Our apartment window has become a television screen, and we’ve started to name the people we can see when we look out of it, as if they’re characters in a new and still-captivating show. There’s Bruce Wayne, and the Lady with the Floofy Cats, and – dearest to my heart – Shouty French Dad. SFD appears to have approximately 10 children, all of them boys, all of them requiring cheetah levels of exercise every day.
A couple of months ago, in the before-time, I used to roll my eyes at SFD when I heard him yelling at his many children in multiple languages (it did not occur to me, until this moment, that he could probably hear me screaming at my own). Now that’s all changed. He’s still shouty, but I recognize what a good dad he is, as he ties the shoes of the little ones with ragged patience, and plays soccer with the older ones after they leave the apartment for their one hour of prison-yard exercise.
He’s doing the best he can. Or maybe he’s secretly sinking. It’s hard to judge, since the great pandemic see-saw is no respecter of emotional equilibrium. It might see you coping one day, and sobbing in the bathroom behind a locked door the next. What everyone does feel, it seems to me, is raw. Raw and human and fallible, open to the possibilities of catastrophe and grace, all at once.
I’m not going to suggest this crisis has a silver lining, not when medical workers and shop staff and home-care assistants are out there putting their lives on the line, and people with the virus are dying afraid and alone. There is no silver lining, but there is a rare opportunity to see how behaviour changes when it is challenged by a new and terrifying threat. It seems to me that we’ve quickly – but perhaps only temporarily – lost our appetite to strive for perfection.
It’s been astonishing to see human fragility on display on a mass scale, with no shame or scorn. Vulnerability isn’t generally the mode that is most welcome in this world, and even people who say they love Leonard Cohen’s line, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in,” tend to spend most of their time furiously hiding their own cracks from public display.
But now it’s all cracks. Firefighters break down during interviews, nurses sob on their Facebook pages, broadcast anchors reach for the Kleenex. Cory Deburghgraeve, an anesthesiologist who volunteered to do intubations at his Chicago hospital because he’s young and childless, talked about treating people who are isolated and in distress: “I have to find a way to hold it together in order to do this job. I tear up sometimes, and if I do, it can fog up my face shield.”
As parents, we might tear up when thinking about what we’re doing to our children by boxing them inside and trying to teach them ourselves. The more fortunate among us are perhaps realizing what an insane bubble we’d built for our children before, when they were expected to climb ever higher on already-gilded ladders. What was the point? At least now there’s relief in realizing that we can’t name the third prime minister of Canada and don’t care, that math is different now, and somehow harder. We’re all shouty moms and dads, afloat on a sea of anxiety. It’s heartbreaking to read Lydia Kiesling’s account in The Cut of trying to care for her two small children, the older of whom “told me she pretends to have fun so I won’t be mad.”
I find myself perversely heartened by the anti-Instagram world now on display, the messy bookshelves in Zoom calls, the misshapen sourdough loaves, the grey roots, the clueless spouses wandering around pantsless, the wonky pets. It makes you marvel at the energy we spent maintaining the illusion of perfection in the first place.
I am, in particular, drawn down a wormhole where celebrities are their best, weirdest, least-varnished selves. The sight of Joan Collins on Instagram, armed with a spray bottle and wearing leopardskin leggings, will sustain me to the end of days. Helen Mirren shows her bare (and lovely) face to the world in return for a charitable donation. The Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood offers touching pep talks to other people trying to maintain their sobriety in lockdown.
Will any of this beautiful lumpiness manage to survive in the after-world? I have no idea. I tend not to believe anyone who offers prognostications. But we can project what we’d hope to see, if we take advantage of this opportunity and don’t squander it like the dumb apes we are. As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently: “When this storm clears, we may, as do people who have survived a serious illness or accident, see where we were and where we should go in a new light. We may feel free to pursue change in ways that seemed impossible while the ice of the status quo was locked up. We may have a profoundly different sense of ourselves, our communities, our systems of production and our future.”
In other words, we have a mission, should we choose to accept it. My mission is going to start with cutting Shouty French Dad some slack, and myself, too. This is what it looks like to do the best we can, and it’s enough.
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