Updated: Jan 7, 2021
(This was originally published in the Five Towns Jewish Times)
When my oldest was two years old, he attended a half day playgroup. One day, while walking him to “school” he told me that he was having “two feelings.”
“One feeling is I’m sad that I’m not gonna have my mommy while I’m in school. And the other feeling is that I’m happy when I play with my friends.”
I was blown away by his innocent, honest ability to express what even I, as an adult, have difficulty navigating: the coexistence of conflicting emotions.
In therapy, this is called a dialectic.
In reality, it exists everywhere.
In this particular moment in history, I’m experiencing two sets of feelings about a particularly polarizing issue.
For the past seven months, our lives have been mostly on hold, paralyzed by a virus we were told to avoid.
Since March, as instructed, all my sessions have been virtual, and my husband has been working from home. Our kids have been home-schooled for years, so no change there. We limited our outings to essential errands with masks, canceled our usual activities and travels, and turned down any invitations to meetings, parties, or gatherings of any kind.
We did this not because we were especially scared of the virus nor because we thought it would truly protect us. We knew there was a fair chance that we eventually would contract it regardless of our efforts. But we followed protocol about social distancing and staying home because that seemed to be the general consensus of “what to do.” The majority opinion seems to believe that for now, this is the ethical way to conduct ourselves. With the pathetically little we know about this virus, this seems to be how the general public and authorities believe we should make efforts to restrict the contagion. Is it working? We have no idea. It might be far worse if we hadn’t taken these precautions, or it might have been exactly the same. We don’t know and we won’t know.
When I hear people aggressively promote mask wearing, hand washing, quarantine, and social distancing, I empathize. I relate to the desire to be safe, to protect others, and ourselves, from illness. I don’t know if I believe that this effectively does that, but I completely resonate to the idea of wanting to try to do what we can to limit the damage, in whatever way possible. And to honor the opinions and work of those medical professionals on the front lines, and the needs of those who believe this is what makes the difference. So we’ve complied, consistently. I wear a seat-belt even though I drive safely.
When I hear people aggressively challenge mask wearing, hand washing, quarantine, and social distancing, I empathize. I too hate being told what to do, restricted, or coerced by society or government. I relate to the serious concerns about mental health, economic crisis, and global trauma. I too question the veracity of the information we are offered, which seems to change weekly, and is always biased by agendas and anxieties on both sides. As a mental health professional and a mom, I see the devastating effects these measures have on families and communities and worry about the long-term toll on humanity. The uncertainty is agonizing. How far do we go? What even helps? I wouldn’t vote to ban cars in order to eliminate motor vehicle accidents, even though it would.
Who defines what endangers public health?
Who decides at what point social responsibility morphs into germophobic neurosis?
Living in a bubble will protect us from the slings and arrows of danger, but at what point is that no longer really living? I don’t have clear answers. I don’t believe anyone does. But strong feelings abound.
As I often feel: I wish we had a prophet, a crystal ball to tell us definitively what’s right.
I have two feelings. I want safety and I want freedom. I want diversity and I want respect.
I relate to all the logic and reasoning and fear and frustration on both sides.
What I don’t relate to is the hate. The contempt. The extremist intolerance for alternate perspectives.
Yes, it’s frustrating for those of us who put our lives on hold for the perceived “greater good” to see others partying as though there is no Pandemic. But when I search my soul, is it really just about health? Is that also anger superiority, righteous indignation? Is it fear of more antisemitic persecution? Is it jealousy? “How dare they enjoy their lives when we are stuck at home? How dare they risk others’ lives and injure our communal reputation? Why do they get to visit with family and friends when we haven’t seen ours for months?”
And it’s terrifying to picture the opposite extreme: more lock-downs, more unemployment, more isolation and helplessness, more divisiveness, more loss of freedom and expression. The gradual breakdown of society as we know it, by a microorganism.
We did everything we were told. And we still got the virus.
There were never any guarantees; we knew that.
Where does that leave us?
“This illness is awful! Do whatever you can to avoid it! Try even harder.” Or:
“We followed every rule and still contracted it; it doesn’t help. Just go out and live your lives!”
Even the chosen “moral of the story” can be tainted by the original agenda.
Are those who flout precautions endangering others’ lives and well-being?
Are those who would force them on others constructing a contemporary tower of Babel?
And then G-d Himself is invoked by both sides:
If I believe in G-d, can I say He wants us to try and protect each other by following the guidelines or does that mean proceeding with “business as usual” and not “interfering” with His plan at all?
I have two feelings, and two dozen feelings.
But mostly I don’t know. And when I don’t know, I try to opt for what seems moral and just and reasonable.
Am I sorry I followed protocols all these months? No. It didn’t ultimately prevent my own infection, but it may have delayed the spread in some other way. Or it may not have, but it communicated to others that I respect their beliefs and feelings. I’m not sorry I wore seat belts all the times I didn’t crash.
To be honest, it hasn’t been much sacrifice for us; we have been able to continue to work from home. We have a yard and a basement, and kids who already home-schooled and are old enough to not require constant supervision. The version of the illness we had was unpleasant but not dangerous in our cases. I plan to continue following protocols now that we’ve healed, thank G-d, not because I’m sure it helps, but because I’m not sure it doesn’t.
My heart goes out to those with small children, small living spaces, and those who can’t work. I imagine the added hardship and I can’t judge the toll it takes and the corners they may have needed to cut.
My heart goes out to those living alone, to the elderly, and to the medically compromised; this is all the more scary and traumatic for them.
My heart goes out with empathy and gratitude to the medical professionals on the front lines of this crisis- the danger and trauma they face in their life-saving work.
My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones to this plague, to those hospitalized, to those whose physical and mental health has been further compromised by it.
Everyone is living this nightmare in his or her own way. I hope and pray it ends soon.
None of us know exactly how and when it will end.
There is only one thing about which I have clarity:
Hate and mudslinging won’t make this better. Love and respect will.
If you're considering therapy to help you deal with this or any other stressor, you might want to check this out.