As the pandemic drags on, everyone shrieks “what next?” Has the world changed forever? Can Humpty Dumpty be repaired? Is the modern industrial cornucopia destroyed leading us into a dark age of want? Anxiety crests not merely because of terrible predictions, but also since all outcomes appear equally probable. Dare we have hope?
The word “dire” has become a pandemic in its own right among talking heads and instant experts. Truly “dire” outcomes have so far, fortunately, remained fictions. The hospital system has not collapsed, people are not dropping dead in the streets, whole towns and industries are not being buried daily. The shape of this disease is not that of world apocalypse.
I suspect that we may look back on this moment as the birth of reoriented individual philosophy, just as the Victorian Belle Epoque was shattered by WWI and the Roaring Twenties collapsed with the stock market. Those events in themselves were bad enough, but what genuinely changed forever were attitudes. After 1917 nobody believed that the march of progress and enlightenment was inevitable; after 1929 the dream that everyone would become millionaires through stocks lay in ashes.
Messianic experts (of which I am not one) predict that future society will change in unimaginable ways. Perhaps equality will reign, health care will rationalize, folks will nurture families, individuals will remold into sanity. The lion will lie down with the lamb, manna will fall from heaven. Me, no. I suspect it will be much like rebuilding after a (minor) earthquake. Rubble cleared, a few vistas completely new, much reconstructed to same appearance but with new inner structure.
Experts also intone that we flounder in the spreading mess of a broken egg that cannot be reconstructed. Global trade, international travel, personal freedom are all about to vanish with the snows of yesteryear. Me, no. I think we merely accelerate the trends that were already clear: brick and mortar retail will reorient to entertainment and sales, for example. Perhaps metered, paid, accountable work from home (as opposed the previous frenzy of unpaid work from home) will become more common. I point out that, so far, populations have not been decimated, few people scarred forever.
In the meantime, a month or so in the worst hit areas has been like life in an offseason vacation resort rather than horrible end of world. Yes, many old people have died, but still a relatively small percentage of elder population, an almost unnoticeable part of the work force and youth. Inconvenience and financial worry have affected just about everybody, but there is still strong belief that normalcy will return sometime soon.
In fact, many supposed society-wide cultural changes are little different than those constantly occurring for all individuals as life events happen. Getting married or divorced, losing or gaining a job, moving out or in, having a child, changing a career, medical emergencies, and so forth are all desperate times for anyone to go through. Anyone deals with stuff like that periodically. We are adaptable creatures.
Ordinary life has an inertia that is hard to change, and which is very tough. A few days or even a month of change is not too hard to accept. We relax, freed from routine and let cares and daily worries subside for a while (although these are soon replaced by others.) But after a while we itch to “get back in the groove” or “get on with it.” And, in most cases, within a short while we do in fact pick up exactly where we left off. Perhaps this massive shut down is different. A lot of stores and restaurants, for example, will never return. But most of those were in difficult straits already _ we should not forget how often similar establishments turn over in the best of times.
Perhaps real changes will be subtle and only take effect over time. People may resist taking on jobs, for example, that require frequent short trips when meetings can be done electronically. Patterns of eating may shift to less fad and more comfort. Even the “ultimate” goals of life may be reevaluated and result in new combinations of drive and purpose. But few of these will occur in a flash of immediate enlightenment.
In this particular pandemic none of the physical plant has been destroyed. Oh, transportation networks have been disrupted, some strongly and possibly forever. Certain stores and restaurants will never return as they were. But the airports and airplanes and ports and boats and roads and railways still exist. Buildings remain strong and usable. Even the subtle inter-weavings of supply chains are available in slightly different form. It is not like a war zone, nor even a hurricane. On the other hand, that was also true in 2008 and 1929.
Fortunately for Northern Hemisphere psyches, the worst seems to have happened at the end of winter. Spring should provide some optimistic rays of hope. Maybe not the worst of times, nor the best of times, but just the normal let’s adapt to whatever happens times. Like always.