The Wrong Question

I’ve been thinking about this for days, weeks, maybe months. As the number of days since the first COVID-19 lockdown in what – March 2020? – continues growing, I’ve found myself becoming annoyed, often angry, about all the talk on radio, TV, in newspapers of the wave of growing depression, mental illness, whatever; about how difficult these days are for so many people. The questions people keep asking are “When will this be over?” “When can I just forget about Omicron and get on with my life?”

It’s perfectly clear – NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. The current “wave” will peak, the number of new cases, of hospitalizations, of deaths, will decline slowly (maybe more quickly ?), but some form of COVID-19 is going to be with us for the foreseeable future. Vaccines are helping ameliorate the severity of the disease; new treatments are becoming available. However, COVID-19 will continue affecting our lives.

People’s heads are in the wrong place. They’re focusing on the many brick walls they’re contending with, butting their heads against them. What we need is a public reframing of the situation. Our discourse needs to change.

The Right Question

Atul Gawande’s 2014 non-fiction book “Being Mortal” is about living better with age-related frailty, serious illness, and approaching death. It’s subtitle “Medicine and What Matters in the End” directs you to consider important questions about end of life issues and maybe consider how current western medical practice might have this all wrong. Being Mortal is a book about end of life; but it’s more than that.

Everyone dies.

In our current world that day could unexpectedly come sooner than anticipated. Every day in our local news the number of COVID-19 related deaths is announced – some are old people, others are middle-aged, and even some much younger. None of us knows when that day will arrive.

The announcement is followed by reminders to follow public health guidelines to keep ourselves safe, to think about the public good, to do what we can to avoid the spread of the disease. Then there are the radio talk shows, the TV programs about how depressed everybody seems to be, how difficult a time people are having.

Right now, Gawande’s book applies to all of us – all of us are mortal. As he works through the book he describes how as a practicing physician/surgeon he comes to see living as a series of decisions – for me the focusing question he asks is “How do I live the best possible day today given the constraints/the reality the world is forcing on me?”

What small pleasures would make this a good day? I ask myself. In no particular order – a visit to my 92 year-old friend Joan; a kibbitz with Ruby; a walk in the snow; my morning aquacise class; that small piece of dark chocolate; a small magnum ice cream bar; some fried liver for supper; getting a new sewing project underway or making progress on something I’m already working on; a chance to sit and read; adding another 20 rows to a pair of socks; a cup of tea with Deb or MaryAnn; things that catch my eye as possible photos (whether I take out my camera or not); watching a well done drama on TV (while knitting), actually getting the laundry done or cleaning away the dinner dishes, crawling into a bed with fresh sheets…. Those are the kinds of things on my list – what might be on yours?

Life is a succession of moments – some stand out, others are fleeting. We all have potential time to notice the small stuff around us, to see the pollen grains on the anthurium flower, the way the light shines through the Clivia bloom, to savour the taste of a cup of ginger tea.

I understand how lucky I am. I haven’t had to home school three young children while trying to work from home and keep everything in the house and family functioning. I haven’t lost my job or constantly had to worry about whether I was being exposed to the virus. As difficult as those situations are, with help from the rest of us, it is possible to get through each day. We haven’t really helped one another enough, taken time to pitch in when we see someone else is overwhelmed. That’s part of the problem – our constant attention to “me”. It’s a tiny thing I do a couple of times a week – spending three hours putting together rapid testing kits – 40 kits an hour is as fast as I can go – but it’s something, and I find it a satisfying way to spend time even though I’m tired at the end of a shift.

I’ve been keeping an eye on our local hospitalization counts – as soon as they start declining noticeably I will have the knitting ladies in for an afternoon of conversation and laughter. What we’re all missing most of all is companionship. We can still see individual friends for short periods of time, safely distanced; we can talk to them on the phone (much more satisfying than texting). As soon as it’s possible I will make sure the group convenes and we can enjoy knitting and being together for an afternoon.

What small pleasures would make this a good day?

That is the question – today and everyday.