COLUMBIA, S.C. — As I lay myself down to sleep on Thursday night, I began my usual review of the universe, the meaning of life, the interminable election and, of course, covid-19.
My eyes would not close. I reminded myself to breathe.
Then I did something my pre-pandemic self would have considered a waste of time: I downloaded a meditation app. It downloaded so slowly I fell asleep before it finished. Clever.
I’m no stranger to anxiety, having experienced it twice weekly for more than 30 years as the next column deadline approached. But my current anxiety is of a different order and reminds me of living in California. Stay with me.
When I lived in San Jose directly over the San Andreas fault in the mid-1980s, I was always slightly anxious, if unconsciously. I had a baby, and my workplace was 10 miles from home. What if an earthquake hit and I couldn’t get to him? I would have sprinted all the way home, obviously.
Not until I moved back East did I realize the extent of my earthquake stress. In Florida, where hurricanes provide plenty of warning, I began to notice that I was more relaxed. I felt my shoulders drop an inch or two. They’d been hanging around my ears like boulders of worry for four years. I slept better than I had in years and began each day grateful that the ground was firm.
The coronavirus has brought restlessness back. It hovers over us like a bird of prey, scouting for a vulnerable form of life. Yes, I’ve given anthropomorphic form to COVID-19, but even doctors and scientists are doing it. I’ve heard CNN’s Sanjay Gupta say dozens of times, “the virus doesn’t care.”
I’d like not to care about COVID-19 in return, but we must. The challenge for scientists, doctors and political leaders is to sustain a manageable level of concern without inducing extra anxiety. I’d like to tell you that yoga does the trick for me, but it’s really vodka. Apparently, drinking is on the rise, and smoking is making a comeback, according to Marlboro maker Altria. Google searches for “anxiety” in the past week reached a 16-year high, according to the data-analytical company DataTrek. Meanwhile, searches for “restaurant” and “mall” are, shall we say, underperforming.
From here, the news gets pretty dreary. We’re entering the holiday season and the flu season, and many are contending with celebrating in the absence of friends and loved ones. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says we should only gather outdoors, which is fine if you happen to live in southern climes.
But what about folks up north, if any are left? Most seem to have migrated to South Carolina, where local Republicans are worried they’ll turn the state from red to blue. Urban apartment life doesn’t lend itself well to even small gatherings during a pandemic. But, then, maybe our trials will make us all more creative — and more mindful of our blessings.
Given the stakes, it’s difficult to understand why some people prefer to put themselves and others at risk than to take the simplest precautions. We’ve heard the mantra hundreds of times: Wear a mask, avoid large gatherings, socially distance. We’ve also heard that if everyone would play nice (and keep to themselves) for two straight weeks, we’d be able to get the pandemic under control. Two weeks is nothing.
And, yet, there are those who’d rather follow President Donald Trump’s example of roaming mask-free and cite his rapid recovery from COVID than surrender to what they consider misguided groupthink. This attitude may be Trump’s most diabolical contribution to the United States.
Being a curious sort, I’ll sometimes ask people why they’re not wearing a mask, a risky proposition in itself. Here in the Bible Belt, many say they’ve put everything in God’s hands. But the gift of free will was predicated upon an assumption of intelligent life. Predictions of ongoing spikes in infections and death rates are based on current trends of idiotic behavior, but it isn’t ordained that we commit stupidity. Besides, the alternative to voluntary acquiescence is far worse. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to encourage mask mandates and order lockdowns if he has the authority.
I’m no more inclined than the next renegade to fall in line, but what say we buck up and end this thing quickly?
Otherwise, Democrats may force us to meditate, too.