I used to work in low-income senior apartment buildings. In addition to my duties as a landlord, I got to do some fun activities. Our local public transportation agency had a program where they would provide a bus if you had enough interested seniors, and take them to the museum, an afternoon jazz show, a tour of the local tea factory, a trip to the Italian restaurant with the seemingly endless buffet, and the like.
Seniors in low-income communities have typically been through a lot in their lifetimes, and they are still living under the grinding, relentless trauma of poverty. Many were hesitant to spend even the reduced rate bus fair and activity costs. They were worried about spending money on something they might not enjoy. They asked me, over and over, what will it be like?
My mind keeps returning to that plaintive question now. What will it be like has become the question on everyone’s mind. It haunts our national discussions, our private lives, and our dreams. What will it be like when the second wave hits? What will it be like if/when I have to go back to work? What will it be like to find work to go back to? What will it be like to live during an economic depression?
Unfortunately, no one can answer these questions, and we don’t have the option of not finding out.
I’ve written before about tolerating ambiguity as an important life skill that we are all learning and relearning together. Since then, the ambiguity has only grown. Can we open up safely? Can we address the staggering life and death iniquities faced by people of color in modern America? Will another documented instance of shocking police brutality, this time overtly murderous, finally lead to meaningful change? Will there be more legislation to help the states and individuals? Will they extend unemployment?
We aren’t used to this anymore. In 1815, it took news of the Battle of Waterloo four days to travel to London, a distance that can now be covered in about five hours by car. The whole continent was holding its breath. Now we get our information in near real-time. We never have to hold our breath for very long. And our forecasting in a variety of fields has become so sophisticated that we’re downright affronted if we don’t know about a storm ten days in advance. Forecasts in politics and economics are often inaccurate, but having constant access to them makes us feel better.
We no longer know what to do with ourselves when even the experts are careful to tell us that they don’t know what is going to happen. We’ve never lived through such a slow-moving crisis before. The repercussions of changes in policy now, as the country is opening back up, won’t be seen for weeks, even a month.
It’s hard to think of times in modern life when the question of what will it be like has been so central. I think about my nieces when they made the big leap from elementary school into middle school. And I think about that right of passage for Americans lucky enough to have the classic college experience. Moving into a dorm for the first time is still fraught with uncertainty, no matter that the campus has been toured and you’ve gotten to know other freshmen online.
But those are personal transitions and tell us little about something we are experiencing together as a society. I asked my parents, 80 and 81, about the uncertainties of the history they have lived through. My mother remembers an armed flight my father took to an unknown destination (it turned out to be Laos) while he was in the Marine Corps and things were heating up in Southeast Asia. Dad talked about the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And maybe that can help to pinpoint something we are missing, now. Even my oldest siblings were far too young to duck and cover, but I have always marveled at how schools, parents, and children took the practice seriously. The unparalleled power of a nuclear blast was well known by then. The dangers of radiation were well established. How could otherwise intelligent people convince themselves that a school desk would protect them?
But what duck and cover did was to provide a veneer of control to protect teachers and students from their horrifying powerlessness. It was meant to protect the mental health of kids and adults, more than their persons. The feeling that you are doing something to protect yourself, no matter how farfetched, is crucial to the psyche.
That need for a self-protective ritual is manifesting itself in many ways. For some, the mask has become a talisman to protect from illness, despite most of its efficacy being in stopping the wearer from spreading germs. For others, not wearing a mask has become a sort of rain dance for the return to the old normal. An alarming amount of people believe that rejecting vaccines will protect them.
In this, the reckoning for allowing a vacuum of leadership to form in the country, everyone turns to their own magical thinking. If I disinfect my groceries, it can’t happen to me. If I microwave the mail I will be safe. It can’t hurt me if I have enough toilet paper.
And perhaps some of that is a good thing. Rituals like wearing a mask, washing your hands obsessively, and keeping your distance can serve the dual purpose of making us feel a little more in control and having a public health benefit. Other practices, like my weird fixation on being sure to have a full tank of gas as often as possible (yeah, I know) are irrational, but harmless. And of course, some of these superstitions range from merely dangerous to outright malevolent.
Our own personal rain dances say a lot about us. We should choose them with care.
And of course, we have to reckon with the fact that any and all of those rituals don’t make us really safe (though hand-washing and distance are a great start.) Certainly, none of them can rescue us from the uncertainties that haunt us. So far the only answer to the question what will it be like has been that it will be like not knowing.