I guess I just feel like

We chose Maine for our summer vacation this year, in part, due to its high vaccination rates and correspondingly low incidence of COVID-19.

I’ve been trying to move through this pandemic, pretending everything is normal — or at least getting back to normal — when really nothing is. The natural rhythms of life — like the freedom of summer vacation and the excitement of back-to-school — have all been disordered. The ordinary rituals — not just graduations and weddings but handshakes and hugs — have all been disrupted, maybe for good. I’ve written about resilience before, but how can we adapt to change when we don’t know what the new normal actually is? How much uncertainty can a person manage — and for how long? It’s exhausting. And stressful.

I have a recurring dream that we’ve sold our apartment and we’re moving. In the dream, the move is always imminent, but still it’s taken me by surprise. I’m always wondering, “Why are we moving? Why did I agree to this?” We’ve lived in our apartment for over 20 years now. We’ve endured the terror of 9/11 and the destruction of Sandy. Now Covid. But I’ve never wanted to move. And I still don’t. So why do I keep having this dream?

Following the disruptions of 9/11 and Sandy, New York demonstrated its indomitable spirit and resilience. Those of us who stayed continued to get up each morning and go to work or school or wherever, not always with a clear picture of what the day would look like, but we did it. I remember coming home from work on 9/11, riding the bus, since the subway had shut down, and looking into the faces of my fellow riders. We were all shaken up, but we took comfort in each other’s presence. Through Sandy, I actually spent the night at work. The next day, my colleagues and I looked at each other and asked, “What next? Do we still have jobs?”

But after each of those shocks, there was ultimately a sense that recovery would come. To be sure, some New Yorkers left, but most stayed, and rebuilding seemed to offer an opportunity to build something better. Optimism didn’t feel naïve or fruitless.

Lately though, the challenges that we are facing seem different. As opposed to dramatic shocks that prompt a swift, determined response and steely resolve, climate change and the pandemic have wrought a slow burn that have left society at war with itself. Both of these challenges to humanity draw comparisons to the parable of the boiling frog that responds swiftly when it’s suddenly dropped into boiling water but fails to understand the danger when placed in tepid water that is brought to a boil slowly.

The flaw in this analogy is that presumably no one is consistently warning the frog of the existential threat to its survival. [The other problem, of course, is that modern biologists have debunked this myth. For my purposes, however, I still believe that the frog will likely wait too long; even if it can save itself, its habitat will likely be irrevocably damaged if not entirely unsustainable for life in the long-run.] How can we be optimistic when we see ourselves so vividly in this allegorical frog?

This week, climate scientist Adam H. Sobel was writing about the effects of Hurricane Ida on New York City. “This is the point in the news cycle when I would normally be called upon to explain why, in a warmer climate, hurricanes and heavy rain events get more extreme,” he wrote.

But, he continued, “I can’t do it. Not today. At this dystopian moment, I’m just not feeling it, and I don’t think I’m alone.”

The sense of despair and frustration is palpable and contagious. About the year of fires, heatwaves, droughts, floods, and hurricanes, Sobel laments, “They come atop an ongoing crisis for our democracy that is preventing us, as a nation and a species, from effectively meeting any of these challenges.”

A friend of mine tweeted this the other day:

For months now I’ve had this unmoored, displaced feeling, as if I’m living out of a suitcase in a strange hotel room, and if I dare unpack I’ll have to admit this is home.

Reading this helped me understand my dream, because I’ve also been afraid that this untethered uncertainty is our new normal. But it’s not just insecurity created by the climate and the pandemic, it’s also the uncivil, irrational, almost medieval way we are responding to both — and each other.

Ironically, the solutions to these dual crises are right in front of us, such as, relatively painless actions on vaccines and renewables or modest changes in behavior involving masks, consumption, or diet. But unfortunately, despite majorities that acknowledge and support these measures, such solutions are challenged by angry, vocal minorities as fundamental affronts to basic liberties. Southern college football games like Texas A&M and Auburn are now trending with “F*** Biden” protest chants. It’s disheartening to say the least.

John Mayer released his song I Guess I Just Feel Like in 2019, but it resonates with me today. “I’ve never released a song before where my only ambition was to be understood, and maybe to make others feel understood in the process,” Mayer shared on Instagram. Despite his personal disillusionment and disappointment, the song ends with his resolve to remain hopeful.

Similarly, the climate scientist Sobel overcomes his frustration with a resignation to keep marching forward. “There’s no benefit in giving in to ‘doomism,’ either about climate, per se, or politics,” he writes. “The only rational response is to do what we can do, within the boundaries our individual and collective circumstances impose upon us, to make positive change.”

I could get discouraged that real change feels unattainable. But I need to hold onto my optimism. And I also need to accept that my optimism necessarily relies on pragmatism and incrementalism. How can I remain optimistic without accepting encouraging news, no matter how marginal? Vaccination rates are up. Climate denial is down. Okay, I’ll take it. For now.

For me, there’s simply no other way to live, if you want to be able to get out of bed each day.



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Beau Everett

Imagining a better world, while trying to make sense of the one we’ve got.