I Will Do the Right Thing, and I Will Be Extremely Bitter About It
When the systems have failed you, personal responsibility is hard.
Winter is descending upon Chicago, and all my quarantine coping mechanisms are dying like the leaves. The skies are gray and a cool slick wetness covers everything. The coffee shop patio I sat at all summer is closed. Now when I try to sit outside, my joints get stiff and a chill rapidly seeps into my core. The lake is frigid. The parks are muddy and devoid of people.
To share a drink in the backyard with a couple of friends, I need a parka and layers of blankets. To find privacy I have to hide at the topmost floor of my apartment’s dusty stairwell. To get any work done I have to brave a bus dotted with unmasked people, and ride it eight miles south to my ghost town of an office.
It’s only open once per week, my office, and technically I don’t need to be there. Going downtown is an unnecessary risk. An extravagance I might not deserve. Yet I brave it every week, I look forward to it actually, because it’s the only place where I can focus on my little meaningless work tasks and pretend to be a human with an imaginable future.
Lucky, I’m so lucky; I have an office, but I don’t have to visit it if I don’t want to. I have an safe apartment and a boyfriend who is considerate and understands I’m at my wit’s end. I have a job! I have health insurance. I have a warm bed to lay in, unmoving, for the next five dreary months. I’m so lucky. I’m losing hope.
Just catch COVID and get it over with, my brain says. How much longer can you go on like this?
It’s not that I want to go back to normal. I know that the normal is gone. I recognize that any attempt at pantomiming my old life would only feel hollow and tragic. I refuse to kill people by pretending things are fine.
I haven’t been to a restaurant. I haven’t been to a movie. I haven’t been on a plane. I haven’t been to a bar. I haven’t been to any parties. I don’t go into anybody’s house. I don’t shop very much, though I suppose I could shop less. I’ve ridden the train, but mostly for virtuous-seeming reasons like doctor’s appointments and protests.
When the conventions and conferences were cancelled, I accepted it as necessary. When the concert tickets were refunded, I was grateful. When my winter travel plans became an impossibility, I knew I was lucky to have such a problem. When the businesses started shuttering and my friends’ unemployment ran out, I kept my donations rolling in as best I could.
I had to be strong because I was so lucky. I had to do the right things, and make the wise choices, even as my mayor was opening up the bars and my president was conspiring to hide the number of active COVID cases. The systems had failed us, so it was up to individuals to bare down and get through this. Nevermind that cases had spread to the degree that individual actions had no prayer of ever containing it. Our institutions had shrugged off their responsibilities, and now each of us had to behave as if we held dozens of lives in our hands. Because we did.
On good days, I tried to be an uplifting cheerleader about this whole thing. I shared the good science. I modeled the “right” behaviors. I masked and kept my distance, and strategized how to gently correct the people who weren’t doing the same. I wrote essays encouraging people to be responsible. I helped my fellow educators to move their classes online. I called for my University to close campus. I explained the importance of ventilation dozens of times.
I’m very privileged to have these outlets. I was just doing the basic responsible thing. It feels like it was completely useless. I want to give up. I can see lockdown stretching forward months, even years into the future, a bleak expanse of monotonous time. I think about how lonely I’ll be, and the community support my friends will lack; the poverty and squandered youth and the pain. I’m acutely aware that hundreds of thousands of people will continue slowly dying despite all of it. I know we have no choice but to minimize the damage, but I resent the hell out of it.
I fantasize about sneaking off to underground parties and speakeasies where the air is cloudy with fomites. I want to smell strangers’ sweat and drink overpriced beer from open cups in a concert venue with shitty air circulation. I want to live gloriously and recklessly and go out in glorious flames, instead of languishing for years, well-behaved and half-alive.
I won’t do it, of course. These are just mental scabs I can’t help but pick. Imagining the end of all this brings me comfort. But I can’t fantasize about it ending well anymore; that just doesn’t seem plausible. So even in my dreams, a return to freedom and playful abandon comes with a death wish.
There’s this tweet making the rounds right now, which says that by choosing to stay indoors for the past seven months, each of us has probably saved at least one life. Many people find it comforting and uplifting.
With all due respect to those who have drawn strength from this tweet, reading it only makes me feel bitter and sad. I can’t take any pride in having done the right things, or in having “chosen” to make sacrifices in order to save lives. Most of us didn’t have much of a choice to enter into lockdown. By the time our cities and states took action, we were at a point of crisis. We had to isolate and are still having to isolate because we were all failed systematically on every level.
When I did the “right” things, it was because I had to, and because I could afford to, and because gentle, supportive social pressure in my liberal city kept me relatively honest. I have no doubt that if I were lonely and unemployed and bored in rural Ohio, I’d have gone to restaurants and bars by now. Not that it would have been worth it. I just would have given in to the despair.
As a well-off professor in a blue city, healthy decisions have been facilitated for me. My “good” actions are social, not moral. And they don’t count for much, when so many people throughout the country have been forced back to work and so many schools have been opened, and the spread has no prayer of being contained. I can stay home to keep from killing additional people, and I will — but it won’t be enough.
How many systems had to fail catastrophically at protecting the public, for me to wind up with so many lives in my hands? I will do what I must, and I’ll take comfort in having many considerate and responsible friends. But putting all this responsibility in the hands of individuals is not enough, was never enough.
In order to keep COVID at bay, we needed more than small changes to individual behavior. We needed mass testing, contact tracing, swifter and more organized lockdowns, rent assistance, eviction moratoriums, mandatory quarantines for travelers, public health care, and political representatives who valued lives more than restaurant industry profits. We got none of that. And in the absence of all of it, our individual actions are just a band-aid placed atop a seeping gash.
In our deeply individualistic American culture, we tend to focus on the power of personal choice. We do this even when facing problems with such massive systemic roots that individual actions can scarcely make a dent in them. It gives us comfort, to believe that it all comes down to personal control. Makes us feel powerful. Shaming other people for being “bad” feels very good. Admitting we are all victims of mass negligence feels really fucking bleak.
I’m sad. I’m scared. I’m bitter as hell. I will continue to be good, but I know that the longer this goes on, the more variation we’ll see in COVID risk tolerance, in necessary trade-offs, in trauma-fueled self-destructiveness. The more cases climb and climb, the more we will see individual people being blamed for being “narcissistic” or “stupid” or “reckless.” The more we blame individual people, the less we’ll demand intervention from those with the actual power and resources to make a dent in this thing.
It’s not that individual choices don’t matter. They do. It’s not that my actions are meaningless. They have meaning. It’s just that I’m sick of impotently doing the right thing while the people who actually rule the world resolutely refuse to help. I need to admit how horrible it feels. I need to vent, to mourn the unnecessary losses of life and connection and joy, and to acknowledge that all of this is as unsustainable as it is necessary.
I will continue doing the right thing. I hope you do too. But it’s okay to be extremely fucking bitter about it.