The woods outside my window were quiet, unusually reflective of cities around the world. In an era where it feels like time doesn’t exist and loved ones are galaxies away, I heard a quote that struck me. Justin Timberlake stared into the camera, shaking with fever sweats from besting a hot sauce gauntlet, and told the audience, “Don’t let this discomfort be in vain.” While he wasn’t speaking to the coronavirus pandemic, his words feel applicable in this moment. At a time when so many people are experiencing disruptions in their lives to prevent an increase in the rate of infection, the idea that sitting in this shared anxiety would be futile and eventually fruitless frightens me.
Justin Timberlake Cries a River While Eating Spicy Wings | Hot Ones | Source: © First We Feast/YouTube
In my twenty-five years I have felt first-hand the misfortunes of being born into an unsentimental world. My mother and I are survivors of domestic violence who scrounged to stay just above the poverty line. My mom fought to keep a roof over our heads and food on our plates, working multiple jobs that brought her back home late at night. Many of my friends faced similar conditions in our community and we came together to help each other out. In many other instances we would have just wound up being statistics, based on our alcoholic fathers, our proximity to gang violence, and the most visible escape being the military. We were raised hard and learned the value of lifting up our neighbors, because we lived and thrived together, not apart.
Nowadays I read the news and see the consequences of countless people not understanding the lessons my friends and I were taught when we were young. There are armed protestors storming into officials’ offices to fight for their right to go out and risk the death of themselves and others. There are politicians railing against improving welfare systems because of their costs, counting dollar signs and not heartbeats. Over the past decade it has felt as if the world is taking a turn for the worse. You could hear the sound of “at least I’ve got mine” getting louder, drowning out the voices of those who need caring communities to survive. Layers of racism, anti-intellectualism, dispassionate governance, all things which existed previously, have taken megaphones and exacerbated conditions which brought us here. In a time where there are countless populations facing the possible end of their livelihoods, who suffer food insecurity, who don’t know where they’re staying the night, who are facing the pandemic under systems built by shielded hearts and with neighbors that don’t look beyond their lawn, in a time such as this, how can there be such selfish souls?
My mom taught me to not face the world with worry but with conviction, something that is tough to remember.
Perhaps it’s because this is their nightmare scenario. Those who have lived only for themselves and those close to them did all they could to protect what they have. With the pandemic, they see how swiftly their lives can be put on hold when the societal foundations they’ve built fail. In 1850, Edgar Allen Poe tapped into a rather common fear: being buried alive. Poe’s The Premature Burial follows a man obsessed with the possibility that he will be put in the ground while still breathing, only to find himself in a simulation of his worst fears. He rarely goes outside his home in case he should be found rigid. He refuses to exercise because he may be caught breathless. In his mind, these activities may lead to the fulfillment of his early entombment. While the pandemic is nothing like a premature burial, I believe that the privileged who haven’t experienced much of life’s disadvantages feel it is. Social distancing and quarantine is seen as a stop to their individual lives, not a necessity to protect their community.
The Premature Burial – Edgar Allan Poe | Source: Strobie Studios/YouTube
“The true wretchedness, indeed — the ultimate woe — is particular, not diffuse. That the ghastly extremes of agony are endured by man the unit, and never by man the mass.”
It is through this lens that I view those standing against social distancing. They are facing the crisis as individualists, believing their positions to be the most important and worthy of defending. A disease of self-importance afflicts them, much like the man in Poe’s story, who faces a catalepsy which causes him to lose consciousness and lay still for extended periods. His fear of being buried alive stems from the constant possibility of appearing as a fresh corpse to passersby. The problem with being driven purely out of keeping the life you’ve built, to never accept a change beyond your making, is that you will consistently live in fear of losing what you have.
My greatest fear for what comes after the pandemic is that the world will continue on as it has, with the comfortable being blissfully ignorant of others’ positions.
The man in Poe’s story grows more agitated, graphically describing historical instances or premature graves, recounting tale upon tale. He speaks as though every example is his own personal experience. You can feel the deep preoccupation with a pain he has never known, a torture he has not come close to. The man’s fascination with these macabre mentions are more influential in the propping up of his fear than his catalepsy is. The narration reminds me of rhetoric of fortunate individuals who do not know the weight of the words they wield. I hear that we can’t just give handouts from people who have never needed food stamps. They speak of stolen liberties when they’ve never needed to put theirs aside. Their cries of “tyranny” are not drowned out by the fire of gunshots. The recounting of anecdotes in the face of facts is the grandstanding of the man consumed by a state he will likely never be in.
My mom taught me to not face the world with worry but with conviction, something that is tough to remember. She used to say, “If you worry too much you’ll just give yourself heart palpitations.” I have yet to meet a tree that stands taller against hurricane winds than her. Instead of showing me how to worry, she showed me how to adapt to change, whether it was minuscule or life-upending. These skills are not easily refined in the natural course of a life. They can only be sharpened by facing grand personal challenges. In this moment, many privileged enough to get through the pandemic in just discomfort are staring down the barrel of their largest personal challenge. They are looking at a world of their own making, from their refusal to share their prosperity with those in need, from their irresistible urge to keep themselves afloat without checking if their shipmates were drowning. This is a pivotal moment in which they will either come to an understanding of the world outside their windows or become empathetically unreachable.
Poe’s protagonist screams his lungs out in agony. He is absolutely petrified save for his mouth, crying out against his worst horror’s arrival. A gruff voice responds to him, shaking him out of his episode. He finds he was in the berth of a small boat the entire time, having been moved by a friend after his catalepsy erupted. Though he did not face an actual burial, the man feels that this experience was a frightening mimic, saying, “the tortures endured, however, were indubitably quite equal for the time, to those of actual sepulture.”
After encountering his worst fear, the man starts to reform his actions which brought him to that moment.
“My soul acquired tone — acquired temper. I went abroad. I took vigorous exercise. I breathed the free air of Heaven. I thought upon other subjects than Death. I discarded my medical books. I read no “Night Thoughts” — no fustian about churchyards — no bugaboo tales — such as this. In short, I became a new man, and lived a man’s life.”
Having simulated the nightmare of being buried alive, the man is driven to change the vices which brought about his problem.
“Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful — but… they must sleep, or they will devour us — they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.”
He understands his obsession with death would bring about his downfall. Contemplation of premature burial only worsens his life.
Just as the man in Poe’s story reforms after experiencing a semblance of his unimaginable horror, I hope those merely facing discomfort during the pandemic reform as well. My greatest fear for what comes after the pandemic is that the world will continue on as it has, with the comfortable being blissfully ignorant of others’ positions. I wonder if our consumption will once again outweigh our charity. I think about people attempting to reclaim their privileged status and how those actions will harm those less fortunate. If these were consistent thoughts, I would be incapacitated by them. Luckily, my mom taught me to face the world with conviction and not worry.
In my twenty-five years, my loved ones have shown me a vision of what humanity can be in a compassionate world. It is a communal table in which all are invited to eat from the plate. It is an open door where there’s a bed when you need it. It is a map in which you ask others where they need to go to reach the same point as you. It is a kinder world in which being in each other’s company is what truly matters. It is an unfamiliar neighbor sacrificing part of themselves so that another may live. It is a place where the welfare of the disenfranchised is taken into account and made a priority in policy and action. It is void of presumptions aside from our shared livelihoods.
I have yet to meet a tree that stands taller against hurricane winds than [my mom]. Instead of showing me how to worry, she showed me how to adapt to change, whether it was minuscule or life-upending.
I believe with all my heart that we are in a moment that will determine whether this vision comes to pass. I eagerly await the new wilds of daily life, where I can see the fire in everyone’s eyes, a blaze built from holding our breath to force down our daily gasps. I am not here to help the comfortable or to teach them how to get through their troubles amidst this time. I am here to say they must learn from the discomfort they face in the pandemic and overcome their compulsion to protect just themselves. It is through loving the strangers they share the earth with that they can surpass their fears of loss. The woods outside my window are quiet, the opposite of souls calling out for an empathetic and warmhearted world. I stare out and wish that this will be humanity’s hard lesson, the moment of reformation that shows us we cannot continue existing above one another — we must exist alongside each other.