don’t mean to say that I fretted over little green men or secret concentration camps built by FEMA. I wasn’t a nut, just slightly more anxious than the average Jane.
Hence, I’ve learned to stop at some mental checkpoints, inspect my own papers, and trace the map for other, less dangerous roads.
If you’ve read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, you might remember a character named May who “takes in things differently than the rest of us do … when you and I hear about some misery out there, it might make us feel bad for a while, but it doesn’t wreck our whole world. It’s like we have built-in protection around our hearts that keeps the pain from overwhelming us. But May—she doesn’t have that. Everything just comes into her—all the suffering out there—and she feels as if it’s happening to her. She can’t tell the difference.”
In an attempt to cope with her sponge-like sensitivity, May constructs a wall of stones behind her house, a miniature of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. In the Holy Land, the Jewish people visit this last remaining wall of the Solomon temple in hopes of unburdening their griefs. After writing them down, they tuck the slips of paper into the wall’s crevices as if giving their sorrows to the wall to lament. Likewise, May scribbles her melancholy onto scraps of paper before rat-holing them into chinks of her wall. In this way, the wall shoulders some of the burden of an overwhelming world.
Years ago, I connected the low-grade nagging in my stomach to the hard-boiled truth that something horrible was happening somewhere to someone every second of the night and day. For me, the world lacked transcendence, the planet claustrophobic with tragedy. As a dear friend opined, “There is something wrong with the world.”
Like May, these dour truths sometimes swamp my senses until I find myself in a similar plight as Mrs. Bennet whose “poor nerves” had been Mr. Bennet’s “constant companion these twenty years.” Lying in bed at night, the ache in my chest spreads like dark liquid down my limbs and under my fingertips. It’s a sensation of bewilderment, a rawness in the muscles. Many might peg me as “thin-skinned” or “touchy,” but Elaine Aron suggests I’m a highly sensitive person, a certified HSP.
Whatever the label, this trait propelled me to look directly in the headlights of the worst this world had to offer. I couldn’t ignore stories lingering on the edges of my understanding. I could feel them there, whispering for me to have a look. How could I find peace with the why if I didn’t know the what?
First came the fascination with the Holocaust in my school years. We learned about the ghettos and concentration camps through lectures and assigned reading. In junior high, we watched the 1981 film The Wave that documented a California teacher’s social experiment to teach his students the lure of fascism.
For some reason, the platform scenes before the gates of Auschwitz or Buchenwald wrenched my heart more than any other detail. The rotting boards creaking underneath the feet of husbands and sons ripped away from wives and daughters, all the clinging to each other during the previous ominous journey undone in an instant.
For a long time, I was unable to eat a bowl of soup without remembering a high school assembly where a lady dressed in orange bellbottoms described her time in a concentration camp.
“The meager soup they fed us,” she cracked into the microphone, “would often be made from the juices that ran off the dead bodies.”
“Rape was a daily experience,” she added. I squirmed in my padded seat.
But the Holocaust was only the beginning. My obsession with the Russian revolution started with Dr. Zhivago and ended with Natan Sharansky’s hunger strike in a Soviet prison. A Tale of Two Cities splashed the violent proletariat of the French Revolution onto the canvas of my mind. I saw the Rwandan genocide through the eyes of Immaculée Ilibagiza as she wasted away for months in a hidden bathroom with nine other refuges. I drew parallels between the mob mentality in Life and Death in Shanghai and the mobs that accosted my own Mormon ancestors in Missouri and Illinois. Most terrifying of all was the odyssey of a Cambodia family during Pol Pot’s regime where paper money was reduced to toilet paper overnight, and the social engineering experiment killed a fourth of the population in four years.
In the summer of 1995, I was teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone who would listen in an idyllic seaside town in Wales. One morning, a man walking his dog on the beach discovered the murdered body of a young girl. A ripple of horror swept through the town. This sort of thing did not happen in Llandudno, Wales, where the worst humanity had to offer was the occasionally rotten egg salad sandwich from the local deli. My companion and I sat with a friend while he raged against God for allowing this to happen to an innocent child. His grief permeated the room.
“How can we just go on with our lives when a little girl was murdered?”
His thick Welsh accent stretched out the vowels in murdered as if lengthening the sounds would somehow explain the word itself.
“We were all safe in our beds while she was being tortured and murdered down on the beach!” His egg-shaped face puckered with misery. Like the character May, he felt the little girl’s suffering in his own bones.
“How can you prattle on about God when a little girl was murdered?” His eyes rolled upwards to the ceiling, as if searching for God in the plaster.
“God didn’t murder the little girl,” I whispered.
The murderer was a six-foot-five monster named Howard Hughes that commandeered the wrath of the town as soon as he was arrested. “Are you coming?” the people called to each other as they ran toward the courthouse. As the guards ushered the man into the building, the crowd booed and screeched at him like cats cornered in a Shanghai alley. I have never witnessed a more bizarre scene.
How do we keep living when children are snatched from backyard tents and murdered on sandy beaches? How do we breathe or eat or think of anything else when a tsunami across the world sweeps away 200,000 people in one big gulp? How do we assign meaning to the little details—how to decorate a room, which movie to watch, dill or sweet pickles—if microscopic antennaed orbs are attaching onto lungs and killing people?
The coronavirus is the world’s latest tragedy. The dialogue swathes us like wraparound skirts. We talk of nothing else, adopting new buzzwords to our vernacular overnight. Social distancing. COVID-19. Stay safe, stay home. Flattening the curve. Shelter in place. Masks became the new fashion with a variety of motifs: pineapples, psychedelic cats, outer space, cows, donuts, classic black, or the American flag. More than just a fashion statement, our decision to wear a mask or abstain reveals our political leanings, our feelings about freedom versus community responsibility.
Daily numbers are tossed to us like candy from a parade float, random and erratic. We scramble around in the heat and pick up the ones we like off the pavement. We might disregard China’s unreliable fatality numbers, but we pay attention to Italy. The projected number of worldwide deaths skyrocket. They shut down the world. Colleges, NBA games, college sports, churches. Then the public schools, restaurants and business deemed “non-essential,” dentists and orthodontics, ballet studios and karate dojos, the clothing stores and my salon. The world collapses like an empty milk container.
The shutdowns jar me to the bone. I feel abandoned by a world already seeped in social distancing because of our usernames and passcodes, our “text before you come” protocols, and the epidemic of ghosting.
I think: We are trying to contain something that cannot be contained.
I think: The world is always in crisis. What is it about this threat that overshadows all else? I know it’s politically incorrect to compare this pandemic to the flu, but people do die of the flu every year and it is just as tragic as dying of COVID19. I look directly in the headlights of COVID-19. And then, like the others, I look away.
Several years ago, my family bivouacked on a blanket to watch Fantasmic, Disneyland’s nightly show on the Rivers of America. For hours, we had traded off sitting on the blanket to reserve front row seats for the performance. When the show began, Kate nestled into my lap to watch the decorated boats pass by with dancing characters, water effects, lasers, and sanguine music.
In the middle of the pyrotechnics, the crowded pavement swayed as if dancing with the music. Wow, how are they making the ground move? I thought, figuring it was somehow part of the show. Afterall, we were at Disneyland. We’d been jostled and cajoled all day long. For all I knew, we could be sitting on a platform of sorts, with gears and a motor embedded in the cement. The rocking motion mirrored so many of our favorite rides. It was only when the lights on the boat went dark, like the flip of a switch, and the music faded away that I realized something was amiss. The world was still.
“Earthquake,” my husband said. “That was an earthquake.” I deadpanned while the kids scrambled to their feet. “Really?” they yipped. Someone on the blanket next to us called out, “Everyone okay?”
Slowly, the crowd stood, pulling our blankets from the ground. No one seemed to be hurt and after about an hour, the staff finished the safety checks on the rides, and the park resumed its humdrum throb of motion. Even Fantasmic restarted but by then, we’d forfeited our front row position.
I wonder how differently I would have reacted if I had been somewhere else during the earthquake. If I’d been suntanning on an oversized towel on a secluded section of the beach or watching Dora the Explorer with Kate in our hotel room. Surely, I would not have mistaken the shaking of my somatic foundation as merely a special effect for a show. The contrast would have been as jarring as Jack Bauer cracking a joke in the middle of his 24 hours of frenzy.
But because I’d just disembarked from the twists of Space Mountain and the theatrics of Michael-Jackson-meets-the-Dark-Crystal in Captain EO, the actual quaking of the solid earth beneath our blanket blended in quite nicely with my prevailing mood.
Do I underreact to the coronavirus because I’m already overstimulated to tragedy, my nerves wired too tight to vibrate from the pluck of a pernicious disease? Have I become conditioned to the rides that drop my stomach and siphon my breath? Is coronavirus just another coaster headache?
Or do I choose to underreact because it’s the only way I can live in this world with my ultra-sensitive skin? Soft-pedaling is my survival weapon in the daily battle between protecting my heart and plowing compassion. I question the COVID-19 restrictions because they seem a moot point in the paradoxes of this life. We prepare food for our families even as others starve. We cheer our kids on the soccer field even as other kids are sold into slavery. We decorate our houses even though one shake of the earth might crack the vases and jolt the pictures from the walls. We hike mountains while others battle crippling diseases. We answer the dentist’s question about flossing even as a virus storms the world. Unless, of course, the dentist office is closed because of the virus.
It has always been like this. We gather the joy and surrender sorrows to the wailing wall. We stare into the headlights of tragedy when necessary but afterwards, look away from the glare to the sunset, the gravel road, the deer bounding through the trees. We mourn with those that mourn and allow their judgements of God. We learn to sway with earthquakes and viruses and our dark history. Mostly, we learn to exist in the heart of the paradox. The scope of human suffering juxtaposed against a simple, perennial hope. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.”
I wake up one morning eight weeks into the coronavirus quarantine and no longer wonder if I’ve been wrong about it. It is both crisis and business as usual.