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first person

Illustration by Wenting Li

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I was on my back porch today talking with a friend who sat two metres away. When she left, I wiped down the plastic chair she was sitting in with rubbing alcohol and washed my hands vigorously even though I hadn’t touched her. I debated offering her one of the Alison Roman cookies I had baked the night before, but we decided against it. Too risky. I haven’t sat and talked in person with a friend in weeks. It felt like a breath of fresh air. Most of our conversation was about the virus, how our family and friends were coping, and trying to predict what the future will look like. Many of these things are topics I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about, but it felt good to hash things out and make some sort of sense of it all. It felt especially good to talk to someone my own age.

Talking to my parents and their friends (virtually) about all of this has been important, but strange. I keep finding myself questioning their perception of the world. They keep saying things like, “I just can’t believe it,” “This is the craziest thing,” and “This feels so unreal.” I keep wondering why my parents are so surprised. Didn’t they know that the world is always changing, that existence as we know it can change on a dime? Didn’t they know that death lingered around the corner for all of us? But as I sat on my porch, with my similarly 20-year-old friend, I realized an important difference between our generation, and our parents. We have grown up in a world of catastrophe.

I was two years old when terrorists flew planes into New York’s World Trade Center. My uncle lived in a building a couple blocks away from the attack and my parents were on the phone with him as the second plane hit. He watched out his window, with a perfect view of the twin towers, as it flew into the building and exploded. Up until that point they had assumed that the first plane was an accident. I learned the sentence, “Oh my God,” that day. My parents told me I spent the next couple days toddling around our apartment exclaiming, “Oh my God,” as everyone around the world did the same. This event was one of the most shocking things that had ever happened to my parents. With 2,996 killed, it was the first major act of terrorism that had occurred in North America in my parents’ lifetime. It was the first in my lifetime, too.

I’ve been witness to a lot of my parents’ firsts. I’ve witnessed the rise in mass shootings, along with terrorism and populism around the world. I was in Grade 12 when Donald Trump was elected president. I watched as people around me stood horrified and ashen faced as the votes came in. Someone like Trump had never been elected in America. I’ve seen the spike in wildfires, I’ve watched time-lapses and videos of the polar ice caps melting. Hundreds of animals have gone extinct in my lifetime. As a child, I climbed up the CN Tower staircase in a World Wildlife Fund fundraiser three years in a row in hopes that I would save my favourite animal, the polar bear, from disappearing from this Earth forever. I’ve heard the words “for the first time in history” over and over again. I am used to seeing the world dramatically change in an instant.

While all of this was happening, cultural traditions and practises have been changing. I’ve grown up in a world where people question God, their governments, gender roles and the gender binary. The list goes on. I have grown up expecting instability and change.

When my dad and I walked down the street with our dog recently, he exclaimed, yet again, how weird this all is, and how much he felt like he was in an apocalypse movie. I told him that as strange as it was, something about it felt right to me. This apocalyptic, scary, weird, world feels like the world I’ve been preparing to live in my whole life. It feels like finally the image on the outside reflects what’s been going on on the inside. He looked at me and said that made him sad. It is sad. And its also scary.

Every generation deals with fear. Being 20 has always been an age of uncertainty and doubt. It’s an age of rebellion and exploration. But I don’t feel like I have anything concrete to rebel against. Everyone around me is scared. Everyone around me is just as uncertain as I am. So what do we do in a world where no one knows the answers? All I know is that fear makes for action. People are scared, so people are staying home. People are scared, so people are stocking up on toilet paper. People are scared, so they are finding new ways to celebrate. Fear motivates.

Many scientists have warned that something like this would happen. That we wouldn’t see it coming. Many scientist have warned that this is only the beginning of these kinds of catastrophes. They’ve warned that pandemics could become much more common.

Okay Boomer, this is the new normal, and you’ve been the ones who have prepared us for it. You taught us about climate change and let us watch the news. You gave us smartphones when our brains were developing and encouraged us to go to the Women’s March. You wrote bestseller after bestseller about apocalyptic societies and produced billion-dollar movies and TV shows about resource scarce worlds not so different from our own. You prepared us to expect this. My generation saw this coming from a million miles away. So why are you so surprised?

Georgia Noble Irwin lives in Toronto.