I have always loved trains. I literally grew up next to train tracks and can remember the huge steam locomotives that would pass by on their way to terminals in downtown Chicago. The kids in the neighborhood would shout for the flagman or rear breakman to throw us some chalk after having been used to mark the box cars. Weiner-size chunks would occasionally be tossed to us, much to our delight and the dismay of parents and neighbors alike who had to remove our graffiti and scrawls.
Trains are apt metaphors for what we have been going through this past COVID-year. Let me explain. Trains can only go two ways –toward the destination or toward home. They may get side-tracked and they can derail. They take a crew to make sure everything is running correctly, and everything depends on timing. When trains are running smoothly, we depend on them and never question them. When there is a route change, or track needs repair, or a delay, we become impatient and want things to go back to the way they used to be.
Before COVID, we had routines that we considered sacrosanct. They included picking up coffee at our favorite coffee place, going into a restaurant, being seated and served, having unrestricted access to places of worship, exercise facilities, and grocery stores. Going to work and going to school. But then COVID derailed us.
We initially thought that COVID would not interfere with our lives. It was “over there”. Then it rooted itself firmly here and didn’t look like it was going to move. This was the derailment that happened. We shifted activities from “in-person” to “online” – moving whole industries to an online environment and putting restrictions on those activities that needed to continue by and between actual human beings.
We were knocked off the tracks for a bit, but have accomplished remarkable feats of adaptation. Our communities across the world have found ways to live with work-arounds, temporary shortages, and even introduced new methods of doing things. Throughout it all, we have found ways to re-define “normal” to the point that today when I went to have coffee with friends, our conversation focused more on the habits we might not give up now that we have been told it is safe to come out and play again.
Everett M. Rogers coined the term “early adopters” to describe those who embrace some technologies before others. His model applies beautifully to COVID and how some were early adopters of social distancing, mask wearing, and now (of course) vaccines. Now that things have changed once again, we will see who is willing to brave being maskless and hugging.
There is a time lag between when the behaviors and ideas of innovators and early adopters are taking hold that others will follow. Different industries see different curves. If you own anything by Apple, you are more likely to be an early adaptor. Those of us who are die-hard Windows adherents can rightfully be accused of being “laggards” (in Rogers’ terminology).
This lag is also seen with how we acclimate ourselves once again to trusting that others have been vaccinated, or if not, that they are at least observing what we know to be effective strategies to minimize transmission. There are many of my friends who, being older, have more to risk in terms of their health, and so are more cautious. I would never accuse them of being slow adapters.
One of the greatest challenges I will personally face has to do with my all-too-quick-to-judge mindset that silently condemns individuals who fail to wear their mask properly, maintain six feet of distance and insist on walking the wrong-way down the aisles in my grocery store. It is as if I have turned my inner critic into a judge in the Spanish Inquisition (ala Monty Python). All my years of spiritual practice seem to melt in the face of the livid judgment I hold for those who are inconsiderate of others.
COVID’s toll has been more than steep. Millions of lives were lost that are mourned the world over. Governments have fallen. Economies have been up-ended. Countless families have been displaced. Careers have ended and true soul callings have been found for others. After a year of mask-wearing, social distancing, and washing our hands raw, we are now at a place where it can be done differently. I hope we don’t rush too quickly and mistakenly try to re-claim all that was there before.
Benefits? Of COVID?
I am not the only social observer to note that many benefits have come along with this pandemic. At the top of the list has to be practical application of mRNA. This 19-step process from “growing” the DNA to preparing the mNRA and lipids, and then putting them all into vials and finally shipping is remarkable in its complexity and elegance. We literally owe our freedom to the scientists, engineers, researchers and health care professionals (and all those who supported them) who manifested this protective shield.
Other benefits include the environment. I have come to not just value silence, but crave it. I am hoping that the traffic noise will remain less intrusive as we begin to re-emerge. I am listening to bird songs that were not heard before possibly because I could not hear them, but also because the birds and other wildlife have ventured back into territory they once ruled. I am hoping we find ways to co-exist.
I have learned new ways to connect with people and have tapped into a well of creativity that had been lost. I am far more comfortable with conducting business on the internet than I have ever been. I have learned to order food, clothing, entertainment, supplies, and repair persons without ever having to do anything other than push a few buttons.
The things I am looking forward to reintegrating include dining out, listening to live concerts and performances. And, eventually, even getting on a plane and traveling again.
When I look back, COVID seems shrouded in some ancient history even though it wasn’t but a year and a half ago. In some ways it doesn’t shock me that, as a species, we were able to change our behaviors (most of us) and adapt to what circumstances flung at us. The real test will be seeing whether we have gained any wisdom along the way and will keep those things that will serve all of us well in the future when the next threat arises.