Do bears have this problem when they emerge from hibernation, blinking in the bright sunlight? Do they worry about how they’re going to behave with the other bears slapping salmon out of the water down by the riverside? Are they ashamed of their matted pelts after months in the cave?
I doubt it. Humans, on the other hand, tend to overthink everything, which gave us both agriculture and the robot vacuum. It’s no wonder that the great reopening we’ve been dreaming of for more than a year is, for many people, also a time of great anxiety.
I find my nerves strung painfully tight, thanks to a year that alternated hypervigilance with long periods staring at the wall. I took my daughter to a huge vaccination clinic in downtown Toronto, and what should have been a joyous occasion – the largest single vaccination event ever – was nearly ruined by an anti-vaxxer who shouted “guinea pigs!” at us. I won’t lie: I felt violence in my heart. Me, a pacifist. The fact that I write this from my desk and not from jail indicates that I’m still fundamentally the same person I was before the pandemic began.
Is that a good thing, though? Later, sitting in a park with some friends, we tried to remember the rules of the conversational road, the weaving and changing lanes that used to be second nature. Had we forgotten how to talk to each other? We decided that we needed a re-entry doula to ease our passage back into society. (I say this with the greatest of respect for doulas, who perform the essential work of smoothing the transition into this world, and out of it.)
But we overcame our awkwardness, and as we joked about what we could be now that we were free again – set decorator! Arborist! Author of bonkbuster novels! – there was a serious undercurrent. A touch of malaise. Had we failed to learn from nature’s teachable moment, I mean year? Had we wasted a perfectly good crisis? What if the problem was not that the world had changed, but that it hadn’t?
It’s a sentiment best captured by Tim Kreider’s essay in The Atlantic about the foolishness of returning to so-called normal: “Relieved of the deforming crush of financial fear, and of the world’s battering demands and expectations, people’s personalities have started to assume their true shape.” An increasing number of people, he says, are noticing that basic American axioms such as the virtue of hard work and the intrinsic value of productivity are nonsense.
That grind, that relentlessness, chewed people up and we were too busy doing pilates to notice. This is a common theme in the recent conversation around the anxiety of re-emergence, and the comfort some people have found in a year at home. If you felt the world before was harsh and unforgiving, if it failed to reward your creativity or even recognize your basic humanity, why would you want to step back into the circus?
You would have to be what the Scottish call a numpty not to feel anxious. Look what we’re re-emerging to: Blast-furnace heat and raging fires and further dire warnings about how little time we have left. The universe has grown tired of gently tapping us on the shoulder and is now delivering a full, open-handed slap to the face.
Things are so bad that billionaires are taking to their space vehicles and heading for planets that no one has yet wiped their feet on. You might want to think of those spaceships as getaway cars, considering how much wealthier billionaires have become during the plague year. There’s one thing the pandemic has given us: robber space barons.
Yet the pandemic has given us more useful things, too. Maybe this is my true nature (optimism meets pacifism, with a side of jokes) trying to valiantly justify its own existence, but it seems to me that we’re starting to pay attention to the cracks. For supporters of progressive politics, which I prefer to think of as “don’t be dirtbags to each other,” hope is on the horizon.
To start with, it took the pandemic to teach us the value of care, for the young and the elderly and those who are unable to look after themselves. It took the pandemic to drag the Liberal government past decades of promises to actually unveil a child-care program. Unfortunately it took the deaths of far too many seniors in long-term care for us to finally question why it’s legal to profit off human misery.
And finally it took the pandemic for our country and our American neighbours to begin to look at racial injustice that corrodes from the past to the present. Would we have had this reckoning in a normal time, when we were all busy with our usual business? I’m not sure.
Perhaps this cave-year wasn’t squandered after all. Re-emerging is not going to be easy, and we’re all going to have to be gentle with each other, as if we all have bad tequila hangovers. “We all have to give ourselves a little grace,” said psychologist Kristen Carpenter, interviewed by CNN. “It’s really important that we try not to judge ourselves for our emotional response to this change. This is objectively really stressful and to have some combination of relief, happiness, fear, or maybe even some anger and frustration is normal.”
Or you could look at it this way: The planet needs a rebirth, and we all get to be doulas.
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