“A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.”
Last week I noticed that my town’s main street started the daily 8:00 a.m. parade of cars and school buses for the first time in a year. Elementary schoolers, accompanied by dog-walking parents, marched past my window. The nearby basketball courts thrummed once more with the sound of half-court heaves and regular trash talk. The local restaurants were filled with families again.
There’s the sense that our world is slowly sputtering back to life. We’ve caught the first glimpses of dry land, and what a welcome relief that is.
Granted, making it through these past 12 months was one thing; sifting through the aftermath of this will be quite another. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we’re far more vulnerable than we imagined. It’s hit us in all our soft spots, breaking the world down to its most brutal, unseemly joints.
The rich got richer; the poor found themselves either left behind or newly ensnared in a web of evictions and debt relief. The list trails on without end. Never have masks become such powerful political declarations; never has science fallen under fire this quickly; never have we turned in against each other so eagerly. Loved ones passed away. Hospitals scrambled to accommodate the uptick in virus cases. Meanwhile, satellite images revealed the 1,000-mile-long blanket of wildfire smoke smothering entire swaths of the Northern Pacific at the start of this year. At every turn of the corner, either death, dearth, destruction or some combination of the three awaited us. We, with our overblown sense of invincibility, learned the hard lessons of mortality.
At some point during this all, we must have yearned for those simpler pre-2020 times. Pandemic wistfulness had us seeking refuge in the memories of hugs, friends, in-person concerts, even packed highways — of all the lovable messiness to our regular lives.
But nostalgia also wears a pair of rose-tinted glasses. As an impulse that romanticizes and distorts, it’s slightly misleading. The danger of this retrospective mindset is that it threatens to overlook the collective failings — large and small — that the pandemic has shown us. With a growing number of vaccinations, we should have so much to celebrate and even more to learn.
Perhaps half-heartedly lathering the tips of our fingers with soap wasn’t what our kindergarten teachers had in mind when they first taught us basic hygiene. Our past vacations — catching a long-distance flight towards some exotic Pacific island, crisscrossing the skies with our contrails — were probably not as necessary as we made them out to be. Maybe we could have done away with all the hectic commutes and stuffy business meetings much earlier.
We were reacquainted with strange new joys and anguish. We realized the ways in which our individualist, and often admirable, stubbornness can sometimes work against us when terribly misinformed. We set aside, if only temporarily, our myopic impulses for materialism and far-sighted obsessions of career ascendancy only to discover that true fulfillment had been in plain sight all along, perched on the snow-laden branches of the trees or the outstretched arms of our loved ones. What a world of a difference a single hug can make.
The pre-pandemic life — that past we kept trying to return to—was never quite so normal to begin with. Now, then, is the time for reevaluation, reappraisal and reimagining. Now is our time to begin the slow process of healing.
We have before us now the difficult task of figuring out how to move on and, more important, what we’ll remember of this. How do we tell this to the future? What moments from this pandemic — the incompetency, widespread suffering, small and strange acts of kindness — will we choose to preserve, and what story will this make?
Someday when all this has been tucked away into the past, hopefully we’ll look back to these years as a moment of much-needed clarity. Here’s to the hope that, decades from now, it might be a turning point in the plot of all our stories, an end to an old era and the start of something better.
HANWEN ZHANG is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. His column is titled ‘Thoughtful spot.’ Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.