First, let me say that there are many, many, many, many people in the world who are suffering far worse than I am. But invalidating my own feelings just makes my suffering worse. Here are some ways I am suffering and feeling frustrated, irritated, and disconnected as a direct result of this virus.
I am sick of decisionmakers only considering the fatality rate of the actual virus when making strong pronouncements, rules, and/or edicts. I made this point back in April in my only Facebook post on this topic. There are lots of other factors that should be considered in the analysis, such as:
· People who are dying of starvation because the slowdown in the world economy, thanks in part to shutdown orders, is literally depriving the millions of people in the world who already can barely feed themselves. Even among those who aren’t literally dying of starvation, there are untold millions who are dying from otherwise preventable or treatable diseases and problems because of their falling real incomes.
· People who are dying of suicide, alcoholism, drug overdoses, and complications of depression and poor physical and mental health brought on or exacerbated by this crisis.
· The overall decrease in happiness (“utility”) in the world, linked to economic slowdowns, physical and emotional isolation, etc., etc.
I hate that it has only recently become somewhat socially acceptable to mention these other factors. Yes, public policy must consider lives potentially lost to COVID, but it should not ignore lives and livelihoods that may be lost as a direct result of these policies.
I am sick of being told what to do by authoritarians acting unilaterally. Yes, governors and mayors (as heads of their respective executive departments) have short-term emergency powers, but this situation is no longer short-term. Long-term legal solutions should be effected by legislatures and tempered by courts. There is absolutely no good reason or explanation for why, a year after the virus first hit U.S. soil, decisions about which New York City restaurants can open and at what capacity are still being decided at the arbitrary whim of a single person.
I am sick of the fatigue and the ever-changing goal post. In March of last year, we were told that shutdowns and closures were temporary so that we can “flatten the curve” so as to not overwhelm the healthcare industry. We did that. And then the curve started dropping. But then the goal changed to something like, “We need to stay locked down until we reduce the positivity rate below X%.” Where did that come from? More importantly, such a number is absolutely meaningless unless there is consistency in the rate at which people are tested. If New York’s positivity rate is 3%, for example, and South Dakota’s is 30%, does that imply that South Dakota is far worse off than New York? Of course not. If New York freely tests anyone and everyone (and if people’s jobs there depend, as they often do, on regular testing), then a 3% positivity rate might actually mean that, say, 1% of the population has the virus... while if South Dakota only tests people who are hospitalized and who have COVID symptoms, then their 30% positivity rate might actually correspond to, say, 0.1% of the population having the virus. (On a recent trip to Florida, I discovered just how complicated, expensive, and inconvenient it was to get a COVID test, while in NYC I can easily get a free test any day of the week just a couple blocks from my apartment.) The fact that I have to explain this very simple example to show how statistics can deceive – and which no one seems to be talking about, including the condescending intellectual elite who have weaponized the word “science” – is irritating and mind-boggling. (As a side note, the weaponization of the word “science” is especially infuriating when scientists whom we should trust, like Dr. Fauci, simply make up numbers to manipulate public perception. I think his intention was good, but that’s irrelevant – it makes him lose credibility as a scientist.)
I am sick of masks. I hate wearing them. They are not just uncomfortable, but I hate that they impede communication. They muffle voices and hide facial expressions and moving lips, all of which are used in human communication. I hate having to speak more loudly to people because of the muffling of my mask, and I hate that my facial expressions are similarly muffled. It just makes me less likely to interact and communicate with people at all. It makes me not want to go anywhere or do anything, which is fine because there is nowhere to go and nothing to do anyway.
I am sick of never knowing what is required, legally or socially, and I am sick of feeling pressured to act in ways that I know are baseless or even irrational. Are we supposed to wear a mask AND “socially distance”? What is the protocol for inside versus outside? No one suggests (I don’t think!) that spouses should wear masks around each other, but what if my wife works closely with a small group of people who eat together out of necessity? Does that mean she can invite them and their spouses over to our house for a mask-free game night... or must we play an awkward game of cards in which we’re all separated by six feet and breathing through N95 masks? Literally the social fear of not knowing all the rules (because there is no consistent set of rules) is enough to want to avoid gatherings at all, no matter how desperately we might need them for our emotional survival. I can’t even imagine being a single college student today and being told to wear a mask and not kiss while having sex. No normal human would do this, right? It sometimes makes me wonder if those in charge are playing a massive prank to see just how far they can push the rules. (“Do you think we could get restaurants to agree to a 6% maximum occupancy and serve only pureed entrées that are sucked through a straw attached to their mask?” “Yeah! And all male patrons should be required to wear N95 condoms!”)
Moreover... Do these rules arise from a responsibility to others or to myself? For example, the virus is spread by saliva and mucus, so if I don’t talk or even open my mouth... if I cover my face when I sneeze... then how can I spread it to anyone, particularly if I’m already standing six feet away? This issue has come up a few times when I was wearing a mask over my mouth but not my nose. (Apparently I have a big nose, which makes a mask even more uncomfortable.) If I have to sneeze, I pull my mask up – which is disgusting, of course, but I guess that’s what others have to deal with. Beyond sneezing, there is essentially no risk of me spreading a virus to others from my nose, yet I’ve been ordered by various people out in public to cover my nose. I usually do, to avoid a confrontation, but why should I? One might reply, “Because you can get the virus with your nose exposed, and you have a responsibility not to get the virus that you can then spread to others.” But that doesn’t make sense. If I’m already careful about not spreading germs to others, then what right does anyone have to tell me that I can’t assume a risk to myself? Do I have the right to acquire the virus if I want? If I decided that I just wanted to get the virus for, say, the antibodies it would provide, and I knew someone infected who was happy to provide the requisite saliva, is it my right to choose? I think the answer in a genuinely free country is obviously yes, but I can hear the protests already! Anyway, my point is that there is room for actual debate about the pros and cons of each rule and how they depend on situation, but what actually happens – at least in my case – is that the social complications and awkwardness of trying to balance my own comfort with my aversion to offending people with my attempt to read social cues with my unwillingness to let bullies dictate rules for everyone else with my efforts to prevent spreading COVID to my older relatives and friends with my desire to actually have fun while other people have fun... ugh... all this just makes me say “Fuck it” and stay at home.
I am sick of the phrase “socially distance.” Whoever coined it was either a complete idiot who doesn’t know what the word “social” means, because the requirement is actually to physically distance, or was brilliant, because they knew that the constant physical distancing would, over time, emotionally wear people down and cause them to socially isolate from others.
I am sick of the polarized extremes that force people to pick a “team” and prevent them from thinking for themselves. Do I really have to choose being either a condescending elitist mask nazi or a confederate-flag-toting anarchist? Can’t I just say that this forced economic shutdown and physical isolation must end soon without being accused of wanting people to die of the virus?
Personally, here is how I am suffering from COVID... and I am suffering:
My primary hobby is travel. I’ve been to 96 countries. I canceled three trips last year, including a six-week round-the-world trip with my wife who had just finished a grueling four-year physician residency during which I barely spent any time with her. Not only have I not traveled anywhere in the past year, but there appears to be no end in sight to this “pandemic” (another word I am sick of), with prospects of returning to any semblance of normalcy diminishing by the day. I can’t plan anything. The rules keep changing. Do I need to wait until after I’m vaccinated? At this rate, it might not be until summer, and by then, will there be a hundred new vaccine-resistant variants/mutations? Will I be traveling in some country that was “open” when their government suddenly closes their borders? Will I be walking around some foreign city but all its museums and restaurants are closed and I’m staying in an otherwise deserted hotel? This all just makes me feel very hopeless and depressed.
This “virtual” learning is a disaster. I don’t learn well this way and I suspect that few others do. I have absolutely no idea how kids are dealing with this. Oh, that’s right – they’re not. I started a graduate physics program at NYU specifically for the opportunity to make friends, collaborate with colleagues, have interesting discussions, and learn with others. The in-person time with professors and fellow students has always helped me to learn and to feel connected, but there is NONE of that now. Death to Zoom. Yes, some classes are offered “in-person” (or “hybrid,” which is almost worse than just plain “virtual”) and I took General Relativity last semester in part because it was in-person. To do so, I satisfied all the requirements but what was the reward? On average, there was only one other student in class, and even if there were more, there were no rooms or areas in which we could actually collaborate, so what was the point? I am taking one class this semester, in part to keep my affiliation with NYU, but if normal in-person learning does not resume by Fall (and by “normal” I mean being able to go through one fucking day without thinking about masks, socially distancing, vaccines, nasal swabs, reduced capacity, etc., etc.), then I don’t see the point of continuing in the program.
I am not connecting with people. As an INTJ, I can certainly enjoy plenty of alone time, but I need connection, as do all humans. It is depressingly ironic that I am calling and emailing people less now that I am connecting with them less in person. That’s due to several factors:
· We need in-person connection, in part because of body language and other nonverbal communication; spontaneous ideas and adventures happen when people are physically together that can’t happen when we’re staring at each other over Zoom; and we experience new things together that are actually worth talking about later!
· In-person connection inspires deeper connection and a desire for follow-up phone calls and emails.
· Right now, we aren’t, as a society, doing much, so there’s not much to talk about. I have little interest in talking to a friend over the phone about COVID, my lack of connection in physics, my lack of traveling... my lack of anything!
Setting aside my dearth of social connection, I am experiencing the additional detriment of lack of connection in physics. A little over two years ago, I started working essentially full-time in the field of the foundations of physics and the physics of consciousness, etc. I have made significant and rewarding progress, both in learning as well as innovating and contributing. Not only do I now have a relatively deep understanding of the foundations of quantum mechanics that has allowed me to make several contributions, I’ve also come to a deeper understanding of the relationship between physics and consciousness, free will, and other deep philosophical issues. So that’s good. However, it’s hard to do anything alone for a long time. Even Henry David Thoreau eventually had to leave Walden Pond and rejoin society.
And in large part I’ve been working on physics entirely alone. I’ve tried really, really, really hard to connect with people. I started two different physics masters programs (ECU and NYU); I prepared to attend two conferences (one canceled and the other almost uselessly virtual); I’ve reached out directly to hundreds of professors, paper authors, graduate students, etc.; I’ve written and posted my own papers and YouTube videos; yada yada yada. Despite these efforts, I feel almost completely disconnected and alone in this field. Almost no one understands me, what I’m working on, or what I’ve figured out. Among my friends and family, this work is far beyond the understanding and interest of anyone I know, although my wife and a couple other people certainly try! Among people in the actual field – people with whom I’ve been trying to connect for several years now – maybe 1% of these contacts have actually resulted in any meaningful connection. I am profoundly thankful for and humbled by these few contacts, and several of them have been both intellectually and emotionally supportive. Ironically, among the tiny handful who have both understood and validated my work, a few of them happen to be the top of the top. For instance, as I mention in this post, this paper was rejected by referees until the journal’s chief editor, Carlo Rovelli himself, took the extremely unusual step of publishing it despite the reviews because it raises “an interesting and well-argued point.” I won’t give further details in this post, but as it turns out the reviewer I described in this post – who was one of the only people to actually understand and validate the argument I made in this paper – is one of the most intelligent, original, and influential thinkers in the field. So I certainly am thankful for the few genuinely positive connections I’ve made, although it’s just not enough (at least right now) to emotionally and intellectually sustain me. I need to go to conferences and attend classes and have in-person connections to keep me feeling stimulated, inspired, and connected. Right now – and in the foreseeable future – that is simply impossible.
So my suffering comes down to this: I am just not looking forward to anything. I feel like my life is perpetually on hold with every day undetectably bleeding into the next. I am sick of constantly waiting for normalcy. I am sick of not knowing when, or even if, I will be able to travel, to efficiently learn about the physics of consciousness, to emotionally connect with friends, to intellectually connect with colleagues. I am sick of not knowing when I will again feel engaged, inspired, in flow.
Pain is usually a sign that something’s wrong. If I feel my hand burning, it might be because of some miswired neurons or something wrong with my skin, in which case medication might be appropriate. But it might also be because my hand is in a fire, in which case the best solution is to pull it out! Poor mental health – depression, anxiety, etc. – presumably evolved in humans to help us identify and fix problems and to ultimately thrive. Sometimes, poor mental health is due to chemical imbalances that can be addressed with medication. Sometimes it’s due to emotional trauma that can be addressed with counseling. Sometimes it’s due to poor physical health that can be addressed with diet and exercise. To the extent that poor mental health is the body reacting inappropriately to the world, then by all means let’s address the symptoms. No sense in feeling the pain of anxiety when there’s nothing to feel anxious about... take a pill for crying out loud!
But sometimes, poor mental health is a direct result of circumstance and it’s the body’s appropriate response to dangerous or unhealthy surroundings. Dulling that pain with a pill might only serve to increase one’s tolerance to what is, or should be, an intolerable situation. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it is clear to me that the world I live in is currently intolerable. Not that I can’t tolerate it, but that I shouldn’t.
I don’t know what the solution is. Like many others, fatigue is setting in. If I knew for certain that normalcy would return by, say, July, then I could wait it out. But if I am honest with myself, I am having growing doubts that normalcy will return at all, much less by summer. Maybe it’s time to accept that the world I grew up in is gone forever: one in which everyone had more-or-less the same source of news and people didn’t choose their news media based on the “facts” they want to believe; one in which people could go to parties, dance clubs, restaurants, and theaters without constantly worrying about viruses; one in which human connection was almost exclusively in-person; one in which I might have 20 close friends who know my good and bad sides and with whom I can be vulnerable, instead of 2000 Facebook “friends” or 200,000 Instagram “followers” who envy my beautiful and successful life but know nothing about my doubts or sadness or despair because I only post the enviable stuff.
Maybe it’s time to mourn the loss of that world and move on. (I suppose with such low expectations, I can only be pleasantly surprised if normalcy actually does return later this year...) I don’t know what to do, but I know I have to do something differently. Maybe it’s time to abandon physics for awhile and take a road trip with my dog to some national parks. Maybe I need to build something – maybe not quite the scale of the Agora Grand, but nevertheless interesting and useful and creative. Who knows? Suggestions welcome!
Thank God for my wonderful wife and my friends and family, even if I don’t connect with them as often as I should. Thank God that I am well fed and live in a nice apartment with amenities that Cleopatra could only dream about. Thank God I can still think with clarity.
God – please give me the grace and peace to accept the things I cannot change, the courage and strength to change the things I should, and the clarity and wisdom to know the difference.