“Are we there yet?” – the timeworn wail from kidlets in the back seat on family road trips. When he was very little, I gave my son Ben five nickels at the start of one memorable trip (it was back in the 1980s, when a nickel was worth a nickel!) with one strict condition: every time he whined, “Are we there yet? How much longer?”, he’d have to forfeit one nickel. After giving up the first two nickels, we heard not one more peep from that little boy tightly clutching his three remaining coins. (Parents: if you try this strategy, considering inflation, you’ll probably have to give your kid five $10 bills up front).
After months of our current COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are as frustrated as Ben in the back seat. We’re hearing more every day about “re-opening” our communities, but are we really there yet? .
Not knowing the expiry date is maddening. Consider this comparison from Emergency physician Dr. Esther Choo at Oregon Health & Science University, who recently tweeted about a familiar scenario:
“My husband and I were running the other day and hit a hill. He said, ‘How long does this go on? 1/4 mile? 1/2 mile?’ I answered that I had no idea. We both lost steam instantly. So much of sustaining the mental game for a high intensity effort is knowing the endpoint.”
And that is the problem with a novel global pandemic, my heart sisters: we simply do NOT know when the endpoint will be. Politicians who try to convince you otherwise are merely promising you pie in the sky, as if the end is somehow a circled date on the calendar. It is not.
The end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the re-opening of society and the abandonment of public safety precautions are moving targets, as Forbes succinctly reported this week:
“We will not hear a bell ring with an ‘all clear’ signal. Instead, opening will be in phases, which will differ regionally.”
Still, all of us long to be given assurances that by _______ (fill in the blank with your preferred date: Father’s Day, summertime, Labour Day), life will definitely be back to normal.
As I read recently on the breast cancer blog called After Five Years:
“I can eat an elephant a bite at a time – if I know how much is left.”
This blogger, a woman named Lauren, compares her current self-isolation with a recurring nightmare she used to have during her own cancer treatments:
“I would regularly have bad dreams. A nightly one was where I was running a marathon. Running and running and running, I would arrive at each mile marker, yet no one would tell me which mile it was, or how much farther I had to go. In the dream, I had no idea how many miles I had come, yet I knew I was exhausted.
“Like in my running dream, it is very hard to do something now when you don’t know how long it will last. Uncertainty is draining.
“But it seems with COVID-19, we are finding that the number, the ‘how long’, is always changing, ever fluid. We think we know what mile marker we are running toward, say 14 days, but it keeps getting moved. It’s exhausting.”
And promising an unrealistically early endpoint can actually make things far worse in the long run. (It’s like repeatedly telling Ben, “Soon, honey, soon!” in response to his “Are we there yet?” wails from the back seat – especially when we don’t mean “soon” at all).
We’re already seeing signs from countries who first battled the pandemic that a second wave of infection is indeed a significant risk. Some areas of China, for example, that were shut down by the virus and then re-opened had precautionary restrictions re-imposed last month because of the alarming spread of new COVID-19 cases. And much of the rest of the world is in fact still struggling to get the current wave under control.
The U.S., for example, as of 4 a.m. Friday May 1, 2020, had its highest single day COVID-19 24-hour death count ever: 2,909 people died of the virus. That’s almost as high as the fatality rate on 9/11. How on earth can this reality be interpreted as a country ready for business as usual?
Consider also what’s known as the Stockdale Paradox, as explained in Jim Collins’ book, Good To Great:
“Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States military office in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner rights, no certainty as to whether he would survive to see his family again, and no set release date.
“I never lost faith in the end of the story,’ he said. ‘I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life.’
“He was asked: ‘Who did NOT make it out?’
“Oh, that’s easy,’ he said. ‘The optimists.’
“The optimists were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas!’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.
“And they died of a broken heart.
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
When we demand a set-in-stone end date and a forced return to “normal”, we’re like those kids riding in the back seat. We’re not behind the wheel. We’re tired. We’re bored. We’re frustrated. We don’t want this to be happening to us. “Are we there yet?” becomes an impotent wail of protest.
But I love the way that Lauren at “After Five Years” reminds us:
“I promise you, you will once again have a day where COVID-19 doesn’t greet you each morning or shake you awake from dreamy innocence. A brain free from COVID-19 thoughts will greet you for a few seconds each morning, and then will linger a few moments longer, and eventually, it will start to stay around all day.
“And you will find that COVID-19, like cancer did for me, will become something that happened long ago.
“And you will have lived your way into normal.”
Please. Stay safe.
Image of the Rockies: Public Co, Pixabay
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about adjusting to crises and other life changes in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (who are having a Spring Book Sale: use their code HTRY to save 30% off the list price).
Q: Are you trusting that one day, you will have “lived your way into normal” again?
– Heart Patients Warned of Risks from Coronavirus (COVID-19) from The American College of Cardiology’s CardioSmart patient report