I, like most people in one way or another, am a walking contradiction. On one hand, I deal daily with anxiety, but only with things over which I maintain the fantasy that I have some semblance of control. Grades due at my school and I still have papers to mark? That will keep me up at night. A spat with my stepdaughter? Oh, yeah, I’ll toss and turn over that. I’ll play and replay the scenario in my mind, thinking of what I should have done or said or shouldn’t have done or said until the alarm goes off.
But when it comes to stuff that’s “out there”, stuff that I feel is so far beyond my control that it doesn’t matter what I do, well, that’s a different story. Not that I don’t care about climate change and taking care of the planet. I recycle. I don’t drive a gas guzzler. I have my own grocery bags. But that is so big, I can’t bring myself to get anxious about it because it’s beyond my ability to do more than I can do. Same with crime and giant meteors crashing into the planet and nuclear war. It’s definitely going to happen. Or not. And either way, I can’t do a whole lot about it. So, it doesn’t really change how I live my life.
I have to admit, that’s how I treated COVID-19 at first. I couldn’t understand why there was so much hullabaloo over it. We’ve had virus outbreaks before. Why is this one different? It’s communicable, but so is the flu. So are colds. We don’t shut down the country for those, so why this? Why send my students home? Let’s just wash our hands more and use more sanitizing wipes on the desks and go on about our day. We’ll get sick or we won’t. And, as a healthy guy, outside the at-risk demographics, the chances are that if I do catch it, I’ll be miserable for a while and then get better.
That’s not the point, though, is it? Sure, if I get sick, I should be fine. But my mom and dad are both 85. What if they get sick? Yes, they’re physically healthy for their age, but the key phrase there is for their age. What if I spend too much time in close proximity with them and pass along this virus that is a nuisance to me, but a potential death sentence for them? And no, despite what I once thought, that’s not being melodramatic. I could quote statistics and health experts, but no one needs that. Go on any social media or news site and that’s all you find. Yes, the vast majority of us are in no danger of dying from this outbreak. But our oldest and youngest—our most vulnerable and most precious—are definitely at great risk. And if some of us are, all of us are.
There are other reasons why it’s important, like easing the burden on the healthcare system and lessening the duration and the severity of the outbreak. But those things are just too theoretical for me. I am of the generation for whom 9/11 is an I-remember-where-I-was kind of event. And I remember feeling anger and despair, but not true grief until a full year after the event, when I saw a TV special that ended with footage of the hundreds of posters people had put out in the vain hope that their loved one had somehow escape the devastation and wasn’t able to communicate with them for whatever reason. The camera zoomed in on a picture. As tears flooded my eyes, I realized it was Mary Lou Hague—a person I knew. In that moment, those nearly 3,000 casualties became more than a number I couldn’t comprehend. Each became a son or a daughter or father or mother or husband or wife or significant other or best friend. Each became someone for whom someone grieved.
When you watch as the number of deaths that result from COVID-19 rise around the world, it becomes just that—a number. But rather than thinking of it that way, do what I do when I’m trying to decide whether to complain about the restrictions or, worse yet, ignore them. I picture my mom and dad. How could I forgive myself if I infected them out of hubris and carelessness? How could I forgive someone else if they did the same?
And so, I’m not visiting my parents. Or doing anything or going anywhere that isn’t necessary. I’m staying home when I can and limiting contact with others when I can’t. Is it a nuisance? Sure. Is it worth it? Definitely. If the virus’ spread doesn’t reach pandemic levels here, we will never know if it was because of these precautions. But if we don’t self-quarantine and it does break out, it will be hard to argue that wasn’t the reason. So, to quote the great philosopher Phil Esterhaus of the classic NBC police drama Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.” Or, even better in our situation, let’s be careful not to go out there.