Published on May 7th, 2020
A blog post by Kelly Wagman
These are strange times indeed: however, as coronavirus news started to ramp up, I was struck by a familiar set of feelings. A few years ago, I went through a period of medical trauma. I won’t go into detail, but it involved multiple painful surgeries over a period of months. It wasn’t clear most of the time when it would end or if I would ever return to “normal.” After a number of initial failed attempts, doctors weren’t sure whether they would be able to stabilize me or if I would need permanent medical support. The rest of my life got put on hold. I had to take a semester off college. Eventually, one of the procedures worked and I started to heal. Now, I can almost do everything I used to be able to do, but I would not say I am back to “normal.” I continue to struggle with bouts of PTSD; yet, I grew as a person in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. Such is the nature of crises.
Anthropologist Victor Turner uses the term “liminal space” to describe societal times outside of time (Turner 1967). He discusses, for example, coming-of-age rituals in the Ndembutribal community where young people transition from childhood to adulthood. During the time of the ritual, they are neither children nor adults; they are “betwixt and between”—they are becoming. Regular social norms and roles do not apply in liminal periods. Turner says people who go through this transition process together become tightly bound for life. It allows people the freedom to explore their own psyches without the normal external pressure to be a certain way or do certain things given one’s “place” in society.
We are also becoming. The coronavirus measures have fundamentally altered social norms and created a time outside time. We are free to question routines we may have accepted as “the only way” for years. The rules of interaction are different and uncertain. People are being given more space to grieve and mourn, but also more space to become and to grow in new ways.
When I was in the hospital, my family and I operated under what I have come to call “survival mode.” Every day was focused on overcoming the tasks necessary to make it to the next day. Given the uncertainty of my condition, we were asked to make major decisions about surgeries and procedures that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Just getting through a meal was exhausting as I could barely reach for the silverware on a tray in front of me. Time passed in four-hour increments regardless of whether it was day or night, since that’s how often I had my vitals checked by a nurse.
Eventually, I made it out of the hospital and for a moment it felt like I really was on the track to pre-crisis normalcy. As I exited survival mode, though, I entered a difficult period of existential crisis mixed with PTSD. When you are in survival mode, every decision, every difficult moment, feels meaningful as it draws you closer to what is a clear goal: staying alive through the crisis. Once that basic need is met, it’s hard to figure out what else is meaningful. I felt like I had survived because of the time and energy of doctors and nurses, my friends and family, significant medical resources, and my own determination. I wasn’t sure what I could do with my life that would live up to that sacrifice.
I am reminded of that thought process as I sit at home, watching medical professionals give up their lives to save people and many others lose jobs and loved ones as we practice social distancing. It feels like the world is currently in survival mode, making it through one day at a time. Undoubtedly, we will hit the point where we veer towards “normal” and it may be just as challenging. We will question why we do what we do and what we have learned from this tragedy. From my experience, there is no “back to normal;” there is just moving forward, hopefully a little stronger and wiser than before.
The first epiphany I had when trying to pull myself out of the existential pit of despair was about the power of perspective. I was talking to my dad, who had gone through an earlier medical crisis with a loved one, and he reminded me that it was pretty cool that I was now capable of walking to the end of the driveway to wheel out the trash. It was true. Shortly before I left the hospital, I walked 40 laps around the rectangular floor where I was stationed, passing 80-year-olds left and right, and I had been proud of myself. Being able to be home and contribute to a regular household routine like taking out the trash was indeed cool. It made me realize that, before the crisis, I had worried about a lot of little things during the day like being on time or having things not go as planned. It became clear, though, that getting upset over those types of things wasn’t worth the energy. There were so many things in life to celebrate. Instead of worrying about what I couldn’t do, I tried to be grateful for what I could. That’s the power of perspective, and I think we’re getting a big dose of it right now. My guess is that the first time we’re able to hang out with our five best friends, we’re going to sob and hug and be deeply thankful in a way we never would have been without the break.
This brings me to my next realization, which was about the joy of loving connection. Up until the time I was in the hospital, I focused a sizeable amount of my energy on work. It became apparent quickly, though, that work is close to meaningless amidst a crisis while the loving connection of friends and family is like lifeblood. I came to realize I enjoyed a certain amount of satisfaction from my work that felt fulfilling, but it was clearly secondary to the relationships in my life. Again, I think we are experiencing this in full force. Many work deadlines that we thought were non-negotiable have been pushed back or vanished entirely, while our connection with our loved ones, even at a distance, keeps us going.
It took me a little longer to absorb my lesson about fear. After some processing, I came to find I was still afraid of dying (or of loved ones getting sick), but I wasn’t scared of other things. In particular, my tolerance for mild embarrassment and failure went up significantly. If I wanted to do something and the worst risk was mild embarrassment or failure, it suddenly seemed crazy not to plow ahead. In the past few years this has meant, for example, quitting my high-paying tech job to go back to school in a new field because I thought it was interesting and worthwhile. (It also means I will yell at you if you don’t wear a seatbelt or a bike helmet, because your life is worth it.) It is my hope that coronavirus makes us bolder: that we try that new thing, reach out to that person, cook that complicated dish we were always scared we’d mess up.
My final lesson has been the hardest to swallow and has driven a lot of my research questions: horrible things happen to good people. The injustice of this is hard for me. A therapist I saw at the time explained to me that I had been hit by “shattered assumptions,” meaning that we are taught growing up that bad things happen, but not to good people and people we love. As soon as this is proven wrong, some base assumptions about how the world is benevolent are shattered. The question is what we do with this knowledge. On the one hand, I think it is important we recognize that bad things aren’t entirely randomly distributed, they tend to affect some vulnerable groups more than others. Understanding this and doing what we can to fix it, even if it is simply acknowledging that it is a real problem, is a practice I think everyone can incorporate into daily life. Right now, we are seeing particular communities—those lacking resources, the elderly, and those made up of mostly essential workers—being hit hardest by coronavirus. We should not forget this; we should act. On the other hand, I also try to maintain a practice of gratitude and wonder at the deeply rooted joy in life and the goodness in people. Innate goodness is found in the person playing piano on their porch for all their neighbors; the people delivering food to the elderly; and the Zoom dance parties where everyone puts on a wild costume. I think this duality, the suffering and the joy, are a part of being human. It is possible to hold both notions within us.
I want to end with a concept that I’ve only recently begun to explore that ties all of these threads together: play. Play is a way to have perspective, to not let the weight of the world be too crushing. It is a way to acknowledge the suffering, while also coming together to find novel ways forward. It is a way to stay tied to the world and not be afraid to make silly faces as you walk through it. None of us really have that long here, and I hope this liminal moment allows us to move forward with more courage, more wisdom, more kindness, and the desire to fucking dance our way down the driveway to take out the trash.
Kelly Wagman is a Comparative Media Studies graduate student and research assistant in the Global Media Technologies & Cultures Lab. Her research interests include human-computer interaction, design, and feminist technoscience.
Shattered Assumptions Theory. (n. d.). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shattered_assumptions_theory
Victor Turner. (1967). The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.