Now that the end of the pandemic is in sight, I’m already beginning to feel nostalgic for it. Not the masks, economic calamity, anxiety, sickness, and death, or the freedom to spend an entire day in pajamas, but an assortment of underappreciated changes, small and large, that this strange year has brought. Some of them are well worth keeping around.
Before the pandemic, we complained endlessly about our impossibly hectic 24/7 lives. Since it began, we’ve complained endlessly about how bored and stressed we are. But the changed circumstances have been at least partly a boon.
One of the pandemic’s great gifts has been the suppression of that most unsettling of all modern afflictions, the fear of missing out. In the BP (Before Pandemic) years, everybody else was having fun, going on great adventures, and generally living the good life, while I was not. Other people—I could see them all the time on social media—were going to fabulous parties I hadn’t been invited to or restaurants I’d never be able to visit. They were getting impressive new jobs. They were hanging out with cool people and vacationing in exotic places. We all know this feeling.
But then the pandemic came, and nobody was going anywhere or doing anything—except for wealthy urbanites who were able to flee to splendid bucolic retreats, who inspired a new genre of real-estate porn. Hardly anybody could get anything that millions of others couldn’t easily purchase online, if they were quick-fingered enough. It was frustrating when Amazon ran out of dumbbells, but it was hard to feel that those who managed to grab a pair were somehow living large. Envy, one of the most corrosive human emotions, took a holiday during the pandemic. Call it the era of No Mo FOMO.
Now I know that the vaguely uneasy feeling I had when I was able to work at home in the BP years was mostly just a variant of FOMO. Who wants to go to the office when there’s nobody there? Like millions of others, I discovered that it was possible to be at least as productive at home while also reclaiming hours of precious free time and incinerating fewer hydrocarbons. FOMO is likely to come surging back, but the retreat from the office is a change that will last, though in what form remains to be seen.
New York Times columnist David Brooks said recently that many people he knows are taking anti-anxiety medications, and I imagine that for some of them one cause is the sudden disappearance of things that generate FOMO—dinner parties, networking, and other social avenues of status and success. Politics and disease have made for a depressing year, yet on the day-to-day level the pandemic has induced a strange calm, as if we lived for a whole year in the aftermath of a blanketing snowstorm. Early in the pandemic, cars disappeared from the streets in my normally quiet suburban neighborhood and their place was taken by people, especially in the afternoon, when they came out for some air after a day of confinement, often clumped together in family groups. The foot traffic has tapered off somewhat since then, but the streets are still lively with people who often nod or wave or stop to chat with one another.
The retreat of old obligations, distractions, and diversions created new space for personal pursuits—in my case, these included reading, gardening, and the (impossible) quest for the perfect golf swing. Exiled from the gym, I took up running, and the tedium drove me to dip into audiobooks, which I had long derided. It was delightful to discover how wrong I had been. And that old promise to myself to widen my repertoire in the kitchen finally came to something. Friends report that they took up things as various as meditation and learning a new language. A business owner said she capitalized on the absence of distractions to zero in on essential profit-making activities. They (and I) appreciated time alone and rethought their priorities and careers, made long-term plans, and renegotiated their relationship with their computers and phones.
One of the biggest changes the pandemic brought involved personal relationships. It put a painful end to most interactions with casual friends, work colleagues, store clerks, and a host of other everyday contacts who make up the great middle ground of life. I miss the attendants at the garage where I used to park a few times a week, even though I knew only one of them by name. (Is small talk like a language that you forget when you don’t speak it regularly?) Yet the pandemic also brought us much closer to the near and the far.
The near were those in our households or pods, with whom we had daily contact (often way too much). It could be trying and tedious, and I felt lucky that I didn’t still have young children at home. (Despite their higher Covid risk level, people over 50 have remained in better spirits than younger adults, researchers have found.) But living for many months in the virtual equivalent of an Antarctic base camp forces you to fresh realizations and accommodations. My wife went back to her part-time retail job several months into the pandemic, but otherwise we were left to fend with each other every waking hour. Like many others, we rediscovered forgotten connections, found new things to enjoy together, and created little rituals to ease our way through the day. And we finally got that mess in the basement cleared out. Others were not so lucky, but according to one study, the divorce rate, already in a downward trend, plunged during the pandemic. (All bets are off, however, once the practical difficulties of divorcing in a plague year are gone).
Oddly, the pandemic also drew many people closer to those who were farthest away. Video conferencing had been possible for years, but the pandemic, with a timely assist from the rise of Zoom, made it a part of everyday life, and, with little else to do and fewer intimates close at hand, people reached out to friends and loved ones far away. The reunion my extended family hadn’t managed to pull off after years of trying finally happened on Zoom. It wasn’t as good as the real thing, but it was a lot better than nothing. It was fun. Before the pandemic, my wife and I were in regular but intermittent contact with our two daughters, who both live half a continent away. Every two or three weeks, occasionally more frequently, we’d talk to one or the other of them on the phone. Once the pandemic hit, it seemed perfectly natural to set up a weekly Zoom call that brought all four of us together. It’s nice to be back together as a family once a week, and the talk flows more easily with all of us present, like banter at a holiday dinner table
One daughter, who is working out West for a year, says that the heightened level of contact with distant friends made her move much easier to bear. Video communication has its frustrations, but singling out people for this kind of connection seems to foster a distinctive kind of intimacy. It breeds an unusual level of clarity and sincerity. A friend who works in IT told me that he had joined three old friends from high school in a biweekly Zoom happy hour. “It has been great. We are better friends than we ever were. Will we continue post-pandemic? TBD.”
“Zoom fatigue” is one of the common complaints of pandemic life, and it certainly will be good to get back to seeing people in the flesh, but video conferencing has been transformational in ways that aren’t easy to appreciate while staring at the four walls of your pandemic bunker. It’s made possible not only a new way to keep in touch but a new freedom to expand our horizons. I’ve “attended” talks on native plants, the politics of fashion, China’s strategic ambitions, and many other topics during the pandemic. In the past, I would have found a million reasons not to go in person, or simply would have been unable to show up because the event was a thousand miles away. Bonus: now I can fold the laundry while being present.
A foreign policy specialist whose BP life was a series of meetings, seminars, and lectures gleefully pointed out during a recent Zoom group lunch that now, if a session is a dud, he doesn’t have to waste his time or struggle to seem attentive. He can simply click “Leave.” By making it easier to come and go, videoconferencing has shifted the calculus of participation. To adapt a phrase from economics, it has lowered the barriers to entry.
These new possibilities of the post-pandemic world are inadequate compensation for the suffering and trauma the virus has inflicted, but they are not the only possibilities. Charitable giving nationwide has jumped. In my town, a church and a synagogue have joined together to raise money to buy meals from struggling restaurants, which are then given to needy people. A local chef who managed to keep his upscale suburban restaurant operating during much of the pandemic regularly opened his kitchen to up-and-coming guest chefs from shuttered downtown restaurants, paying them handsomely. He told me that this year has reminded him of what he hoped for when he became a chef. Night after night, his customers have been full of appreciation and delight. The petty complaints that once clouded his evenings have vanished.
These hopeful signs of fresh empathy could have been stirred by the stark line the pandemic drew between those who were merely inconvenienced and those whose lives were upended, from small business owners to unemployed workers. Congress came to the rescue with two massive bipartisan stimulus bills and a third which, though it received not a single Republican vote in Washington, had the support of 41 percent of Republicans in the country. A small but surprising number of them even said that President Biden’s $1.9 trillion aid package was too small. Consensus has always been a mirage, but more widely shared attitudes and beliefs are reasonable things to aim for in a post-pandemic world.
Things will be different after the pandemic. Let’s make sure that most of them are for the better.
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