It feels a bit like that now, as each news update upends best-laid plans. There is a sudden hurry as we set about our tasks. Maybe one last night out to dinner with friends, a movie even, though that, too, feels reckless. City restaurants are more than half empty; some moved tables outside to seize the flukish early spring, offer just enough fresh air to lure diners one more time.
People are talking about what the coronavirus will do to us, but it still feels abstract, waiting upwind. We are taught as children to count the seconds between the lightning flash and the thunder strike, to know how far away the storm is. Funny how it’s the lightning that strikes the tree but it’s the thunder that scares us.
A New York subway car has a sick passenger, probably an overdose; the EMTs are there in an instant, and you’ve never seen a car empty so fast. After 9/11, subway riders actually made eye contact; we’re all in this together, the threat comes from outside.
Now we bow our heads; the threat is each other, and we just want to get home.
What exactly does it take to close a school? One sick student? Five? Or to cancel meetings, suspend service, close up shop? Will the dry cleaner shut down because telecommuters stay in their pajamas? If I am related to someone who works with someone who lives with someone who visited someone who tested positive, am I at risk? Or am I exactly like everyone else who just doesn’t know it yet?
You have to look carefully to see what’s missing from the stores; Clorox, cans of beans, a sense of calm. It’s hard to maintain social distance while stockpiling. So the lines snake back into the aisles, which gives you a chance to ponder: that jar of vitamin C — will that help my immune system? Does chocolate have medicinal value? Which supply chains will most likely be disrupted, and what can’t we live without?
After natural disasters, tornadoes and floods and fires, neighbors and strangers surge into the devastation zones with food, clothing and kindness, an improvised aria of altruism. Our politics may be toxic, our communal life threadbare, but time and again we see a surge of humanity in the face of suffering. Except now the suffering is spread out and invisible.
And what constitutes heroism when everyone is untouchable? It is doctors and nurses and orderlies going to work as usual, in the face of heightened risk to themselves and their families. It is private-sector leaders making hard and costly decisions aimed at slowing the pace of infection. It is researchers and reporters working furiously to spread good information and counter nonsense, to help us all take care of ourselves and each other. It is all of us cutting each other some slack, as we test our resilience and resourcefulness.
How long will it take, I wonder, before we settle on a new normal? No baseball, no concerts, but more time outdoors and alone with ourselves. Fewer parties, more home cooking; a chance to attack that bedside stack of books. Reach out to friends and family we haven’t talked to in years. When we get bored of being scared, how will our risk calculations change, and what will freedom feel like?
We have no idea where this goes, how long it lasts, much less who will be spared — all matters that sit uneasily on a generation accustomed to having a supercomputer in its hands at all times. Caution is wise but control impossible. Lightning could always strike when you least expect it. So for now we feel the wind rising and take heed, then slip inside ourselves to discover what we are truly made of.
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