I think it all started when I watched Stephen King’s The Stand, shell-shocked, at a friend’s house as a 16-year-old. Then later I saw Outbreak. Shell-shocked again. After that, I read a paperback copy of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, a rare jaunt for me into nonfiction. That shocked my shell again. Then in college, I saw 28 Days Later. My shell? You guessed it.
I have been terrified by plagues and pandemics off and on for a few decades. It’s not something I’ve fixated on, thankfully, but when I encounter viruses in film or literature it always unnerves to the core. I’ve said for years that there is no horror movie, no slasher flick, that is scarier than a film depicting the spread of a highly contagious disease.
The most bone-chilling depiction I’ve seen was likely the 2011 film Contagion, which re-infected me with a fear that at that point had been largely dormant in my mind for a decade. I don’t think I could ever bear to watch that film again. In terms of unsettling horror, it’s on par with The Shining.
But it’s one thing to watch a movie about a horrifying thing you know in the back of your head could theoretically happen, but which seems somehow… unlikely. And it’s another thing entirely to learn firsthand that pandemics do actually happen. In our own world. During our own lifetime. Despite all of our modern technology and epidemiological advances. Right here in the United States of America. (And everywhere else too.)
Once you see that with your own eyes, as we all have now, you gain a new burden. Something you will carry with you for the rest of your life.
The burden of knowing.
And for me, that is perhaps the most destabilizing aspect of all of this. For the time being, my family and I have been spared from the financial and health ravages of this virus. But none of us have been spared from the sobering, soul-shaking realization that all those fictional Hollywood virus thrillers were in fact not fiction. They were warning us — with Hollywood embellishments, to be sure — of a real life supervillain that is far scarier than Thanos. A villain both invisible and devoid of motive. A villain so ruthless that it has robbed us of 100,000 (and counting) of our fellow U.S. citizens and a third of a million (and counting) of our fellow citizens of earth.
That knowledge is a heavy burden for any sensitive soul to bear. And in times like these, I wish I could grow thicker skin. I wish I had an N95 mask for my soul.
I envy anyone who is scientifically minded enough to have long realized in a matter-of-fact kind of way that something like this was possible, or even inevitable — given enough time — and are thus perhaps not reeling quite as much to see it all play out. I admire anyone who, either because of this or because they are simply level-headed, is able to keep their head… level.
For me, it’s all scary. And it’s all demoralizing. The burden of knowing is a weight I carry between my shoulder blades, wishing that I could somehow unencumber myself. That I could somehow un-know this truth. The truth that despite all our best-laid theologies and orthodoxies, some of which may well be entirely accurate, the world sometimes feels to our linear minds like ungoverned chaos. And that we appear to be at the mercy, for the time being, of a ruthless virus that seems to thwart our efforts at every turn.
But here’s what helps lighten my load. And please know that I fully realize that I’m in a small minority who enjoys this unearned luxury. I hope you won’t hold it against me.
Because of the dumb happy luck of our belated family timing, I currently live with not one but two human beings who are small enough that they have not yet accrued that burden of knowing.
It is true that Danielle and I have had a few very rudimentary exchanges with 3-year-old Greyson about the need for social distance, and we will need to strongly reinforce this messaging before an extended family convergence slated for this summer. But our little boy is, for the most part, charmingly unaware of the spread of the virus — or even what a virus is. Not to mention any details about the intense toll it has taken on society. And 20-month-old Violet has no inkling of any of it. The 4 of us live in a hermetically sealed little haven out here in the countryside, and our errands (beyond groceries) mostly involve exploring every corner of the woods across from our house.
As I carry around my burden of knowing, I draw strength from the lucky bliss of their not-knowing. And I am deeply grateful that we will someday be able to solemnly tell our children the story of this era, once they are older and able to process it. Somewhere down the road, when we are all detached from the immediacy of COVID-19’s horrors.
I imagine the wide eyes of my older children when they learn about the scourge they lived through as toddlers. A pandemic that ripped through every country, ravaged every economy, poured gasoline on everyone’s summer plans, and planted fear in just about everyone’s hearts.
All while Greyson and Violet happily played with their little animals and puzzles. And repeatedly slid down their plastic orange slide in the living room. And excitedly visited the woods and farms near our house. And curiously paged through their little books.
Unburdened by the weight of this dark knowledge.
And untouched by the virus of fear.
Just as children of all ages (in the perfect world we don’t inhabit) should be.