This Is Our Trial

A man in a surgical mask walks by an illuminated American flag in Manhattan, March 13, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Maybe we have to endure this bad time to fully appreciate the good times.

We’ve been through difficult and scary times before, like 9/11 and the Great Recession, but we’ve never faced anything quite like this. Not even terrorist attacks or a severe economic downturn forced us to close schools for weeks or months at a time, effectively end spring-semester classes at colleges and universities, make millions of Americans work from home, suspend sports seasons, and quarantine millions of Americans in their homes. In past crises, we at least had the option of dealing with the fear by coming together: at Masses in churches and gatherings in synagogues, in public ceremonies and events, in bars and restaurants. One of the better ways to cope with a scary situation is to know you’re not alone, that lots of other people are in the same circumstance, and to be around them. Chinese coronavirus has taken even that from us. Now interacting with people has turned into something potentially dangerous.

Because of a live-animal market in Wuhan, China, our lives are turned upside down. We fear for our elderly relatives and immunocompromised friends. We wonder how our health-care systems will handle the influx of cases. We wonder if our medications and medical devices will be available in a few months, or whether the supply chain will be too disrupted. And we wonder how much economic pain is coming down the tracks.

Let’s hope that almost all of us will come through this with nothing more than minor inconveniences, symptoms no worse than a mild flu, a disrupted school year, a lot of debates about who would have won March Madness if it had been played, and a bit of stir-craziness from being at home so long. But when we get to the other side, this experience is likely to have changed us.

Many of us are getting a hard lesson in our ability to assess threats. Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert mocked the advice to keep a safe distance from people, joking around by touching every microphone and recording device before him during a press conference last week. No one in the room freaked out or rebuked him; following all the new rules and precautions seemed like a case of nervous Nellies overreacting. But Gobert tested positive for the virus two days later, which forced the cancellation of that night’s game. Later that night, the NBA suspended the season. The next day, Gobert declared on Instagram, “I would like to publicly apologize to the people that I may have endangered. At the time, I had no idea I was even infected. I was careless and make no excuse. I hope my story serves as a warning and causes everyone to take this seriously.”

We want to laugh in the face of danger and demonstrate our fearlessness. Sometimes fate punishes us for taking comfort in denial. Many of us may be a little more cautious after the coronavirus passes.

How are we to make sense of the fact that something so small that it can’t be seen, from a place few of us had heard of six months ago, could carry such dire consequences for so many people around the world?

I’ve been thinking about a YouTube video that offered a lengthy — four-and-half-hour — analysis of Twin Peaks and the works of filmmaker David Lynch. In the video posted back in October, the creator of the YouTube Channel Twin Perfect said that Lynch aimed to illustrate a philosophical point when he contrasted scary, often bloody and violent darkness with cozy, idyllic portraits of small-town American life:

Why does Lynch mix the macabre and the mundane in his art? It’s not to highlight the macabre — it’s to highlight both in order to give us an appreciation for the beauty of the mundane. It’s to find the balance point in any situation, and for Lynch, this makes the macabre beautiful, too. What is the white picket fence on its own? We need to see the creepy crawlies under the surface, and this will give us the contrast we need to appreciate the white picket fence . . .

I think this is the key to Lynch’s love of the 1950s.  World War II had just ended, people had just been through hell, so there was a real appreciation for the safe and wholesome, with a pop culture modern audiences would consider to be boring; the darker and more horrific a situation you put someone into, the more beautiful “boring” becomes in contrast.

The analysis continues, looking at Lynch’s film Blue Velvet:

Jeffrey is a clean-cut kid who only knows the tranquility of green lawns and white picket fences, but when he naïvely thinks he can crack the Hardy Boys’ Case of the Severed Ear, he embarks on a nightmare journey through darkness, and in doing so, discovers the darkness in himself. Only then is he able to truly appreciate the beauty of his dull, boring, suburban life. You need to face the full extent of darkness so that you can appreciate the simple bliss of coffee and pie with your loved ones.

Maybe this is what we’re in for: something terrible that, once we’ve endured it, leaves us better able to appreciate what is good. Right now, it looks as though we’re going to witness frightening reports of increasing numbers of sick people around the globe. We hope that number of victims rises only slowly and then finally stops. Already, we know we are not going to forget this — the bizarre runs on toilet paper, the 2,000-point swings in the stock market, the obsession with Purell and hand-washing — and the sneaking suspicion that before this, most people just didn’t wash their hands nearly as often as they should.

Normal life in America suddenly screeched nearly to a halt last week. And even though normal life pre-coronavirus was far from perfect, we will soon miss it, if we don’t already.

The “good life” as defined by much of modern America isn’t always that exciting. Jobs can turn into drudgery. The ones we love the most in our family can get on our nerves, and we can bicker and fight. We dream of taking that big trip, and then end up dealing with all kinds of snafus as we gallivant across the country. We go to a party and find ourselves meeting that guy who just won’t shut up. The pre-coronavirus rules of social interaction meant dealing with a lot of people we would prefer to avoid.

The coronavirus is here, and it has sentenced most of us to anywhere from a few weeks to several months of a situation we’d much prefer to avoid. No classes, no hanging around with coworkers, no PTA meetings, no Little League or youth soccer, no going out with buddies to the ball game or concert, never or rarely going to the movies. Visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s house are becoming calculated risks. Few of us will be experiencing the joys and inconveniences of air travel. No family reunions, no in-person conferences . . . Perhaps we’ll once again go to the beach as summer approaches, but maybe we’ll still be keeping our distance.

By the time we get through all of this, we will have started to miss all of that social contact, warts and all. If things take a turn for the better, in a few months, we’ll all feel that we’ve had a sufficient encounter with “the full extent of darkness,” and we’ll be left appreciating the simple bliss of coffee and pie with our loved ones.

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