Trapped in a pandemic

April 1st, 2020

This post doesn't have any particular audience in mind, or even much of a central theme or argument. I wrote this as an exercise to help me understand the unique type of distress I was feeling as I entered the third week of self-isolation during the Coronavirus pandemic.

In this Twitter thread, Erynn Brook implants a powerful message about boundaries. Read it now if you haven’t seen it before (it’s just 900 words), and give it some time to slosh around in your mind.

I live in my own wonderland of abounding privilege, so my boundaries aren’t tested all that often. And when I do find myself in an uncomfortable situation, I can normally stick around until it’s over without getting too upset or risking my safety. I think that’s why reading this Twitter thread taught me a little more than just the notion that you should take charge of enforcing your boundaries. Don’t get me wrong — that’s a super important takeaway — but this thread made me appreciate, even outside the context of my boundaries being challenged, personal liberty.

You are allowed to leave. It’s kind of strange that this is a powerful statement. Of course you’re allowed to just walk out of a room you’re sitting in, damn the consequences. You don’t have to sit through that meeting or lecture or sermon or party. You (likely) have two working legs. In almost every situation in your life, if you put one leg in front of the other enough times, you’ll have left.

Humans are funny, because we’re this weird mixture of evolved intelligence and primal emotions. We can process and internalize pretty complex social structures as though they’re as rigid as much simpler, more concrete natural phenomena. What I mean to say is: if you’re being “chased” by a debt collector, it can make you feel a very similar kind of stress you might feel if you’re being chased by a bear. Stress caused by expectations in a job or a social setting can feel just as “real” — invoking that fight-or-flight response — as stress from a literal life-or-death challenge.

But most of these abstract social situations normally aren’t actually physically threatening. You can leave. You might lose your job if you walk out of a meeting. You might lose some friends if you walk unceremoniously out of a party. You might run into some trouble fitting into society down the line if you don’t pay your debts today. But you almost always have the ability to leave. You can go anywhere. Immigration laws aside, you could pack up tomorrow and start your life in a new country. The world is a big place. You’ll run out of years to live before you run out of places to leave to.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that you actually can leave and keep your life intact. Sustaining yourself after you’ve left is very often impractical. If you’re poor, you might not even be able to afford the bus ticket to someplace new, never mind food or shelter in your new life. If you’re a victim of domestic violence, leaving is often accompanied not just by financial struggles but by mental and emotional turmoil. And all of us have some attachment to our situation that can make leaving hard, if not impossible. So many people in the world simply cannot leave their situation.

But for the privileged among us, those without a significant financial burden to bear, there’s very rarely something stopping us from leaving whatever situation we’re in. “Situation” is a broad word here, because the concept of leaving is abstract. The definition of “leaving” a situation really depends on the nature of the situation. But ever since reading that Twitter thread, I have marveled at how (especially given my solid financial situation) I always have a true freedom to leave. When I was in school, I could’ve left early without my degree if I wanted. Now that I work a full-time job, I can quit if I want. If I’m in the middle of a haircut and it’s going terribly wrong, I can ask the hair stylist to stop. If I’m reading a book or watching a movie or playing a video game that I’m not enjoying or that makes me feel upset, I can just stop.

These are all “situations” in the sense that my mind is interpreting them — often at a level pretty heavily abstracted from what I’m literally doing — as something different from my default state. I think part of why we don’t always realize we can leave a situation is that we don’t realize that it’s not our default state. Once I’ve been a student for a while, I think of myself as a student. I think of myself as an employee at my job. When I’m getting my hair cut, I’m resigned to the fact that, until my haircut is over, the stylist will keep snipping away at my hair. When I’m consuming content, I’m engrossed in the story and I forget that my default state is to not be consuming any content at all. I think it’s all too easy to forget that we have agency and that we can change the situation we’re in. That’s why it comes as a surprise that you are allowed to leave. Because, unless we explicitly think about it, we just kind of go through life taking for granted that whatever happened yesterday is going to happen tomorrow. There’s often a spark of insight — “I’m not enjoying this!” or “I don’t like my job!” — that comes right before exercising this agency. Before that insight, we’re not active in evaluating our situation. And that’s okay, since it would probably be burdensome to evaluate every situation we’re concurrently living through all the time. But it helps to get a reminder once in a while that we’re in the driver’s seat of our lives. Otherwise it’s too easy to forget that you’re allowed to change jobs or put down a book.

But there are some situations that you actually cannot leave. Since I am in a comfortable financial situation, these freak me out. In a modern world, if you have enough money, you can be just about anywhere you want within the next 48 hours. I’m lucky enough that when I imagine myself in a situation where I actually wouldn’t be able to leave, the idea feels foreign to me.

Here’s an example. Edward Snowden lived for 40 days in the transit zone of the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. Snowden couldn’t leave. He probably could have physically stepped out of the zone, but it doesn’t make much of a difference if it meant he’d immediately land himself in prison. So that’s one of the other situations where you physically can’t leave: prison. It’s one of the few places where nothing you do or say, and no amount of money ( theory) will let you leave. You can’t just put one leg in front of the other, because you’ll only make it to the other end of your cell.

And some prisons are more intense than others. Otto Warmbier made the mistake of disrespecting the North Korean government while in North Korea (or so the North Koreans claim). He quickly found himself in a situation he could not leave, and eventually he died from his treatment in this prison. Some extreme cases of domestic violence share this component of a true physical restriction on leaving, acting as a very real, very dangerous prison.

In wartime, deployed troops don’t get to say “I want to go home” whenever they want. If they’re in the middle of an enemy’s territory, there’s not a perpetually-hovering rescue helicopter to take them away from their situation. But even hypothetical situations get to me. The National Geographic TV show Mars spends some time on the idea that astronauts who visit Mars will be truly isolated from the rest of humanity. On average, Mars is 12 light-minutes away from Earth. If you were on Mars and you wanted to leave, it would take years for a space ship to take off from Earth, pick you up, and drop you back off in your hometown. Being on Mars isn’t a situation you can just walk away from. Putting one foot in front of the other isn’t going to get you to another planet.

Most situations we find ourselves in don’t even require more than a few steps’ worth of effort to leave. But “being on Mars” is also a situation. I’m sure it’s a hell of an experience, but it’s not a book you can put down or a meeting room you can walk out of. It’s not just that it’s impractical or inconvenient to leave in a reasonable time frame. It’s literally impossible.

Even if I had only really started to understand and appreciate this freedom after reading that Twitter thread, I think part of me always felt like this particular freedom was always so persistent and universal and basic that, when I even imagine a situation like being millions of miles away from my home, I start to panic. I feel claustrophobic. I feel trapped. I think this is a natural reaction to being in an inescapable situation.

Leaving often means retreating to familiarity. Occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly stressed or overwhelmed in my life, I find myself thinking, “I want to go home.” And sometimes I’m in my home when that thought occurs to me. It’s not that I literally want to be located, physically, within my house. It’s that I want to retreat to safety, to an earlier part of my life, one I’ve already mastered. That’s the instinct to “leave”.

But you can’t go home again. Retreating to your hometown is never quite what you want it to be. There are new buildings in the town square, the people from high school have moved onto their own lives, and you can’t go back and exist in the same situation you used to live as your day-to-day. That’s what makes nostalgia so uniquely painful, like waking up from a dream that feels good to remember but that you know you can never live again.

So this is actually a new type of situation that you can’t leave: one defined by a longing for familiarity. If your situation is that “everything is different than it was before”, as abstract and unrelated as this sounds to the other situations I’ve mentioned, I think it’s really common to crave the same type of liberty to leave. We feel like we can leave our new situation, put down the book that is our current life, and go back to how things were. But when the world you want to retreat to doesn’t exist anymore, it’s easy to feel trapped.

I think we’re all about to go through this on a massive scale. Because right now, we’re not allowed to leave our houses.

But it’s not quite the coronavirus’s stay-at-home order that’s making me feel trapped. I can go outside right now, if I want. I can go for a solo run, even without violating strict social distancing guidelines. I can visit many of the places I used to visit before I started self-isolating. I can go back to my hometown. But leaving this place physically doesn’t equate to leaving the situation I’m in.

Parts of our worlds that have always been fixtures — school and workplaces, the library, the bustling activity of the shopping mall or public transit or the streets of New York City — have immediately vanished from the world. And there is no escape. There’s nowhere we can walk, no road trip we can take, no island we can fly to that’s not affected by this coronavirus. The social world as we know it is gone. As the novelty of staying at home wears off, I think we’ll start to really understand the gravity of how much we miss the world that we got used to. It’s a world we’ve taken for granted. The story of this coronavirus and its impact on the world is a book that we cannot put down. We just have to wait.

And I think that’s part of what makes this so surreal. It’s like a story book. Our grandchildren will read about it in actual books. In some ways, it really does feel like we’re reading a story, too. Especially when our news has to be consumed from our screens, reading and watching people tell us the narrative of this virus, it can be difficult to make the connection between the content we consume in isolation and the very real status of the world beyond our sterile dwellings. The planet is shutting down. Humanity is on lockdown. Every fixture in our world that depends on people gathering with other people is gone, at least for now.

Once this situation is over with, we’ll return to the good old days. For the most part. But I think we’ll all experience lingering nostalgia for what it was like before this cataclysmic disruption. Because some things will change. Some of us will die. Others will suffer severe mental health crises at the hand of this situation or suffer physical accidents that become permanent disabilities following inadequate medical treatment. The economy will take time to recover, and this will devastate retirement plans and change attitudes. The book I linked above — You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe — discusses a hometown changed not simply by the passage of time, but by the Great Depression. Nothing will be quite the same.

But with any luck, we will also have learned to look out for one another just a little bit more. This virus — one that does not discriminate in any way — is a reminder that we are all made of the same meat. It’s bringing communities together, teaching us to depend on our neighbors even as we learn the value of a society that doesn’t depend on physical proximity. It’s forcing us to learn how to connect meaningfully — for work, for school and for fun — with other people using new technologies, and I think we’re all going to come out of this at least a little bit better at communicating with one another.

And I think this situation will force us to learn just a little bit more empathy. A stay-at-home order combined with the complete unavailability of grocery delivery services is forcing even the most well-off among us to consider, even just briefly, what it feels like not to know where your next meal is coming from. This situation forces us all to empathize with the person who relies on buggy technology just to communicate with other people. It traps us in dangerous places, giving us just the vaguest hint of what some of our fellow humans deal with every day, those with no practical escape from race riots or warzones.

Of course a cushy repose in a well-stocked apartment is never actually going to show us the difficulties and the terrors of being truly food-insecure, locked into a disabled body, or living in poverty without any prospect of escape. But hopefully, these brief bursts of frustration that we’re experiencing as we try to live our best lives during this uncertain time can give us some of those sparks of insight, those moments of empathy that help us get that much closer to comprehending what some of our neighbors are going through every day.

And we should take a moment to reflect on what it means that it takes a global pandemic, a near armageddon, for us to finally start to understand each other.