A Eulogy for the Before Times

I’m sure that you are as tired as I am of hearing the phrase “I hope you and your loved ones are well during these unprecedented times”. We are continually looking forward, thinking of what’s next, pondering the wane of the pandemic and the reopening of the economy. For the most part, we’ve stopped asking when things will return to normal, because we know that they won’t, but we now focus our thoughts on the “new normal”.

Amidst all that has happened and is happening so fast, it feels like we have not stopped to look back on what has been lost, lives and livelihoods, connections and experiences. Because of the physical isolation, people have been mourning, but they have been mourning individually. We are prevented from mourning together, and no national or global leader has stepped up to the role of addressing our grief.

So I want to take some time to pause and reflect back on the past, good and bad, the things that have been lost, whose return may never come. I do not claim any uniqueness in my experience, nor do I claim that my grief is any worse than anyone else’s. In fact, I suspect that I have loss less than most. I suspect the same is true for most of my readers. But the fact that there are others who have worse grief than our own is not a reason to discount or neglect our own. With that in mind, I pause and reflect…

At the beginning of the year when the coronavirus was devastating Wuhan, I found myself dizzy and struggling to catch my breath when reading articles about the utter destruction wrought by the crowned plague. Perhaps my body knew before my brain that virus would travel halfway around the world and lay waste to the United States in a way dwarfing its impact in China.

When the lockdowns began, we were too busy to notice. We were distracted by our mad rush to buy toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes. We were distracted by our awkward transitions to working from home or not working at all. We were distracted by our compulsively looking at the numbers and news about the pandemic. Our crippling fear kept our thoughts on the virus and the new aspects of our lives it created. We didn’t think about the aspects of our lives it eliminated. And we didn’t think we had to, with the naive expectation that the virus would be gone in four weeks and that life would return to the way it was before. And as the lockdowns and changes continued to get extended, bit by bit, to today, we still didn’t stop and look back.

We are now three months into the pandemic lockdown. In addition to the health crisis, there is the economic fallout and a racial reckoning four centuries in the making, with mass protests triggered by police brutality. We are often unable to focus on anything. With the future so unknown, it’s difficult to find things to look forward to. We fill with despair, feeling so hopelessly and helplessly alone, isolated from the world just like everyone else. Dante or Sartre would struggle to conceive of a hell as psychologically oppressive as the present state of things, where so much appears to have been needlessly squandered, gone without a trace.

The city is empty. Friends look like strangers. Strangers look like aliens. The false gods of the screens reveal faces in much the same fidelity (or lack thereof) of the shadows in Plato’s cave. Despite these difficulties in finding connections, we still seek them out anyways.

In reopening, whether prudent or not, we think we are getting back to a sense of normal. But as we once again try to do things we once did without a care, we are uncovering how much we have lost and how much longer this new way of living will persist. Reenter an office and barren desks are spaced apart, with disinfectant and signs everywhere. Go to a store and find (spaced) lines to get inside and cashiers behind plexiglass counters. Go to a restaurant and find you have to sign your receipt with a pen from a “clean” jar that you then put into a “dirty” jar for disinfecting. Walk the streets and see other pedestrians wearing masks and keeping their distance.

For me, I think it first really hit when I received an email from the operations team at work, requiring that I go into the office and take home any personal items that weren’t strictly necessary. The logic was simple: if someone tested positive, the office needed to be closed for disinfecting. A desk with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor would take a few minutes to clean. A desk covered in trinkets and other items would take significantly longer. I was on a video call with my manager discussing the logistics when I made the connection: wow, this is going to last a really long time and things are going to be permanently different.

The things on my desk were tokens of my experience at the office, collections from and for interactions with my coworkers for fun and for work. Tea leaves for a break in the kitchen, talking with whomever happens to be there. A glencairn for Whiskeylabs or Club Whiskey. Little 3D printed and painted geese from goose paint night. A lab coat to keep my clothes clean while around resins or solvents or oils. All of these experiences would be gone for a while longer, postponed until the world emerges and collects itself. I would not see or talk to a lot of coworkers and friends for a very long time. Passing in the hall, passing at the water cooler could no longer happen. Many faces I saw outside my direct work group would effectively disappear.

Finally realizing all that had been missing up until that point, previously distracted by adjusting to a different world, and realizing that the loss would continue indefinitely, I found myself almost crying. Talking to my manager, I stopped mid-sentence, having lost my train of thought, another thing lost but in this case recovered within a few seconds.

Recently, I was scrolling through photos on my phone. Knocking on doors, canvassing with friends. Poker nights. Ax throwing for a friend’s birthday. Sharing cookies with my team. Holiday parties. Ringing in the new year at a bar with friends. Family get togethers. Traveling across the country. Traveling across the world. These things may not happen again for another year, or at the very least they will be drastically different in practice.

The world is different now. While there may be opportunities to craft a better world in the future than we had in the before times, the world we have now is worse and will continue to be for some time.

A lot has been lost. We are in a dark moment together, apart. And while it is important to mourn our losses individually and collectively, it is also important to take stock in what we still have and what silver linings have come from this pandemic. Communities have banded together to support one another. Americans of all stripes are becoming aware of racial (and other) injustices that have existed for some time and are rising up to do something about it. People have given their time and effort and money support those who need it most.

And while in this kind of a pandemic it is easy for a small number of bad actors—from the selfish citizen not wearing a mask or not social distancing to the president of the United States doing all he can to further spread the virus without a plan—to destroy the efforts of those doing their part to limit the spread of and mitigate the effect of the virus, nonetheless the actions of so many are in the right direction. We persevere because we must, and we work to emerge stronger so that our losses are not in vain.

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