Things We’re (Re-)Learning?

I wonder how the pandemic will change us.

For starters, the economic fallout is already throwing millions of Americans out of work and dramatically increasing the sense of economic insecurity among those who are most vulnerable – but that’s not really what I have in mind writing about in this post. I’m an optimist that once the crisis ends the economy will pick up steam again and new job opportunities – often very different ones – will become available for those who want to work. Skipping right over the all-too-real costs of the economic hiatus resulting from the pandemic, I’m trying to imagine how – and what – attitudes will have changed, and whether the new perspectives will last.

You may have seen articles about how the year-round residents of seasonal playgrounds of the rich are now angry at their wealthy neighbors’ out-of-season returns. Not without reason: in the Hamptons, coastal Maine, Florida and Rhode Island, among other places, year-round residents see well-to-do people now fleeing New York as potential carriers of the virus who might sicken them and overwhelm their modest nearby hospital capacity. In Rhode Island, the National Guard is going house to house looking for New Yorkers. And I know of a family (to whom I’m related at one remove) who fled their urban residence for an island home where they have spent fifty years or more living three or four months a year, only to be told by the local grocers they have known for decades that the (small) island’s only store is uninterested in selling groceries to any non-year-round residents at this time.

Such experiences will not be forgotten, and even where incidents as ugly as that one don’t happen to our relatives or close acquaintances, everybody who owns a second home in a rural area now knows that such reactions can happen. The people who maintain vacation homes and sell groceries in summer communities worry about themselves, too.  Who knew?

In fact, the people who sell groceries – like the UPS drivers and warehouse workers, to say nothing of the big rig drivers and the farmers and food processors – are (with the exception of the island grocer just described) almost as much the heroes of the day as the doctors, nurses, and the hospital administrators and janitorial staffs who directly or indirectly care for the sick at obviously heightened risk to themselves and their families. So in addition to new levels of mutual understanding, for better or worse, between locals and vacation home owners, all of us have a lot of new people to look up to, some of them quite possibly unexpectedly.

More broadly, now that most of us are more or less quarantined with our families, I wonder what people are thinking about how we have habitually spent our time and money. Financial considerations aside, will we go right back to dining out as often, going to sporting events and the movies, and splurging on travel or pretty things, or will this time at home with our families refocus our personal priorities? Has the contemplation of unexpected and universal dangers changed our perspectives about what’s important?

When I was a small child, my mother made sure that my siblings and I each said two prayers every night before going to bed. One was the Lord’s Prayer, the other a simple, readily memorizable rhyming entreaty meant specifically for the very young:

“Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake

I pray the lord my soul to take.”

My mother and father’s generation was far more attuned to the possibility of unexpected deaths – even among the very young – than we have become accustomed to being. They had been raised in the era before most antibiotics were in use and before the the invention of so many of the vaccines that have tamed history’s biggest killers. They had also lived through the Second World War, in which my father fought, and were surrounded by people who remembered the First World War, in which his father fought.  

That children’s prayer was meant to teach us about our own mortality and the unpredictability of life. That lesson, I’m thinking, is now being re-taught to a society that, for the most part, had let it slip: we had wanted to believe that death could now almost always be safely ignored as something that happened only to the very elderly and the exceptionally unlucky.

My guess is that after this crisis ends, we’ll think about lots of things differently, and maybe somewhat less frivolously than we would have had it never happened. And that our new attitudes about what’s actually important – and how to think about others who we might not have thought about before – will last for a good long while.

M.H. Johnston

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