Living with uncertainty

Black Lives Matter

This is the editor’s letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

The truth is, we don’t know much. Human beings hate uncertainty but cannot escape it, particularly now that our species has become host to a virus that’s never before infected human beings. With 100,000 dead and 1.7 million confirmed cases in the U.S., nobody knows if the reopenings now underway will trigger serious spikes in hospitalizations and deaths, or just scattered hot spots that can be tamped down. Nobody knows if summer heat and humidity will significantly slow the virus’ spread. Nobody knows if there will be a major second wave this fall that doubles or triples the death toll. Nobody knows if or when a vaccine will be developed. We don’t know if schools will reopen in the fall, or if parents will feel safe sending their children. We don’t know if the pandemic will still define life a year from now. We don’t know if we’ll get infected ourselves or, if we do, how sick the virus will make us. We’re all guinea pigs in a vast experiment whose outcome is … unknown.

It’s the not knowing, I suspect, that is the most difficult symptom of our new, COVID-constricted reality. Any ordeal can be endured if you know what you must do to survive, and for roughly how long. Some people are now coping with the discomfort of uncertainty by proclaiming the pandemic over, grabbing a beer, and jumping into a pool with 500 other maskless people. Whoopee! For many others, James Hamblin reports at The Atlantic, a shifting combination of anger, hopelessness, and “numbness” has set in, as bland, featureless days meld into one another and losses mount. Health officials are warning that about a third of Americans are suffering from clinical anxiety and depression. Grief, under these circumstances, is natural. To cope, we have to learn to tolerate great uncertainty, while having faith that scientists will find treatments and/or a vaccine, and this bizarre era will end. “One day at a time” is how people survive a crisis. One day at a time.

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