Coronavirus Is the Ultimate Wake Up Call. Here’s Why and How To Act On It

It’s just past dawn and I’m standing at the four way stop outside my house. In the early light, cars are slowing, stopping, and turning at a steady pace. A pickup truck rattles in the distance. The driver stops at a light.The weather is unseasonably warm and his windows are down. His worn knuckles dangle from the window. Just as he puts his foot on the gas, a biker rides up the hill panting. The driver coughs and the light turns green. He accelerates and his germs take flight on the wind.

It’s damp outside. The air smells loamy. The scent is of river rocks and then cut grass. It changes sharply in the breeze. The wind moves in tunnels. I consider the upstream, a man preparing to lay fiber optic cable across the street, stopping to talk to his boss on the phone. When he turns his head, his breath mixes with airborne sawdust, pollen and the smoke from a woman wrapped in her bathrobe on her back steps. The wind and its particles flow toward me, but as a city bus approaches, it creates a wake that diverts the germ particles. They drift to the ground feet from where I’m standing.

These are days where germaphobia is encouraged and necessary. We need to be trackable to where our flesh has last touched other flesh. We protect the parts of our bodies that are portals to our insides: the dewy mucous membrane that line our eyes, mouths, and nostrils. We think about all the things we don’t want to think about. Like how scent is actually a material thing and how we’re all physically connecting, disconnecting, reconnecting, and overlapping all the time.

Coronavirus concerns literally all of us. Every single one of us on this planet.

Normally, we live by the gong of breakfast, lunch, dinner, errands, and small fires at work and home. We feel the ever-present buzz of unmet and constantly moving goals and project the stress of this myopia onto the grotesque display that is our presidency and the broken web of a ‘corporocopia’ that enmeshes us. We easily forget about the bigger stuff. The planet. The universe surrounding us.

The fact is this time of COVID19, or the Coronavirus, is a training ground for a much worse scenario. If you don’t get sick, I imagine a lot of people are grateful for the reprieve — the reset button as one friend put it. Aside from all this death and fear, there is a gift.

Now in a time of global stillness, we are forced to think. This is not the dreamt up disaster scenario of doomsday preppers or the temporary reactivity set in motion by a hurricane, tornado, or mass shooting. This is something we are sitting with for months. This is a shift in society, a fissure in the largely unconscious theater of consumption we live in. It’s not necessarily armageddon, not just yet, but we’re being shaken from our complacency like fruit from a thin spry branch holding on until it all comes tumbling down in brittle weather.

We are released from our contrivances.

Our days are circumscribed. What happens from the time we open our eyes to the time we go to sleep is no longer a runaway train. In a way, we are more in control of our lives because we are set to operate within a fixed field of being. We have only ourselves to fill our days with.

We can spend the day slack jawed on social media, as we have done. We can binge watch shows and push down our growing anxieties. And we will do both of those things. But there are too many hours in the day to only do that.

Because we are forced to sit with ourselves and those closest to us, we are released from our contrivances. There’s a video going around of a young reporter living with her parents delivering the news from her kitchen when her dad walks down the hall pulling a t-shirt down around his big belly and she’s mortified. She is standing there being professional when her dad walks in ruining it with a raw dose of reality. The masks are off, so to speak. We are being told to put on medical masks but our social masks are crumbling.

I am fascinated watching Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Trevor Noah, all without the high production value they’re used to. Of all the celebrities, comedians trade on honesty but they do so from a high perch of money, power, and glamour. Now they are much more vulnerable. In fact some people look like they are falling apart. It makes me think of that Us magazine feature, “They’re Just Like Us!’ which I always found absurd, but here we are. These larger than life characters are blending their family selves, their anxieties, their performative selves, and their messy living rooms.

They’re being produced and introduced by their kids with wires and cables criss crossing on their living room rugs, with bookshelves and design choices in full view, with family members in the room and without the Instagram airbrush apps and seemingly without household help who have probably gone home to care for their own families. These comedians were never about contorting their tummies and puckering their lips like an Instagram influencer but it’s still a jarring difference. It doesn’t matter how famous they are, they can only be so polished without a full production crew. The mask has slid.

I find it a bit of a relief that all of our plans are canceled, and nobody gets to go out. FOMO is on hold. For once we are shown for what we really are, all up shit’s creek without a paddle. Some of us with infinity pools. Some of us barely making ends meet. But we breathe the same breath.

The next morning, I look up to see two balls of light shining in the center of downtown. One is the sun. The other is its reflection off a building. It takes me a while to understand what I see. For a minute it feels like I’m in a sci-fi movie.

I think about how science fiction is a way of contemplating extremes by looking deeply and singularly at one stata of reality. The fact is, we’ve been living in social isolation for a long while now. Our production of the social self has been obscuring humanity, a trick of the light. Without all of the performative tools and social tricks, there is no greater than or lesser than. Coronavirus concerns literally all of us. Every single one of us on this planet. With the whole world focused on the same thing, it’s harder to avoid the fact that we are all connected.

  1. Educate Our Kids Our Way — We can rethink education. Since we are not throwing our kids into one supervised activity after another, we can stop and think about vital life skills, not just the ones that can be replaced by the bots. We can work on skills like empathy, creativity, consciousness, and fixing the planet’s humongous problems. We might not all be able to homeschool as a lifestyle, or want to but we have a moment here to consider what our kids are learning in the leisurely way we once did when we were dreaming up a family. Before the reality of screen time, spills, and sheer exhaustion took over. We don’t have to be slaves to Common Core or No Child Left Behind or a ridiculous amount of homework and pressure to succeed. We can work to give our kids back the joy of learning that only comes from an internal place of curiosity we rob them of when we are forced to constantly meet so-called standards.

2. Get Back To Those Personal Goals — Since we have to self-manage our time without distractions of meaningless trips to Target or social distractions, we can revisit our own grown up interests and unpack the box of ‘things I’ll do one day’, things we were possibly never going to get back to until so-called retirement (called summer in Europe), and start to knit/sew/program/write/design/reconnect with family and friends, with some of those hours that we have back in our day.

3. Focus On Mental Health — We can look at how we do or do not protect our peace and our inner life. We can design our day for time just for ourselves and time for others. We can consider the needs of the people closest to us and create healthy boundaries. We can act intentionally in this petri dish of our home life and decide when it’s time for family; when it’s time to work, when it’s time to be quiet; when it’s time to gorge on disaster reporting; and when it’s time to be fully present with your kids or partner. When do you say, for instance, you are going to have to take it from here for a couple of hours and figure out how to fill your time with your own imagination. After all, we are not our kids or partners concierge. We don’t have to produce their lives or entertain them constantly. We need to be freed up to be left to our own devices.

You can now look at the trajectory of what your family does moment to moment to fill up this thing we call a life. It is a teachable moment on boundaries and who we are as human beings.

4. Practice Humility — We have not had war on our soil in our lifetime. For those of us who were in New York during 9/11, we had a glimpse of it, but most of America has not, and we have not had war in any sustained kind of sense. 9/11 felt all-encompassing in the weeks and months that followed but there was a point where we stopped flinching every time the subway screeched. The fear faded to background noise because there was no second attack and we got our confidence back. This new vulnerability is humbling. This affects all of us from the 1% on down.

These shifts are no longer the domain of ideological arguments. This is reality.

Even the Orange Man in the High Castle is affected. It’s time for us to realize America is not immune to the world’s ills once and for all. We are not better than anybody else or protected uniquely by god. We are not “blessed” above anybody else as we seem to act like we are.

5. Plan for The Future — Climate change will chase us into new communities, new inter-reliance, and a new social order. There have already been new migration patterns due to disasters, weather, cost of living, a shifting economy, shifting priorities, and innovation. People are congregating in new places that make more sense financially and geographically due to weather extremes, safety, and the new requirements of an era where we have to re-examine everything from our food sources, to our livelihood, to our reliance on money, as well as an awareness that we may have to hit the road at any moment.

This seismic shift is no longer the domain of ideological arguments. This is reality. We’ve had bits and bleeps of interference along the way but up until now, we could distance ourselves from what was happening to the world through complaining about the cancer that is our presidency and Fox news, or on the right, immigration and the terror of social equity among all beings, but maybe it’s now time (Now? Now? How about now?) that those with their heels firmly placed in the mud of the past can see that new dreams need to take seed.

Maybe now people will stop saying ‘someday’ to those coal or factory jobs returning. They are gone. Maybe now is when we’ll see the reality of year-round avocados and how they are dependent on factors that can not sustain us. Fights over toilet paper, as dumb as they are, illustrate to the most resistant that our supply chain is vulnerable, that we are all vulnerable. The time is now for slowing down enough to catch up with the very real changes to our planet and the needs of all people.

What are you going to do with this time?

Creative writer and strategist / storyteller for brands. VP of Marketing at tech company. You can find me at www.chaunceyzalkin.com and www.slcontentstudio.com

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