“Why does the sun go on shining?,” sang Karen Carpenter, eons ago. “Why does the sea rush to shore? Don’t they know it’s the end of the world, ‘cause you don’t love me anymore.”
That mournful love ballad, penned by the late Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee, is a beautiful song with one crystalline idea. When we’re suffering personal trauma, we often peer out at the world continuing unabated around us and feel a profound sense of alienation from its quotidian rhythms. Our world just fell apart due to a break-up, maybe, or a major health crisis, or a bereavement, and yet everything beyond ourselves remains painfully oblivious to our trauma.
Restaurants are still packed. Curtains still rise. Roller coasters still climb. Dry cleaners dry clean. Employers expect us to return to work expeditiously. As it goes in the song, “everything’s the same as it was.”
Except me, you think.
In normal times, there is pressure for us to embrace this normalcy, to get over whatever just knocked us for six, to not intrude too much on compassionate but busy friends or family members, to pack away whatever it is we’re feeling and carry on. To stop wondering how life goes on the way it does. To rejoin the herd, gamely pretending to have gained immunity.
These are not normal times. In this era, there’s actually far less of a disconnect between individual trauma and the world outside.
It’s wild. All you have to do is leave the house to go to work, or just walk the dog late at night on empty streets, and you feel that collective sense of dislocation, that awareness of scared humans locked away in boxes in the dark in what passes for a sense of virus-free safety. Some of us are far more at risk than others. But it still seems like everybody is feeling like it’s the end of the world, all at once.
Frankly, it’s hard to find any global comparative in modern times. Wars certainly come to mind, but there have always been places and communities relatively unaffected, somewhere on Earth. Even if bombs were raining down, you could usually find a bar open. You could at least watch a kid playing on a swing-set from your hiding place, or embrace a loved one. While large groups of oppressed humans certainly have suffered far, far worse, together, than the presumably finite and limited threat posed to most of us by COVID-19, right now there is almost no place on the planet that is not sharing the same bad dreams.
Economic trauma is absurdly unequal but it is also relative. And thus shared.
The human fears of pain and death cut across every division we have created for ourselves. They now are writ large. In a global font.
So our current puzzlement is not at all that of Carpenter, whose incomparably truthful and resonant voice resounds through time. We don’t have to wonder why the world is callously continuing as normal, for it clearly is not.
The human world, anyway. Rabbits don’t seem to be too worried.
Flowers still bloom, even if their progress atypically is unchecked by most human eyes. And an opportunistic coyote prowls confidently through the city, unimpeded.
Most of us are amazed by the eye-popping societal changes through which we are living in the here and now.
We’re fascinated by all the photos of shockingly empty plazas and squares, by all those singers confined to basements, by people cheering on their tiny balconies, by families doing lockdown boogies together, by the comparative digital maps of disappeared flights and cruises untaken. All that stuff has one fundamental thing in common: they’re all a portrait of the kind of retreat we never thought could happen to everyone at once.
For somebody whose person and family all are mostly in good health, it can actually seem at times like the collective world has changed far more than our own individual experience. That’s why you see energetic people clamoring to do what they always have done, pointing their laptop camera at their old selves, willing away isolation, straining against confinement, champing at the bit to get back to the way things used to be.
It is always impossible to understand seismic change when it it unfolds around you. But history surely will look back on these weeks, or months, as a paradoxical moment of global connection and isolation. And, maybe, also as an opportunity to better understand and care for each other. This is that rare time when empathic understanding is very much available. Just from at least six feet away. May we not squander this chance.
Nightly newscasts are tough viewing: you see things you never thought you would see in America, like bodies piling up in trucks or a roadblock located where Louisiana meets Texas and state troopers stopping cars. You adjust and then wonder why you just adjusted and wonder if you should adjust back straight away.
At least one news anchor, clearly aware of the cumulative effect of this unsettling distillation of global developments, had departed from neutrality and come up with a very helpful new sign-off: “Don’t forget, we are all in this together.”
Just as well. No other way for us to get through.
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