Last week, my mom tested positive for coronavirus. Or COVID-19. Or Covid. Or SARS-CoV-2. Whatever. Both she and my stepfather are symptomatic, calling me from self-isolation inside my childhood home and relaying their temperatures to me while I cook dinner absentmindedly inside my New Haven apartment.
I’ve been living a thousand miles away from my family for years now. People often ask me if moving away has made me distant from my parents, and I dismiss them. “I call them all the time,” I say. “Our conversations are better now because we have so much to update on.” But the pandemic pulls me in all directions: to home, to school and to work, inward and outward. My world is very, very small, almost entirely contained to my 900-square-foot apartment, and the world out there is very, very big.
The selling point of technology — and social media in particular — is that it supposedly makes you feel closer to people, that the world is suddenly small when I can connect to my family scattered across the Midwest, my friends in London and Taipei. But that’s when society is functioning as normal.
Instead, Zoomspace reminds us constantly about distance. Enough of my friendships exist primarily over Twitter that I get surprised when I see someone in person. “Oh, right, that’s how tall you are!” It also forces us to stare not-normal in the face and get used to the not-normalcy of our not-lives. Every time I see a friend in person, we circle around each other like we’re in a boxing match. Relationships that once included long hugs and awkward hand-holding are now rendered distant, even adversarial.
The defining pandemic experience, for me, is that even when with people I feel distant from them. Every time we get closer, it becomes more difficult to ignore the remaining distance. Every time I open the door for my COVID test with my foot, I remember.
People have frequently described the pandemic experience as one of collective trauma. We’ve all received the emails: “I hope you and your family are healthy.” “In these uncertain times…” “Stay safe!” But even as hundreds of thousands have fallen ill or died, it’s difficult to process that trauma. My grandmother passed away in April. I’m sad about it. My parents are sick. I feel anxious about it. My stepsister is pregnant. I feel excited about it. I feel energetic about my classes, joyous at my new friendships, disappointed at my sleep quantity. But more than anything, the trauma of this moment has caused me to shut off those feelings and relegate them to the backburner of the grueling day-to-day malaise.
I wrote this editorial in the middle of this week’s presidential debate. I was planning to write about Trump’s encouragement of white supremacy, or Biden’s ineffectual politics, or the poor moderation. But instead, I’m writing about how I felt while watching it: defeated, even apathetic. There are so many things to care about. So many wounds worth healing, fights worth having and thoughts worth writing. Sometimes, the emotional weight of caring feels like drowning. There’s a Relient K song that repeats the same refrain about apathy: “Being apathetic is a pathetic way to be / But I don’t care.”
Physical distance is traumatic: As social creatures, when isolated from our loved ones, we cannot manage the resulting trauma from that isolation because we cannot connect. This trauma makes it difficult to care. Especially in the context of a pandemic, in an especially contentious election, during an uprising against racial injustice, in a moment in which so many people are struggling with unemployment, with financial insecurity, with loss of family members, we all feel overwhelming grief. We are alone in processing that grief. Perhaps that’s why I felt so unenthused when I received an email asking me to fill out a survey stating whether I sent in my mail-in ballot in a swing state, or why the presidential debate could not hold my interest. Perhaps that’s why it’s felt so difficult to write this column. Nothing happens, and yet everything is falling down around us. Political theater will not save us. Voting isn’t a surefire way out of this moment of grief and pain. In fact, it likely isn’t a way out at all.
It’s become very uncool to write about how awful things are in columns like this one. And even when my columns address hard things, I try to seem optimistic, offer some mechanism for us to find encouragement or hope. But things are still awful, and things are unlikely to get better. I still feel so much despair. I still feel the distance between me and everyone else, the accessibility of Zoom or phone or email a poor substitute for in-person interaction. My parents are still far away. My friends are scattered all over the world. My professor teaches my class from Vienna, and my editors read my writing from France and Singapore.
It’s very uncool to admit a type of misery, to project vulnerability, to remind people of your hurt. But we are all hurting. This moment has rendered us all vulnerable and distant and lonely. It is pathetic to not care. But a day of not caring prepares us for a lifetime of fight.
“I’m well aware that everything is a far cry from alright,” concludes the Relient K song. “Possibly the remedy is a dose of apathy.”
McKINSEY CROZIER is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.