Could the pandemic make us better people?
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been awash in feel-good stories about celebrating essential workers, uplifting local businesses, appreciating what we have — all shining a light on our better angels. A year ago, Kelly Ripa told The Washington Post, “I think we’re all going to be better off for this” because “we’re all being satisfied with less.”
But, if experts in history and science are any guide, this altruism is probably not going to last. We are more likely to put this behind us as soon as possible, dive back into life with abandon and push boundaries. If anything, we will probably be less concerned with what other people think. Carpe diem, baby.
Dorothy Paredes, a 42-year-old Austin resident, has lived with cancer for the past 15 years. The pandemic didn’t fundamentally change her — if anything, it made her more determined to savor every day. “It made me say, ‘Life is short. Things can happen — cancer, covid, whatever,’” she said. “Why are we waiting? Why are we holding back?”
If past is prologue, the deadly flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919 should help us understand how we will navigate the post-covid years. “I think it’s fair to say that people want to forget as soon as possible,” said Laura Spinney, author of “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.” “That is pretty much the pattern for pandemics throughout history. If you talk to public health experts, they talk about us going through this cycle of panic and complacency: We panic when a pandemic declares itself, and then we forget about it as soon as it’s gone.”
In France, where she lives, there are more than 170,000 monuments to World War I. They were built in the 1920s and 1930s, a ubiquitous reminder of the millions who died. But she couldn’t find a single monument to the 1918 pandemic in the country, even though it killed more people — 50 million to 100 million around the world, according to estimates.
How to explain such a discrepancy? Humans make sense of life through compelling stories, explains Spinney — that’s why some events are recorded in our historical memory but others are not. War lends itself to great novels, poetry and movies: It has good and evil, and a more definitive beginning, middle and end — all the components of human drama. Pandemics are harder to understand, and defy simple narratives. Another factor, said Spinney: “Wars destroy people and they destroy infrastructure. It takes much longer to rebound from a war than from a pandemic, which only kills people.”
Historians used to believe that the Roaring Twenties were the rebound from the Great War, but some scholars now consider the pandemic an equally significant factor in the rush to seize the day, to defy fear and death, whether consciously or not. The emphasis was not on introspection, but experience and moving forward. The 1918 flu did launch a number of public health reforms, but was rarely discussed outside of scientific circles.
There’s a chance the 2020 pandemic could be different. “Infectious diseases were the major killer of humanity in 1918,” even before the 1918 flu pandemic, said Spinney. “Since then, they’ve been taken over by the chronic diseases of old age. So that’s a major change in the way that we think about how our lives are going to end and what are our greatest vulnerabilities. We’re far more obsessed with Alzheimer’s than with measles. And you can see that in the vaccine hesitancy movement.” We might remember the coronavirus more because it’s so different from the diseases that usually kill Americans.
Another factor that might help this pandemic buck the trend of being forgettable: computers.
“Anybody with access to the Internet in the world could, if they were so inclined, watch infection rates and death rates in almost real time from the beginning of this pandemic,” Spinney said. “From the very beginning, we’ve had a sense of it as a global phenomenon, at least to much greater extent than in 1918.” In other words: We all have a story this time.
Pennsylvania State University historian Ran Zwigenberg studies trauma in Holocaust survivors and victims of the bombing of Hiroshima. Holocaust survivors struggled to cope with a horrific past; Hiroshima survivors had to live with the ongoing trauma of an uncertain future. “Radiation stayed in the bodies,” said Zwigenberg. “They didn’t know if they were going to get sick. And every time they caught a cold, it was like, ‘Is this it?’”
What they all had in common? “Generally speaking, most people — if they could — tended to embrace life. Not hedonism, but family. To have children, build a future. A lot of them turned inward.” The ones who turned outward embraced activism, bearing witness to give some purpose to what happened to them. And some, of course, were irretrievably broken. The one constant was learning to live with the constant, nagging feeling that the world was an uncertain place.
Still, it’s hard to come to definitive conclusions about how these experiences affect people. “You can’t quantify suffering,” said Zwigenberg.
Paredes and Iram Leon, founding members of the Texas Cancer Survivors Coalition, have lived with fear for years. Paredes was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 26, and Stage 3 ovarian cancer at 36 and then again two years later. Leon, 40, developed a rare brain cancer when he was 30 and was given a 12 percent chance of surviving a decade.
“It’s always, ‘When is it going to happen?’ not if,” said Paredes. “My outlook changed. It became about timeline, deadlines. Everything seemed very rushed.”
Leon said he focused on his young daughter and close friends, but stopped forming new relationships. And everything became the “last” time he’d do anything. “You get some things done, but I’ve lost all future perspective. A friend was talking about my daughter’s high school graduation — she’s 14 now — and I realized I haven’t thought four years in advance since I was 29.”
Cancer didn’t change their basic personalities. Leon thinks it may have softened some of his hard edges; Paredes said it made her a tiny bit less patient with people complaining about life’s minor annoyances. And, in many ways, the pandemic reinforced the sense of urgency both already felt.
There’s an important distinction between living with extreme trauma or life-threatening illness and living with the possibility of getting sick. But, for most Americans, this past year was the first time they were confronted with mortality on a daily basis. The virus spilled out of our televisions, computer screens, social media accounts — amplifying every fear, second-guessing every choice. The instinct to act on the future instead of dwell on the past is very understandable and very human.
Still, diving back into life can also be shortsighted, said Leon. “The problem with ‘seize the day’ is that it shortens your learning span. If you think everything is your last chance, you’re not really paying attention to what you need to learn for the next time. Because you don’t think there’s going to be a next time.”
In early April, the New York Times published a story asserting that “You can be a different person after the pandemic” with some concerted effort — and that the pandemic might offer a push to try it. It sparked a meme among social media users who posted the headline along with a photo of a character who morphs from one persona to another.
Even if we are inclined to use this time as a chance for self-improvement, it’s hard to know if or how the pandemic might really affect us now or in the coming years.
Wiebke Bleidorn and Chris Hopwood are psychologists at the University of California at Davis who study how personalities develop and change. For behavioral scientists, the pandemic — along with other historic events of 2020 — is “a great opportunity because it’s a major life event that we had no control over — it just happened to us,” said Bleidorn.
How any individual responds, of course, depends on what exactly they experienced over the past year, said Hopwood. He has avoided the pandemic’s tragic effects and is looking forward to returning to the world, but “other people who are in the health-care field and have been on the front lines, or who are African Americans dealing with the stresses of Black Lives Matter, or who have lost loved ones, or who are in families where there’s real political divisions — they could really have enduring negative effects of this pandemic.”
Whether and how this alters personality is another question. In theory, there’s an opportunity for positive transformation: Changing habits systematically over time can lead to enduring shifts in outlook. Still, there’s a high bar for what scholars consider permanent change. “A change of behavior that’s not associated with a change in the way you think and feel about yourself, it doesn’t really count from our point of view,” Hopwood said.
Plus, Bleidorn said, most people start out with what scholars call a “set point” — a collection of traits and behaviors that fluctuate in response to specific life events. People typically grow and mature, but usually return to their essential nature.
That doesn’t mean we can’t try to be better.
As a college professor once told Leon: “Learn from someone else’s mistakes. You don’t have enough time to make them all on your own.”
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