What's Tony Thinking

A Pandemic Gut Check


My friend, Paul Hoffman, called my attention to a splendid essay that captures the strangeness of the present COVID era.

Author Kathryn Shulz’s piece is titled, “How To Make Sense of Our COVID Losses, Big and Small.” As she notes, the losses vary widely, from the death of loved ones to the cancellation of an anticipated trip; from the loss of a job to not seeing work colleagues in person because we are all on Zoom.

Linda and I had planned to be on the Island of Kauai at this time, along with four dear friends. It would have been fun. More than that, it would have been a welcome change from the socked-in conditions in Seattle, where an entire day passes without the sun making a dent in the tent of fog and cloud. But a month ago as Omicron took off the trip was cancelled. Like so many other things over two years now. We all have, Shulz notes, ghost calendars. A lot of things crossed out from last week’s dinner with grandchildren to gatherings with clergy colleagues.

And, yes, me missing a trip to Kauai is nothing really, certainly compared to those who have lost loved ones, who have lost jobs, or the kids and their parents who have lost a couple years of normal schooling.

But that is one of the points Shulz so gracefully makes: how wide the spectrum of loss is. From the essential to the important to the pleasant.

The gradations are real. But so are the losses, all of them. Here’s Shulz:

“Such losses can seem fundamentally incomparable, and indeed most of us have qualms about comparing them. I have been struck, throughout the pandemic, by how conscientiously many people have calibrated their losses, always framing them against the toll of Covid writ large: I’m lucky, no one I love has died; I’m lucky, I haven’t gotten sick; I’m lucky, I didn’t need to be hospitalized; I’m lucky, I wound up in the hospital but I have good health care; at least my family is OK; at least I still have a job; at least I’m not alone.

“These are important and generous reactions. They attend, as we too seldom do, to life’s uneven allocation of suffering, and they remind us to be grateful both for what is going well in our lives and what could be going worse. Still, when we find ourselves counting our blessings this carefully, it is generally because some of them have gone missing. The pandemic has rendered many of us reluctant to lament those lesser losses, even though they reveal a fundamental truth not only about the times we live in but about life in general: We are almost always facing more than one thing at once and therefore feeling more than one thing at once. We feel sympathy together with self-pity, good fortune together with frustration, gratitude together with grief.” (italics added)

Shulz terms these juxtapositions life’s “and-ness.” It’s not just one thing, not only one emotion. It is gratitude and grief, count your blessings and loneliness all at the same time.

If the pandemic has done anything it is to concentrate the juxtapositions, the “and-ness.” I wish I were walking the sands of a beach in Kauai, but I’m healthy and have a home. I am tired of being shut-down again, seeing friends as if on some kind of quota, and yet I have health-care and am fully vaccinated.

Shulz concludes that the “and-ness” of feelings and experience is not just a pandemic phenomenon. It is how life is. The pandemic has only made this more evident. Maybe more poignant.

“There’s no pure form of any significant event in our lives, no single emotion that solely and accurately represents love, or grief, or pandemic. Even at the extremity of experience, life is always busy being many things at once — exhausting and restorative, tedious and exciting, solemn and comic, devastating and fulfilling.

“The trick lies not in sorting out the ‘real’ or ‘relevant’ feelings from the alleged distractions and obfuscations, but in accepting that this constant flux of feeling is not only inevitable, but essential: It is what prevents our happiness from becoming complacent, our anguish from entirely undoing us. The world we live in is infinitely variegated, infinitely complex. To feel that same way, then, is not to be compromised; it is to be complete.”

I remember a friend who on listening to how I was doing (not so well at the time) said, “It’s human to have conflicted feelings.” That felt like a word of grace. Life is seldom (never?) either/ or. Our feelings are a jumble, as conflicted as a dark sky laced with rays of light. When our children got married I was glad and sad, jubilant and apprehensive. Are those tears of joy or tears of sadness? How about both?

Shulz names something most if not all of us experience, now magnified to the 100th power by the pandemic, we’re grumpy and yet grateful, weary and yet, if not determined, at least keeping on.


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