Right View

There are a couple ways to view what’s going on right now. One starts funny and ends sad. The other starts sad and ends…okay. And not okay as in “meh.” Okay as in, “This is enough to be getting on with.”

And if you’re severely anxious about what’s going on, well…trigger warning.

  • View #1: The first world is getting a crash course in how to be an introvert.

I’ve seen multiple jokes from Twitter, Facebook, etc., about how being an introvert (or a writer!) is incredibly adaptive for COVID-19 quarantine. One tweet cracked me up out loud: “Staying home, talking to no one, working strictly via computer, never going out for evenings or weekends, and hanging out with my cats? I’ve been training for this my whole life!” Another favorite of mine showed a photo of Robert Downey, Jr. with one hand on his chest and his eyes rolled to Heaven as if in gratitude, with the following caption: “I get to say ‘no’ to every invitation? Finally!”

However, being alone all day and stuck indoors has a dark side, as any introvert can tell you. One rather pointed tweet summed it up thusly: “America every weekend until now: ‘I just wanna Netflix and chill.’ America after coronavirus quarantine: ‘OH MY GOD I HAVE TO GET OUT!”

Being home all the time is great…until something forces you to do it 24/7. I’ve had few problems doing it simply because I’ve been an introvert all my life and a writer most of that time. Both those things mean quality alone-time at home. But when I became chronically ill in 2016, I freely admit that I had to renegotiate my aloneness.

Fact is, it was easy to be alone and homebound when I chose to be. It was psychologically freeing to be home alone by choice. I spent all day without the clamoring of other people’s opinions. It was relaxing. The walls never came in on me because, in a word, my home felt cosy, like a blanket I’d wrap around myself.

But when my diagnosis settled into me…when I couldn’t escape it, waking or sleeping…when sharing my body with cancer came to feel like I’d been sentenced to sharing a jail cell with a psychopath for the rest of my life…suddenly my aloneness felt threatening. Claustrophobic. A nonstop sensation of imminent disaster. Joan Didion once wrote of being diagnosed with MS, “I had, at this time, a sharp apprehension…of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife.” I’d have had a very similar reaction upon being diagnosed with MS too, if I hadn’t already been locked in a cage match with cancer.

Introverts by definition have at least one superpower: we’re comfy with our demons. Because there’s no one around us to distract us from our problems, we each develop coping mechanisms for our moments (or days) of overwhelm. But that superpower has a weakness: there are some demons that can make introverts feel horribly crowded. Cancer forced me to reevaluate my level of overwhelm, simply because I started every day partway to overwhelm. Cancer made even my solitary life feel crowded. With cancer, I was never, ever alone.

COVID-19 is now everybody’s demon, whether they’re uniquely suited to face being alone or not. An introvert gets to deal with demons that are oddly comfy, because, well, they’re ours. But not even introverts can say they’re comfy with a pandemic. Because our personal COVID-19 demon could be everyone else’s problem, too. It could be caused by us. That idea by itself is enough to send many introverts into a fit of the screaming mimis. We’re introverts because we want to avoid everyone else. Perversely, a pandemic won’t allow us to. No matter how far apart we stand, we’re still connected to everyone else in a wildly intimate way. Even if we’re already hard-quarantined at home, we’re still breathing the previous fourteen days’ worth of other people’s air. We’ve got other people’s breath on our hands, on our mail, on our food. A pandemic takes away introverts’ sensation of being “free and able” within our carefully crafted solitudes and suddenly makes us feel “ill and unable,” overwhelmed by the possibility of unseen ties to other people that we can do nothing about.

Going from “free and able” to suddenly, shockingly “ill and unable” can be a disastrous freefall of emotion for anyone.

Any human being who grew up reasonably healthy and cared for in the first world has a sense, not of entitlement necessarily, but of expectation: “If I do certain things and live a certain way, I have every reason to expect that I’ll grow old surrounded by family. As long as I stay out of trouble/don’t do drugs/don’t drink too much/etc., I’ll make it to at least my 70s.”

Even without that subconscious expectation, introverts would still make an art form of crafting our life experiences very, very carefully. We’re just more comfortable this way. We curate our life experiences for psychological comfort. In fact, we introverts are sometimes kinda smug about how much better off we’ll be in old age than our extrovert friends because, after all, as long as we’re careful about what and how we interact, we have every reason to believe that cultivating our experiences to avoid stress will directly result in a longer, healthier lifespan.

Unfortunately…that expectation is not true. Not for any of us, introvert or not. Realizing that fact–fully grokking the thought, “I won’t just die someday, I might actually be dying right now, no matter how careful I’ve been”–can be overwhelming. It’s a destabilizing mix of shock, panic, denial, and outright rage that we’re seeing play out all over our TV screens courtesy the world’s extroverts.

The entire first world is getting kicked off the precipice from which they used to command the globe…straight down to the bedrock of being locked within the confines of their own homes…and their own skulls…by a threat they can’t see and can’t control and didn’t even know was there a couple months ago. Being an introvert doesn’t protect anyone from this truth. Extroverts are just being louder about their freakouts.

To all those shocked and terrified by the COVID-19 quarantine, I say: Welcome to what it feels like, not to be an introvert, but to get diagnosed with cancer.

***

  • View #2: The first world is getting a crash course in how to live like a chronically ill person.

Living with chronic illness is a never-ending lesson in how to accept uncertainty. Didion didn’t know if she’d survive her meeting with the stranger. I didn’t know how I’d survive the psychopath. But we both did, through neither fault nor merit of our own. So, after a relatively short while, Didion and I both learned how to accept, not the fear of what might happen, but the uncertainty of it. Would I get through the day relatively functionally? Would I spend the day hobbled? Who knows! No point in fearing it. Live functionally until I can’t, then rest until I can again. Can I get through this quarantine without getting sick? Who knows! No point in fearing it. Fear merely ruins this moment I’m having with my kid.

It’s time to live while I can, and rest when I can’t.

I recognize that I would be far less calm about this if I didn’t have a roof over my head, food in my belly, and a reasonable expectation of being able to maintain those things for the next few months at least. So many people in this country have no idea where those things are going to come from right now.

But the price of my comfort is sending my husband back into his healthcare job day after day…knowing for a fact that he runs an astonishing level of risk. He may very well come home with COVID-19 at some point. He may very well infect me with it. And there’s a disturbingly high chance that he or I (or both) might be hospitalized, or even die of it. Because we both have huge risk factors for complications of the disease.

On my bad days, I’m not scared because of some average possibility I might die. I’m scared because my husband’s odds and mine run somewhere in the one-in-five category. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to think that my daughter might literally become orphaned, alone, in her own home, sometime in the next few weeks or months.

This is not a recipe for sleeping well at night, no matter how nice your house is. And remember, folks, my husband is one of just a handful of people keeping those x-ray and ultrasound machines running for an entire state’s worth of hospitals. Without my husband, your loved ones don’t get diagnosed and treated properly.

We are all interconnected in fearful ways, so many of which are utterly out of our control.

Because of that “out of our control” part, Buddhists often talk about “resting in uncertainty.” What that means is, I need to remove my expectations of what my life is “supposed” to look like. I need to embrace my life as much as I can as it actually happens…even if what happens isn’t great. I need to accept that some days will suck, sometimes very badly. But part and parcel of that acceptance is understanding that, no matter how badly the day sucks, it will change. That’s what “resting in uncertainty” means. It’s knowing that, no matter what the day brings, tomorrow will undoubtedly bring something different. Whether that something is for good or ill is almost kind of irrelevant, especially when we’re talking about chronic illness–because the good and the bad are going to seesaw wildly on any given day.

Let’s be honest here: a chronically ill person’s definition of “good” can be so far below “good” as defined by the rest of the first world that it’s kinda comical. Because of COVID-19, the first world is getting a crash course in what their expectations of “good” should actually look like. And everyone with a TV set or a phone is getting a firsthand view of how fast both the good and the bad can whipsaw on any given day.

So it’s important, not just for the chronically ill, but for all of us, not to place our conscious attention in judgment of whether something is good or bad. We’ll exhaust ourselves utterly by craving one and fearing the other. Instead we need to try to allow our conscious attention to “rest,” ironically, on the one thing that never changes: the very fact that everything will change.

What the first world wants, more than anything, is for everything to go back to exactly the way things were before all this COVID-19 nonsense started. The fact is, we won’t get that. Why? Because everything changed.

But there’s solace even in that cold, hard fact: Everything will change again.

One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to write (and I still update them from time to time) is the set of goodbye letters I wrote to my family in the event of my death from cancer. It was…instructive…to write them. Thank God I didn’t have to use them then, and I pray that COVID-19 doesn’t take over where cancer left off.

There were a lot of brass-tacks instructions in those letters, like how to share laundry duties, how to fight fair, and where the legal paperwork was. And those things required a lot of thought and planning and hard physical work to “finish” one single document (eleven straight hours of paperwork, just to put together the documents I needed to get an appointment to build a revocable trust. There were hours more in tweaks and visits with the lawyer to get to the signing phase. And our estate is “easy”! Do the paperwork now for your loved ones later. You’ll never regret the time or expense).

But I had to think hardest and longest about how I was going to (posthumously) explain to my then-eight-year-old daughter how “good” could eventually come from her mother’s (possible) death:

“Now, remember that part I wrote about change? How it can be scary, and how sometimes change means losing things that you love a lot? Well, a very wise man once said, ‘To change with change is the changeless state.’ What that means is, everything about your life will, sooner or later, change. That means that, yes, good things will eventually go away. But that also means that, yes, the bad things will go away, too…

Sometimes change means losing things that we love a lot. The trick is to see the value in all the changes that come along… [because] sometimes, looking back on those changes that sucked so much at the time, you discover that without those changes, you wouldn’t have become the cool person you are today.

Did it suck for you to lose Infant-You—when your every need was met by your daddy and me? Yeah, I’m sure it did. But look what you got instead: the ability to walk and talk and run.

Did it suck to lose Toddler-You—when you had your mom’s undivided attention all day long? Yeah, I’m sure it did. But look what you got instead: friends and field trips and roller coasters and sleepovers and swimming pools.

Will it suck to lose Kid-You? Yeah, probably. Especially if losing Kid-You is caused by losing your mom. That’s something I never had to go through as a kid. I pray to all that’s holy that you won’t have to. But if you do, I won’t lie. I guarantee that it will suck. I guarantee that you and your daddy will fight a lot as you figure out how to love each other and work with each other without me to smooth the way.

But what you’ll get instead (I hope) is an even bigger, smarter, tougher version of You. You’ll be Young-Lady-You, or even Teenager-You, and you’ll have made it through something that even your daddy can’t say he’s experienced…

Keep that big heart open to the world, too, even if it has hurt you badly. Because the world will continue to hurt and surprise you whether your heart is open or not. The only difference is, if you go in with your heart open to seeing the value in all of life’s changes, you’ll enjoy yourself a whole lot more.”

There will be an end to this COVID-19 craziness, one way or another. After all, that’s the only solace that those who are chronicaly ill have: the craziness will change shape. It may change shape for the better. It may change for the worse. Who knows? No point in fearing it. We’ve learned the hard way to live when we can, and rest when we can’t.

I have no idea what a post-COVID-19 world will look like. I hope it will be better. I hope that, once we’re reasonably safe again, we can take action to fix the systemic problems that resulted in our doing this to ourselves. Because make no mistake, we did. It may have started in China, but COVID-19 could have started anywhere in the world that forces people to earn meager livings in dangerous ways without any form of medical or social safety net. We have a lot of work to do to shore up not just our families, but our species.

In the meantime, we have to see the value in all the changes that come our way.

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