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More on pinning down "re-entry anxiety"
I’m still thinking about the psychology of reopening and re-entry as the pandemic recedes. I’ve written about that recently in The Bulwark, and a couple of times for this newsletter (here, and here), but I don’t think I’ve said everything yet.
I’ve been thinking about why reasons young people might feel weird or anxious as things open back up. And I realized that I feel, or I’m sort of assuming day to day, that I’ve narrowly avoided death. I suspect a lot of young people feel this way.
Now the fact is that, statistically, it’s very unlikely that I narrowly avoided death. The greatest risk for someone my age in terms of COVID is not dying or even getting very sick, but rather having a very mild case and possibly infecting someone more vulnerable. Intellectually, I knew and know this, and it’s one of two reasons why masking and distancing made sense for young people. (The other reason is simply to reduce the total number of cases in order to reduce the chance of new variants.) But for people like me, healthy and under 30, the risk of actually becoming severely ill was always remote. Not zero, but remote.
I’ve got to think that the way stories are hyped in the media contributed to this, and perhaps went beyond taking the crisis seriously and ended up making it psychologically more burdensome than it was, for those at low risk, anyway.
But there’s also a feeling in me that has nothing to do with fear at all, in fact the opposite. Perhaps it’s a little by the re-entry of soldiers coming home from war back into normal life. (Come to think of it, the period between the end of World War II and the beginning of the post-war boom was probably a very anxious time in American life. I’m curious what “re-entry” looked like, and how it was talked about, in those years.)
I’m thinking of the southern Catholic novelist Walker Percy’s notion that people secretly yearn for hurricanes, because an acute crisis can force us out of an everyday malaise. I do, oddly, sort of find myself missing the grocery deliveries with the half-melted ice cream, or the runs for dwindling paper products or cleaning products, or the restaurant dining rooms remade into busy staging areas for takeout-only operations, where the masked host hands you your bag of food through a hole cut out of a piece of plexiglass. As a young healthy person, I could both imagine myself at risk and know in my mind that I wasn’t, really. It all kind of felt like starring in a disaster film.
I know that sounds frivolous, and let me be clear, I don’t mean that I really miss it, much less that I’d breezily accept the suffering others went through for a little more daily excitement. I’m not agreeing with myself, I’m just observing myself. And what I’m observing is that unfamiliarity amid familiar surroundings, the sense of avoidable but omnipresent danger, the feeling that you’re taking your life into your hands with every trip out of the house, or with every readjustment of your mask, is kind of weirdly addictive and energizing. I didn’t need to feel that way, and I knew there was little objective reason for it, but it was Walker Percy’s hurricane. And in a way, it’s difficult to give up that sense of and heightened awareness and purpose that comes with a crisis.
Perhaps the fact that our handling of the pandemic created this feeling is an indictment of it. It feels as though we were alarmed but unserious, panicked rather than grave. On that note, a couple of things still stick in my mind from early 2020. One is Kentucky governor Andy Beshear’s shelter-in-place order, which was dubbed “Healthy At Home.” The other is a rendering of the “flatten the curve” chart I saw on Twitter, drawn with two cats with their backs respectively sharply and gently arched, captioned “Catten the Curve.” I know those are just two tiny little data points in a sea of data points. But for me they symbolized an inability to face a crisis with frankness and gravity. And, well, we sure do seem to have that inability.
So have I been reminded of death? Of course. Did I come close to dying? Almost certainly not. But the year’s worth of messaging to the contrary, the peer pressure to feel what other people are feeling—and of course, for some of us, the sudden end of the excitement that comes with imagining yourself to be taking a risk—all contribute to the broad, vague feeling we’re calling “re-entry anxiety” for people in my age range.
What do you think? Is any of this familiar to you, or does it make sense to you?