It’s going to get worse

The other day I went for a drive around town, just to clear my head a bit and check out the empty city. For the most part, it looked empty, but ordinary; like being out at dawn before the city wakes up. But there was a notable exception: Starbucks. The lines for Starbucks drive-thru (and I saw three different locations) all stretched down the street, multiple blocks long. I’m not a great estimator of these things, but I’m guessing they were half-hour wait times, at least. 

In that moment, I had a desperate desire to join them in line. I was jealous of all of those people, getting to struggle against that line of cars. I wanted what they had. Not coffee; it was the afternoon. I wanted the line. I wanted to struggle against something tangible, here and now, and overcome it. I wanted to push against something that actually pushes back, not the confusing fog of New Normal. I wanted the satisfaction of being mad at something that makes sense. 

The thing is, compared to most people, I have nothing to complain about. My family and friends are healthy. We’re financially secure, and ready for whatever happens. Our nine-month old is a joy every single day. I have it as good as it gets right now. And yet despite that good fortune – or maybe because of it – for that brief minute in the car, I was so angry and resentful and jealous of everybody in that line and their purposeful struggle against the drive thru. 

I’ve been trying to process that feeling all week. I’m sure it will come back. Unfortunately, I’m worried it’ll become a familiar emotion in this next phase of the COVID crisis for a lot of people.

I’m usually a pretty optimistic person, so this may feel out of character for my usual range of posting – but I’m getting concerned that we’re not psychologically ready for what’s coming next. The future may not be predictable, but people are. I have no idea what’s going to happen with reopening and recovery; but I can say two things pretty confidently about the next six months: 

First: our individual psychology is predictable. If we’re forced to choose between abandoning our ego and self-image, versus turning on each other in order to protect our egos, most of us will turn on each other. In the next six months, we’re going to face that choice an awful lot. That’s problem number one. 

Second: our collective narrative is predictable. The recovery and reopening, when it opens, will proceed a lot more slowly than we can generate narratives about the recovery. And that means the recovery is going to become sports. That’s problem number two. 

This isn’t a shared experience

We’re approaching the end of the beginning of the COVID crisis. By mid-May, we’ll know whether we’ve lost loved ones in the first wave of infection. Most us will know whether or not we still have jobs, if we can still make rent, and what our socially-isolated routine looks like. We’ll have made progress towards a testing plan. The uncertainty will recede a bit. 

But COVID won’t be over. In all likelihood, we’re only like, five percent of the way through. We may make some progress in reopening a little bit; but it’ll feel like stasis. Until we get a real vaccine, we’re going to have to sit tight and get acquainted with this new, temporary normal for a long time. 

Up until now, our COVID experience has been like that sequence in Airplane when the woman having a panic attack keeps gets shaken by an increasingly menacing series of goons. But in a lot of ways, it’s been a unifying experience. We’re all facing the same virus. We’re all in this together. We bang pots and cheer at 7 pm. 

The next phase will be different. We’ll recognize that the COVID crisis is not equal-opportunity, or in fact a shared experience at all. Every facet of income, health, and opportunity advantage, which was already there before the virus, is going to get magnified five-fold in who gets sick and who goes broke. Our early feelings of common cause and cheerful solidarity are going to get seriously tested. As we sit and wait this out, our collective experience will fracture, and our frustration at the world is going to mutate into resentment towards each other. This is the part we’re really not prepared for. 

Post-COVID resentment is going to cut both ways: we’ll become resentful at those who made through better than we did, for obvious reasons, and we’ll also become resentful for people who have it worse than we do – for deeper egotistical reasons. 

After the pandemic’s first wave recedes, our jacked up emotions will stick around. Tiny little inconveniences and provocations are going to drive us crazy. Kierkegaard put in his diary once: “I can cheerfully struggle against a storm… , but the wind blowing a speck of dust into my eye can irritate me so much that I stamp my foot.” The smaller the affront, the more upset we get – because what we’re actually upset about is our inability to cope.

This is a dangerous place to be. It is not a good feeling to watch yourself fall apart from little little things. We feel jealous and resentful of all our friends who appear to be thriving. Paradoxically, we’ll feel just as resentful towards our other friends who are worse off than we are. We hate seeing ourselves struggle against tiny provocations, and grow jealous of our friends who need the most help. Their real struggles make ours feel insignificant and illegitimate, and our ego resents them for it. 

This is an incredibly counterproductive response. So for most us, it happens at a subconscious level – we repress it from reaching our full awareness. So when someone we know is really struggling, we get mad at them, although we aren’t sure why. Over time, we settle into this distorted relationship with everyone around us: everything bad that happens to me is someone else’s fault – and the more you’re struggling, the more it’s your fault specifically. Many of us will spend the next six months in a state like this. 

COVID becomes Sports

Some time this month, we’ll go through a transition in how we experience the pandemic. The daily firehose of breaking news will slow down: “everybody panic” will fade into “hurry up and wait.” As it does, the news cycle will mutate accordingly. Storylines are going to have to create themselves. We’re going to need narratives, characters, and scapegoats. Our COVID experience will no longer be the news channel; it’ll be the sports channel. 

A thing you have to remember about sports is that even when we lose, we still love to watch. (In any given season, all teams but one eventually lose.) When our team wins, we’re happy, because we feel like winners. When our team loses, we’re also secretly happy, because it gives our frustrations a legitimate outlet. Our ego wins either way. That’s why we love watching politics covered like sports, the stock market covered like sports, and now, the COVID crisis covered like sports. 

This isn’t new to COVID; the news channel’s transformation into live sports coverage has been twenty years in the making. Cable news is largely entertainment now; with teams, set plays, scoring, and standings; the internet made it all happen faster. But there is something new about COVID: for the first time since 9/11, or probably even before that, we’ve had a year’s worth of news happen in the span of two weeks. 24 hour news was actually full of news. But as we transition into “hurry up and wait” mode, we’re going to go into withdrawal. 

I wrote several months ago about online mobs, which talked about how two essential clichés about our social media behaviour are really two sides of the same coin. First, “The internet brings out the status-seeking narcissist in us”: we perpetually put on this performance of who we are, which in some sense is for other people, but really it’s for us. We want to feel like that person, and projecting that image to the outside world is how we do that. It’s hard work, and it builds tension. It’s especially hard work during these new post-COVID times, when our egos are under assault and we’re feeling resentful in every possible direction. 

Second, “the internet brings out the angry mob in us;” there’s nothing we love more than a good old fashioned scapegoating, where all come together to nuke somebody. These two forms of behaviour, which seem like they’re at odds with each other, are in fact 100% compatible: the first builds tension; the second releases it. It’s an exhilarating feeling, and it’s going to become our main form of escape during this next new normal. 

Expect a lot of this one the next few months, both in traditional media, social media, and even in our personal lives. We’ll be sitting around, stewing in our own resentment, building up tension: “everything is bad, and it’s someone else’s fault.” Then we’ll come together to release that tension by tearing down a scapegoat: “We found whose fault it is! Awesome!” This’ll discharge tension for a few hours, until the next game tomorrow.

We’ve laid early groundwork for this surreal sports season: at this point we more or less know what teams we’re on, who the starting lineups are, what’s the backstory, and what are the storylines. This is going to be our major source of distraction and identity for a while. 

Meanwhile, the timetable for reopening the world is going to feel increasingly like pro wrestling: 95% imaginary, but maybe 5% real – an optimal amount of forward progress to keep us obsessively engaged, trying to figure out – are we there yet? Are getting somewhere? How about now? What about now? Our rate of media consumption will be 100x faster than the rate at which there’s actual forward progress to report. So the rest of the time, we’ll keep ourselves busy with tension-release storylines. 

I’m sorry for this depressing post (next week will be a much happier one), but this is what I’m worried the next few months are going to be like for a lot of people. This next phase of the pandemic is not going to bring out the best in us, unless we’re especially mindful to avoid slipping into that resentment cycle. Eventually, life will come back to normal; let’s hope we get there with our best selves.