We’ll Be Different On the Other Side

How is Coronavirus changing our generation?

An illustration of a fist up holding a face mask, with a peaceful landscape background.
Illustration: Sullivan Brown

MMany of us remember a grandparent scarred by the Great Depression — still prone to collecting coupons, toothpaste, and cash underneath the mattress.

In these unprecedented times our generation may well be shaped by our Covid-19 experience in ways we can’t yet imagine. I picture my daughter describing me in the future: “That’s my mother. She hoards toilet paper, lentils, and cases of oat milk, just in case another pandemic hits.”

Those who lived between the Great Depression and World War II became the so-called Greatest Generation, forever altered by hardship, shortage; a brutal war and a shared sacrifice. Trauma leaves its mark — culturally and, some believe, epigenetically. We will be the generation shaped by both the trauma of a pandemic and the landscape-shifting onset of climate change.

We’re each coping with the loss of normalcy here in our domestic bunkers, on a conspicuously sliding scale of privilege and wellness. When we come out on the other side, we’ll face new, uncomfortable realities. Will we grow? Will we devolve? Will this be the cultural recalibration so many of us crave?

The world is going to look different in a few months

There are the obvious outcomes: We’ll likely be more skilled hand-washers, pick our noses less, keep hand sanitizer in stock, avoid cruise ships, and have a new appreciation for medical employees and school teachers. Our 401(k)s, if we had them, will be smaller. Many of the businesses we once frequented may be shuttered: yoga studios, restaurants, florists, movie theaters, book stores.

On a larger scale, we’ll be forced to reckon with the ways privilege has functioned as a safety net. We’ll witness the ways a pandemic taxes those already burdened with illness and financial stress, and it’ll be hard to ignore the tendency of governments to bail out corporations faster than people.

We’ll be better able to spot the helpers among the opportunists and cowards — crisis tends to make that distinction clear. And we’ll be forced to ask ourselves hard questions about our own generosity and empathy.

The most fundamental shift is that we’ve each had to negotiate balancing individualism (hoarding toilet paper) with the collective good (flattening the curve through social distancing, checking on neighbors). We’re recognizing, in real time, that we must change our lives and habits, to increase our chances of survival and that of others.

A collective focus on the greater good

As a climate change journalist, I’ve waited for this recalibration. I just didn’t expect it to come in the form of a pandemic. I thought the shift might be triggered by the fires that ravaged Australia and California, or the record-breaking 64-degree days in Antarctica in February. Environmental degradation and climate change are urgent and life-threatening forces — so why don’t they feel that way to many of us?

If there’s anything to be grateful for now, it’s that there’s enormous value in learning how to dislodge persistent habits, and we’re showing ourselves that we can do it. I’ve seen a number of my friends head for nature this week. It’s a startling and important realization: When we can’t go to school or work, or gather in restaurants and bars, the woods and rivers are there waiting for us. For now, at least.

Perhaps more of us will realize the healing quality of being outdoors, and the reverence and protection we owe nature. Perhaps we’ll find ourselves more thankful than ever for the onset of spring, clean air, potable water, the call of a red-winged blackbird. Perhaps we can think of ways to support endangered animals and habitats, alongside efforts to support our unemployed friends and sick neighbors.

And if we can learn to live without restaurants, airplanes, and cruise ships during a pandemic, can we also learn to significantly reduce our consumption of factory-farmed meat, plastics, and fossil fuels?

A new version of domesticity

But for many of us, in our actual everyday lives, our focus has narrowed. In quarantine our gaze turns to the domestic sphere. It’s a sphere I enjoy, but have been suspicious of as too demanding of women’s labor. This time, both men and women are home from work. How will that change our perception of who’s responsible for the household’s labor?

So much of our behavior during this pandemic has been in response to perceived shortages. It’s a very human question: Will there be enough food or toilet paper for me and my family? And with scarcity comes ingenuity. In my home we now reuse tea bags, make frittatas with leftover pasta, eat the leftovers instead of giving them to the goats. I’m freezing vegetable scraps for stock, saving Parmesan rinds, and thinking about the way generations past have fed themselves with elegance during austere times.

As “shelter in place” directives hit American cities, I picked up my copy of The Collected MFK Fisher, and thumbed through How to Cook a Wolf, written at the peak of World War II food shortages. “You can still live with grace and wisdom,” the iconic food writer wrote, “thanks partly to the many people who write about how to do it…and partly to your own innate sense of what you must do with the resources you have, to keep the wolf from snuffing too hungrily through the keyhole.”

Our new wolf is a virus, but some of our neighbors are fighting it off alongside wolves that have been here all along. People are organizing to keep bus drivers and precariously employed hourly workers on payrolls, and school kids living in persistent ongoing poverty fed. Might we retain this awareness of others’ suffering and the creative communal ways we can lessen it?

A new future of work

As we’ve been forced into a moment of radical prioritization and survival, the buzz of busyness has fallen away. The multiple responsibilities that working parents juggle, often hidden and unspoken, are suddenly plainly visible on videoconferencing screens.

And it amazes me what can drop from my calendar: long-planned business travel, conferences, an award ceremony, a haircut. Will we step out of weeks of austerity and solitude craving activity and productivity, or suspicious of it?

My partner and I have both had to turn toward the futuristic versions of our careers: me, a college professor, teaching virtually, and him, a veterinarian, pondering the benefits and limitations of telemedicine. I miss my students, sharing a dynamic and heart-felt conversation about the power of literature in person. He much prefers a sustained conversation with a client, and a hands-on physical exam with a pet.

Will fear of close contact tip our careers toward the virtual, or will we gain a new appreciation for the warmth and pleasure of human contact, the joy of a face-to-face conversation?

Or, will anything change?

The romanticized answer about post-pandemic life is that this ordeal can move us toward a profound understanding of how shared sacrifice can save humanity, other species, and our planet. Now at last, we might fight off our scrolling addictions, learn to value nature and relationships, praise the helpers of our society.

In reality, the progress won’t be so clear-cut. I think we’ll sharpen our survival skills while also relying on our screens to save us from the terror of real solitude. We’ll be thankful for the concentrated time with our families, while also experiencing deep irritation at them. The opportunists will find a way to profit from our fear, and those who were already suffering will continue to suffer. I’d love to be proven wrong.

Ultimately, this pandemic is a harsh reality check about personal and societal resilience, in the era of a rapid environmental change. This year may well be the harbinger of even harder years. If so, the bonds strengthened by seeing and caring for each other now will become increasingly important. Let us start there.

Lives on a small farm in VT with 2 bebes, vet husband. Author: BIRDS OF A LESSER PARADISE and forthcoming novel SHEPHERD,WOLF (Scribner)

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