Dogs have their sense of smell. Cats can land on their feet. Fish can breathe water and rabbits can multiply like rabbits. What’s a human’s superpower? Is it our big brains, complex language, opposable thumbs? I think it’s our ability to adapt.
Our ability to adapt has enabled us to live everywhere on the globe, dominating all other species, apart from the cockroach. Adaptation means that, no matter what you throw at us, or we throw at each other, wars, plague, pestilence, or climate change, we find a way to survive.
We are in such times right now and are likely to remain. Times that try our souls and test our bodies, not to mention our patience. Times when we must give up our old ways and try something new. Times in which humankind evolves to the next level.
Evolving has been what we have been doing by wearing masks, physical distancing, seeing people by Zoom, getting takeout, and shutting down the economy when the infection rate gets too high. It’s straight out of Darwin. There’s a change in the environment and our species must adapt to survive or it will eventually go extinct.
The change in the environment is one that we brought about by having a globalized economy. Someone eats a bat for breakfast in China, gets infected by a bat-borne virus, and months later the sickness spreads to the whole world. There have been viruses before, but before we had air travel, they couldn’t spread so quickly or so widely. There will be viruses again, even if we develop a vaccine for this one. Others will come along in the same way and spread just as efficiently. The next one might be worse. Global pandemics are here to stay, so we’ll have to get used to them.
When I say we’ll have to get used to them, I mean we’ll have to adapt. We’ve done it before. When our ancestors the cave people faced the ice age, they learned to wear animal skins, they found caves to sleep in at night for warmth, and they discovered how to use fire. There were probably some cavemen who wouldn’t wear animal skins then, just like there are cavemen today who won’t wear masks. They thought it was weird to sleep in a cave then, not out under the beautiful stars, just as we think it’s weird to shop online and get takeout now. They hated fire then, it burned their fingers and the smoke got in their eyes; just as we hate Zoom now and complain about it all the time. But our ancestors devised these adaptations so that subsequent generations could take them for granted as essential components of life. If crude animal skins could become fashion, what might masks become in a couple of generations? If caves could become architecture, what will our descendants do with home delivery? If the discovery of fire could lead to central heating, the steam powered industrial revolution, and fine cuisine, what will we do with Zoom?
We won’t do anything if we cling to the old ways and refuse to adapt. According to Darwin, adaptation occurs by accident when genetic mutations produce variations among descendants. That’s the slow, uncertain way. We humans have been so successful as a species because we utilize our ingenuity to speed up the process. We didn’t have to wait generations to grow fir to survive the ice age; we put on those skins and slept in those caves. We don’t have to wait for genetic mutants to get born with a flap of skin over their faces to act as a sneeze guard; we can put on a mask. We might even develop a technology, now inconceivable, that renders masks, physical distancing and all that unnecessary; but, before we can do so, we would have to accept that it’s necessary. We’ll never do that if we cling to the old ways.
We don’t really have a choice about adaptation. It comes down to adaptation or die. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have feelings about it. Since this is A Field Guide to Feelings, let‘s observe the feelings we have when we adapt. Just what does adaptation feel like?
Well, it feels like we’ve been feeling for the past six months. We go through stages. Some people get stuck, repeat a stage or two, or rush on ahead, only to return. These are the stages I’ve gone through as I’ve adapted:
In the beginning, until March, I was like most people, mildly curious about the epidemic in distant lands, feeling bad for them, but never believing it would come here. Then, when it arrived, thinking I could go on mostly as before, that the recommendations to close down businesses, wear masks, and physical distance were a hyperbolic over-reaction. We would all be just fine if we just settled down and relaxed.
Denial serves the purpose of reducing unnecessary ruckus. There have been viruses before and they fizzled out. You wouldn’t want to shut down the global economy every time someone somewhere gets a sniffle.
Fear and Anxiety
One night while falling asleep I had a vision of death by Coronavirus. I had once seen someone on a ventilator, and it was not pretty. They survived, but at a frightful cost to their health and finances. I imagined that for myself and the people closest to me.
However, the fear of illness or death was not the only thing I’ve been afraid of. I fear the destruction of our economy from shutdowns and the destruction of our political system from the reaction to shutdowns. I’m afraid my favorite restaurants will go broke, all the stores will go bankrupt, and we’ll have no choice but to order from Amazon, who will jack up their prices. Many of my fears turned out to be an over-reaction to my denial. In a week, I went from scoffing at people with masks to wondering if it was safe to touch the mail. Now, I hope I can accurately say I have a healthy respect for the virus, but don’t allow it to carry me away.
Fear may be the most important component to adaptation, for fear tells us there are things that must change. Fear is a warning that more trouble is coming, but it must be distinguished from anxiety over something that is unlikely.
I miss going out to eat, seeing movies, plays, concerts, playing and watching sports, strolling around festivals, and travel. I miss writing in coffee shops, seeing my clients in person, and dinner with friends. I even miss hugs, funerals, and the commute to work. Some of these may return, some have already returned; but all will be changed, they must be changed somewhat if we are to adapt.
Grief, I think, is the thing that puts a check on fear and ensures that we don’t just throw everything out. Grief tells us what’s important and worth preserving. For me, it makes me want to develop a means by which I can do the things I love while still respecting viruses.
Without movies, plays, concerts, sports, festivals, coffee shops, work, and dinner to go to, I had periods when I was bored stiff. Every day was just like every other day. There’s really no excuse for boredom, no more than there is for a kid on summer vacation with a room full of toys to be bored. I can still hear my father say a bored person is a boring person. I think this kind of boredom is actually a manifestation of grief, a clinging to the old ways and an unwillingness to look for new. It’s a need for adaptation that hasn’t gotten a move on.
I wish I could say that adaptation feels exciting. There have been moments, but mostly it’s a hard grind. Connecting for the first time on Zoom was exciting, but then the glitches set it. Hearing that the natural world was beginning to repair when we stayed inside was a thrill, but then we started going out again. Adaptation does not reward us with eureka moments.
I’m definitely one of the lucky ones, as a shrink; I’m very able to work online from home. My business has thrived. However, I’ve had to learn to use video counseling. It’s hard, there are many, many limitations and flaws to overcome. It’s not as easy as opening my office door, seeing the next client in my waiting room, and telling them to come in. Or is it?
The truth is the old way was also inconvenient. Both my client and I had to travel to my office. They would have to avert their eyes when they ran into my last client and dry their eyes before running into my next one. I had to pay for the place. Not least among the inconveniences was the risk of exposure to infectious diseases. When I worked in a large clinic, with hundreds of people going in and out, I could count on getting the flu several times a year. So far, in these past six months, I haven’t gotten sick once. There were inconveniences then, too; it’s just, we were used to them, didn’t recognize them as inconveniences, or thought they were unavoidable.
I’ve had plenty of anger during this time, mostly at a bone-headed federal leadership which refuses to take the virus seriously, support those who have lost their jobs, and then politicize it all so they can pander to their base. I’m also not above giving the stink eye to someone not wearing a mask indoors.
Anger has the function of highlighting the urgency of the issue and enforcing social cohesion. We have anger when we are adapting because this adaption is not something individuals can do alone. We must accept the changes together or they will never come about. Anger should make it costly for individuals to act selfishly. However, if we take our anger too far, it causes others to dig in their heels and assert their independence by not changing.
I step into a store, having forgotten my mask in the car. I can’t stop touching my face. The elbow tap feels awkward. I can’t get on Zoom. I don’t know how to order online. Adaptation introduces new technologies and forces us to learn new skills, none of which we are particularly good at.
The temptation is to return to the old ways, taking a second pass through inconvenience, anger, and denial; but if we hang on and keep on trying, the new way can become second nature.
The Coronavirus pandemic has set off several concurrent pandemics of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and domestic violence, as well as contributing to the civic unrest playing out in our streets. As a therapist, I’ve been very busy helping people stay sane while simultaneously trying to stay sane, myself. I can see where I’ve gone a little bit mad from time to time, overcome by denial, anxiety, grief, boredom, inconvenience, anger, and incompetence; but sanity largely consists of knowing my madnesses and having them curb each other from time to time; so, I think I’ve done OK.
I believe the depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and domestic violence, as well as the civic unrest of the streets that we’ve seen during the pandemic come from two sources. There was the depression, anxiety, substance abuse, domestic violence, and injustice that was present before the pandemic and made worse by the absence of the usual methods of coping. Diversions disappeared, gyms closed, hugging was curtailed, and AA and clinics went online where many could reach them. But the larger part is the result of a kind of learning disability that impedes the acceptance of all the adaptive measures I’ve been talking about. If you don’t want to learn how to adapt to the pandemic, lack access to the technology, or have something that prevents you from using the internet, then you’re going to be left behind, feeling ashamed, and abandoned by all the rest of us. Then, of course you’ll be susceptible to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and domestic violence. You might even want to take to the streets, tear down a statue, or break a few heads.
When I looked for it throughout this time, I was able to find hope. There was selfish hoarding, but there was also people pitching in to help one another. There’s the fear of death, but there is the promise of a vaccine. There’s mass unemployment, but there was some willingness, at some point to support the unemployed.
Hope is something you must have or you would never accept the adaptations. We physically distanced in hopes of flattening the curve. We put on masks in hope of not spreading infections. We fired up the Zoom in hope that it will give us the contact we crave. But hopes are often misplaced. There were many cures that proved to be a hoax. Some states released restrictions too soon, hoping the virus had passed them by. Hopes can be as much a delusion as the denial I started of with.