Thoughts from the Pandemic

I’m not benefiting anyone – especially myself – by pretending I’m okay. The truth is, I’m not.

It isn’t for the reasons you might think. By prudent accident, I left San Francisco just before the pandemic began, and I was able to fly back to Pittsburgh with no trouble. I’m able to socially isolate, I don’t need to pay rent, I don’t need to work, and neither does my partner. We’re staying with my family, none of who are front-line workers. They are also in no financial trouble, because my mom is still employed and getting plenty of work.

None of us are at high risk of complications from the virus, either, if we did manage to get it. Nobody in my house is outside the age range of least risk, nobody is immunocompromised or has any history of lung problems. The likelihood of anyone in my family, including me, dying if they got this virus is around one percent: around the same as any of us dying in a car crash. Definitely within the realm of acceptable risks that we take every day.

So I don’t have to worry about my health or safety, and neither does anyone I know very well, for the foreseeable future. Then what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be productive? It’s not as though I was planning to do anything with the next year besides sit at home and work on accomplishing my personal goals. Being forced to stay home shouldn’t be a hindrance. Why can’t I focus?

I’ve asked myself that question a hundred times, and come up with a hundred answers. Without a professor or boss or client to force me to do it, I’m having a trouble working on my own goals on my own time. I’m having trouble focusing on my work because I benefit from working in a different environment from the one I recreate in, and isolating at home makes it hard to separate the two. I’m used to having a schedule which is exactly the same every day, and now that nobody’s forcing me into doing that, I’m falling into a less healthy, less consistent rhythm.

But none of the solutions I tried, responding to those problems, worked. Because none of those were the real problem.

Oftentimes over the past few months, I’ve been watching a lecture in one of my online classes – that was why I came back here in the first place, so I wouldn’t have to pay SF rent while trying to learn a whole bunch of new skills – and it’s been genuinely interesting. But then, without being able to help it, I’ll think about the rest of the world. And I’ll imagine, because I know they exist – though I’ve listened to as little of the news as possible – the patients who need eight transfusions in a day, not because of any internal or external bleeding, but because the coronavirus is eating their blood faster than their bone marrow can produce it. And I’ll imagine the patients who are breathing their last labored breaths, alone, in tremendous pain, with no friends or family around, no one to hold their hand, because the nurses and doctors must enforce social distancing procedures. And I won’t be able to force myself to focus on my lecture, because how the hell could I, when that’s happening to millions of people around the world?

It doesn’t matter that I don’t know anyone in this situation. Somebody does. Somebody’s loved ones are living like this, dying like this, and there is nothing I can do about it. If I were in a position of power right now, of the sort I hope to attain at some point in the future, I would be providing masks for doctors, buying ventilators for hospitals, paying peoples’ medical bills… or at the very least, not making the horrible decisions that so many people in state and federal offices, and at the heads of major corporations, are making right now.

But I can’t do any of that. And so I sit with my head in my hands, and I sob.

Obviously, that isn’t useful. I can’t get any work done that way. And so, instead, for the past two months, I’ve been shutting down my empathy as hard as I possibly can. But there’s a problem with doing that too. I decided a long time ago I was going to do a very hard thing with my life, and I decided to do it because I care about people. But caring requires empathy, and in absence of that… there’s no longer any reason to do the hard thing. In fact, there’s no reason to do anything; it’s not like I have anything else worthwhile to do with my time. I might as well just not get out of bed.

I’ve been accustomed to having an endless well of motivation, somewhere in me, that I could call upon. If I had trouble forcing myself to do something difficult, I would simply think about how I wanted to stop people from dying, and that would fix it. That’s gone now, and I don’t know how to get it back.

It’s gone because I can’t think about death at all right now without thinking about how it’s happening. That train of thought used to be a motivator, not a paralytic, because my mental image of “death” in general, while bad, was not so horrible as to cause fits of grief-stricken sobbing. But the majority of people who die, don’t die the way people are right now.

It’s not even mostly about the way the coronavirus itself destroys people from the inside out. It’s the fact that everyone who is dying right now, regardless of how, is dying alone. My grandmother died a month ago, of Alzheimer’s, and my grandfather (who had been visiting her every single day for the years she’d been hospitalized) wasn’t even able to be there, on his wife’s final day, to say goodbye. We still haven’t had the funeral. It would be a social gathering.

I can’t think about any of this, but I can’t not think about it. It’s a catch-22, a self-perpetuating system that I haven’t found any way to get out of.

I’ve tried a lot of things, attempting to motivate myself to keep working on my goals without opening the floodgates of my empathy too wide and drowning. I’ve been re-watching the shows that inspired me, re-reading the books that crystallized my heretofore-unwavering faith in humanity, re-listening to the songs that have always brought happy tears to my eyes. But it doesn’t work. Because what I’m feeling can’t be fixed by avoiding it.

People, in general, grieve a lot of different things. Ordinarily we think of grief as coming from losing someone you love; but people can also grieve relationships, connections, places, theoretical futures, ideas. Perhaps it should have been obvious, the patterns of thought, but I didn’t realize until yesterday that I was grieving. Probably because most people don’t grieve on behalf of the entire human race.

Still, it shouldn’t have surprised me that I would. My circle of concern has always contained every sentient being in the universe. And of course I understand, as everyone in every society does, that when a member of a person’s circle of concern dies, that person will grieve, somehow. It’s just unusual, I suppose, for a person to really be so invested in the entire world to grieve over a global pandemic that none of their loved ones have been personally affected by.

As a result, I’m working on letting myself feel whatever I feel, and not bottling it up trying to be productive at the expense of my own mental health. The advice I’ve heard on how to deal with grief in general is helpful, even in a situation it’s not ordinarily applied to. I’m hoping that with the knowledge of what’s actually going on in my skull, I can gradually return to my normal life.

I’ve stopped pretending, to myself and everyone else, that I’m okay. I hope that by telling the truth, I can move past it.

The Problem With Statements of the Form “X is Y”

Cats are mammals.

Gravity is the curvature of spacetime.

Both of these sentences are true. And they both use conjugations of the verb “to be”. But the usage of that verb is very different.

The first sentence is true in the sense that we as humans have defined a category called “mammals”, members of which have certain characteristics, and cats have the required characteristics to put them into that category.

The second sentence is true in the sense that “the curvature of spacetime” describes a thing that exists in the universe, to which we have given the name “gravity”. It’s a literal definition, not a taxonomical categorization.

The problem with these two different uses of “to be” is that people mistake the one for the other. They think that when scientists reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet, it was because they’d learned something new about Pluto, as opposed to having simply revised the definition of a “planet”. But this is incorrect. A planet is whatever humans say a planet is, because the entire purpose of the category is to allow us to talk about “planets” without having to say “celestial bodies that have assumed a roughly spherical shape, orbit a star, and have cleared the space around their orbits” every time.

This isn’t to say that categories are meaningless, or can be defined in any way we please. Because a category is a convenient way of referring to a set of traits, those traits have to be common enough as a complete set to be worth referring to. We shouldn’t define a category to mean “a person with black hair and green eyes”, because those two traits aren’t any more likely to occur together than any other hair/eye color combination, and that set of traits doesn’t imply anything else useful about the person.

It is to say, however, that a category is not a fact about the universe, and that a category can and should be changed to better suit our purposes. Take, for example, the categories “male” and “female”. Most of us are accustomed to using these categories to imply a common combination of gender presentation, chromosomes, and sex characteristics. However, a lot of people have recently been changing these categories. In doing so, they aren’t violating any universal law that says “all masculine-presenting humans must have XY chromosomes”, because there is no such universal law. They are redefining a category that was defined in the first place by English-speaking humans and can be redefined by those same humans.

(Another recent change to categories: birds are reptiles.)

This same problem occurs the other way around: people mistake observations about the universe for human-made categories. I learned to say the phrase “gravity is the curvature of spacetime” when I was 9. It successfully impressed a lot of grownups, but the image in my head was a stretched-out tarp with a ball in the middle. It took nearly a decade for me to actually understand enough physics and math to grasp its real meaning. And when I did, my thought was basically “oh shit, gravity literally is the curvature of spacetime”.

When we talk about facts we understand, we’re not saying riddles or passwords. If somebody who doesn’t have the relevant background knowledge to understand us overhears, they might not realize that what we say is a literal observable fact, which they too can observe if they know where to look, but that doesn’t change it. The unfortunate reality is simply that the conversion from thought to language is not lossless. And until we invent telepathy, it probably never will be. Still, simply knowing the distinction between these two definitions of “X is Y” type sentences was helpful to me, and so I’m passing it on.