I Don’t Want to Survive the Pandemic

I don’t want to survive the pandemic.

I want to live through it.

There is a difference.

To survive the pandemic means life is on hold, and each day is about making it to the end of that day. It’s a reactive existence that doesn’t allow for future planning or big dreams. Or even little dreams. You’re stuck in an oubliette, a prison hole frequently located in the walls or floor of a castle’s upper stories. The prisoner could hear and smell the vibrant life of the castle and all it’s comforts, but the food and the company were out of reach, accessible only by a barred hole in the ceiling far above the prisoner’s head.

That’s pandemic life for a lot of people right now. Seeing the possibility of an active life but not able to participate, remembering what that life was like, hoping to get back to it someday. But today is separate from that life. Today is alone in a long series of todays, unconnected to the past or the future.

Living through the pandemic means life is not on hold. It may be different, but it’s not stopped. It’s an active continuation of who you were before and a preparation for who you intend to be. There is reflection, there is planning, there is preparation, and there is intent.

Of course, in order to live through the pandemic, we must also survive it. That means taking it seriously. Stay home when you can. Go out only when you have to. Wear a mask when you do go out. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Minimize the number of people you interact with, and keep six feet away from those you do socialize with.

This is serious. This is real.

Some people still believe Covid-19 is no worse than the flu. Well, the flu kills between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans during the eight months of flu season each year, depending on the virulence of the strain, how well the vaccine works, and how many people get vaccinated. Over 137,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 in the last six months, and we have at least another 12 to 18 months of it still to go.

Remember how many Americans demanded the government take action after the 9/11 terrorist attack? About 3,000 lives were lost in that attack. Covid-19 has taken 45 times that number, but many American “patriots” are more concerned with their personal right to work out at their gym or have a few drinks at the bar than they are with protecting American lives. Many of those “patriots” also claim to be Christians, yet they’re not willing to endure the discomfort of wearing a cotton mask in order to protect others.

This is serious. And if more people don’t take it seriously, more people will die. It really is that simple.

But I’m trying to be positive with this post. Which is hard to do these days, given the realities we’re dealing with. But denying or ignoring these realities isn’t going to help us survive the pandemic, and it certainly won’t help us live through it.

So let’s look at those realities. Let’s assume you’re doing all you need to do in order to survive the pandemic. You’re staying home as much as possible, you’re washing your hands and not touching your face, you’re wearing your mask when you do go out and you’re social distancing when you occasionally interact with a few other people.

You’re also probably living very differently than you were six months ago, a year ago. This pandemic has forced many of us to slow down, maybe even stop. You wouldn’t have chosen to upend your life completely and try something like this. But it’s what you’ve got now, like it or not, so let’s go with it.

Before the pandemic, many of us were on autopilot. Many of the life choices we’d made were not choices at all, but necessary acts dictated by our circumstances. We worked at the jobs we could find. We lived in our neighborhoods because they were convenient, affordable, or just what was available when we needed a place to live. We went through our days doing what was necessary and expected, without the luxury of taking a step back and thinking critically about whether or not this was the way we wanted to live.

Now is the time to notice what’s changed. It’s as though we were sleepwalking through life, and the pandemic forced us to wake up. Look around. Where are you? Is it where you intended to be? Is this where you want to be?

In 1999 I lost my job unexpectedly. I hadn’t been very happy there, and I’d been looking for employment elsewhere, but politics happened and I was laid off before I could quit. I was let go before I had anything else lined up to replace the income.

I had minimal savings and a mortgage. I lived alone and didn’t share expenses with anyone. I was terrified.

But I was also free to think creatively about my future. A few days after I lost my job I attended a large festival hosted by my denomination, where I met the Dean of Admissions at Boston University School of Theology. I’d thought about going into ministry, and was even taking a couple of classes at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, but the idea of quitting my job and attending graduate school full-time had seemed preposterous.

At least, it had a week earlier. Things were different now.

Several months later I started full-time graduate studies at BU. My life has never been the same since. And I never would have considered that path if I hadn’t been forced out of my regularly scheduled life.

This is the opportunity we all have now. Our lives are changing. The world is changing. It feels a little like we’re the letter squares in a Boggle game, and we’re all flying through the air with no idea where we’re going to land.

But it’s not that random. Consider the path you were on before. Think critically about what aspects about it you liked, and what you didn’t. Take this downtime not to pine away in your own personal oubliette, but to reflect on what you have and what you want.

A common interview question is, “Where do you want to be in five years?” No one answers that question honestly. We always try to figure out what the interviewer wants to hear and mumble something about being in a stable position with room for growth, and something about being a valuable asset to the company. But I challenge you to answer that question honestly now.

Where do you want to be in five years?

Write it down. I’ll wait. No one has to see this but you, so be honest.

Now think about what you need to change in order to get there. Write that down, too, if it will help.

I’m not going to wait for you to do this one, because this is something that should take a while for you to figure out.

Because not only do you have to figure this out for yourself, but you also have to figure out what kind of world you want to live in.

The world you lived in six months ago isn’t going to be there six months from now. This is another difficult reality we have to face, whether we want to or not. This pandemic is going to change the world. And our priorities are going to determine what that world looks like.

Consider the Washington Redskins. They’ve resisted pressure for decades to change their racist name, but are doing it now because the companies that sponsor them have realized that the public will vote with their dollars, and upholding racists symbols is a money-losing proposition.

We’ve got an election coming up. Consider carefully what you want your city, state, and country to value, and vote for the candidates who best represent those values. I know none of the choices are ideal, or even good, but we have to work with what we’ve got.

A lot of government’s focus right now is on getting us back to where we were. But now that we’ve had a chance to step back from that for a moment, it’s worth asking the question: Is going back really the best move?

If we merely survive the pandemic, then all this time of lockdown and restricted activities is lost time. Time we’ll never get back. We’re losing so much already during this pandemic–income, family and social interactions, important milestones–that it’s important not to lose the time, too. That’s something we can control.

And that’s why it’s so important to live through this thing, rather than just survive it.

See you on the other side!