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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.