Maybe You Can Be Too Careful - Issue #26

We're heading for a new normal, and Fitz is worried

Fitz here! Given that two out of three of the regular writers on this newsletter are college professors and that it is the end of the semester and grading is piling up and I can’t keep asking JB to carry the weight, I wanted to share a few short thoughts here, which I intend to expand on later. But just know that I should really be grading right now.

In the moments between worrying about whether I can get through my mountain of work or meet deadlines or any of the other million worries that often occupy my mind, I’ve been worrying about the post-Covid world. I know, this shouldn’t be a worry. I should be hopeful and excited, and I am, but I’m also worried. I’m worried about the impact of living for over a year as if other people are potential harbingers of death. I’m worried about the notion that, if we just try hard and follow science, we can eliminate all suffering and save people from dying. I’m worried that we may have become too comfortable in our newly formed isolation bubbles to ever venture outside them. 

Let me break it down, worry by worry.

1) I’m willing to guess that you, like me, have felt uncomfortable in recent months by the mere proximity of another human. I feel myself shrink back when students approach me to ask a question. I tell myself that I’m just following the rules, that I’m respecting their distance as I want them to respect mine, but it’s starting to feel a little too built-in, a little too natural. I hope that when this is over-ish (more on that in a moment), removing the mask will also lead to removing this fear of close contact, but I’m not sure it will be that easy.

2) Over-ish. It seems to me that there has been a fundamental shift in our attitudes toward health and wellness. That is, we think that if we do the right things—if we’re extra careful—we can always be healthy and well. You hear this when people humblebrag about how they haven’t been sick in over a year and then suggest that maybe they’ll just go right on wearing masks after this over. Or when people suggest that, even after receiving two doses of a vaccine and waiting the required two weeks, they’re going to go on living like Covid is still a significant threat to them because, you know, we’re all in this together or whatever. We may have lost sight of the fact that the important measures we’ve taken over the past year to try to prevent the spread of Covid were taken to protect the most vulnerable and to avoid overtaxing hospitals. The idea was never, and can never be, to ward off all illness for everybody all the time. But there seems to be a mindset out there that if we’re just disciplined enough we can do just that. If we go that route, the pandemic never ends.

3) Finally, the bubbles. What a fun notion in the beginning, right? Find your small group, make sure everyone agrees to stay within the bubble, and, at least when you’re with those folks, life can feel somewhat normal. Combine this with the ability to work and learn from home, and what you end up with is small groups of similar people in isolation together.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the way that social media and algorithm-driven news sites allow us to live in information bubbles, wherein we hardly need to interact with views outside of our own. Or, recommendation engines that keep us well-fed on books and music suggestions based on what we already like. The combined effect, it is generally agreed, is that we all live in virtual echo chambers. Except now, thanks to our Covid bubbles, and working and learning from home, we can live in actual echo chambers too. It’s incredibly ironic to me that, in this time of social upheaval and long overdue cries for racial equity, we’re also actively removing ourselves from spaces where we might encounter people with different racial identities from our own. How are we going to know, empathize, and ultimately love people who are different from us if we never meet them in common spaces?

So, I’m worried. Vaccines and warmer weather here in New England mean that soon many aspects of life will feel normal. But, the experts caution us, it should actually be a “new normal.” The way things are going, though, this new normal is going to be one in which we live like we can ward off all illness and, ultimately, defeat death. But in that “healthier” new normal, will we be too cautious to take any risks, too paranoid to be near strangers, too comfortable in our bubbles to venture out to common spaces where we might meet people who are different from us? Will we actually be living? I’m worried. 

The views expressed above are solely those of the author.