I recently read (and loved!) Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, which, among many, many other things, chronicles the British World War II experience. At one point the protagonist, Ursula, reflects, “It was the enormity of war…it sent you scrabbling for ways to think about it.” The passage struck me, because I realize I’ve spent the last six months trying to frame the pandemic in the same way, trying out different puzzle pieces, standing back and looking critically, grasping to understand my role in all of this. So here are a few of the analogies with which I’ve been scrabbling:
The Different Paths of the Saints
In this season of tumult and danger, you may find your family called to keep close to home, to sacrifice the pleasures of a life in the world for the safety of a life confined to home. We can look to our faith for a guide — for every St. Teresa of Calcutta, out in the streets effecting change, there is a St. Thérèse of Lisieux, changing hearts from within her enclosure. I am willing to accept that as the body of Christ, we have different roles to play. Priests have sacraments to administer, trained medical workers have healing to offer, but I’m not convinced people in every situation have much to offer in-person that offsets the complications their mingling entails. In this situation, sometimes the best you can contribute to the heroism of others is to get out of the way.
The Longing for a United Front
Early in the pandemic, I found the London Blitz a really compelling and inspiring analogy, with its rich mood of pitching in, planting gardens, volunteering and keeping each other safe — the sort of public spiritedness that fueled us through the spring and early summer. Now, I find the comparison less helpful, because for those of us still mostly at home, the work is so invisible, that it can seem like you’re all alone, because your path is by default a quiet one. You see the friends posting splashy pictures of their adventurous outings, but you rarely see when someone is still quietly plugging away at home. But we are out here — or rather, not out there, but still mostly shuttered up at home.
The Risk Budget
I came across this analogy first articulated in a New York Times opinion piece I can’t find now (of course!), but the Washington Post has a similar introduction to the concept. While the term was new, the idea was familiar to me because I’ve been operating under the idea of Pregnancy Danger Points for some time now. The concept of a risk budget, when applied to pregnancy, goes something like this: maybe a pregnant woman chooses an epidural or anti-nausea medication or SSRIs or lots of air travel or an occasional glass of wine or sushi or lunch meat or…, but probably she doesn’t choose all of them in large quantities because each one is another risk she’s assuming. And while it’s not like at the midwife you’re doled out, say, 37 Pregnancy Danger Points to use before your next appointment, there is some sense that each risk you choose should make each other risk a little harder to justify.
So, it’s similar with coronavirus. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, as in, my kids are in the classroom now so WHO EVEN CARES we should just live our lives normally because it’s easier not to seriously entertain the idea that our choices put us and others in danger. But it is a proposition where each family may determine a different sized risk budget, based on things like whether they have an immunocompromised family member. And in determining that risk budget, each family will certainly make different decisions on how to spend theirs. For instance: to me, organized sports right now are just an unbelievably dumb risk. But guess what! I am sports-illiterate at the best of times, so obviously that wouldn’t be a priority for me. On the other hand, because my husband is working from home this semester and my kids are already homeschooled, I may be comfortable with our kids seeing grandparents after an appropriate quarantine, while this may be too big a risk for you, if you must spend much of your risk budget on exposures for education or career.
Being the Coronavirus Designated Driver
Staying home increasingly feels like being the designated driver at the party as everyone else gets hilariously drunk and you grow both worried and impatient. It’s not a fun place to be, in high school or now, to feel cast in the role of disapproving stick-in-the-mud, raining on everyone’s parade. There are no breathalyzers for this pandemic, no hard and fast way to determine what is safe behavior and what is sheer recklessness. If you choose a different, more cautious line than your friends — well, like the friends you still talk to from high school, they’re going to still be your friends on the other side of this even if they are comfortable with a bit more risk. Wherever you fall on the risk spectrum, it is certain we all need to offer each other even more grace than usual as we navigate these unusual times.
And here’s the thing about being a designated driver. Even if I’m the only one (and I’m not, of course, by a long shot), even if none of the drinkers are impressed or grateful about me sitting this one out — or even if the the drinkers really aren’t dangerously drunk after all — I’m still helping. Maybe you’re still helping, too. You’re one fewer person who might infect my granny, one fewer person who might need a hospital bed right when that essential worker falls too ill to recover at home. It’s true — maybe we’ll all look back and laugh at people like me, and maybe my kids will be bitter about that year of missed co-op and I’ll carry my Quarantimes jaw pain flareup straight into our recovered world, all for nothing. But it’s important to me to be able to look back on this strange, hard time and know I was trying my very best — just as I’m sure it is for you, too.
What analogies have you found most helpful for understanding the pandemic?