Averse to Risk

For the last two years or so I’ve been saying that scientists, doctors, and researchers, are the ones who are best equipped to understand what’s going on, and that they should be in the lead on this. I’ve said that it’s not primarily a political issue, not a regional or national problem, not a social or religious question, but rather at the core a question of biology – that is, science. People have been working and studying for years to learn the techniques and ways of thinking necessary to understand and eventually solve this kind of problem. I would not trust a person who had read a few articles about PTSD to help me through my trauma of a few years back, or hire someone to diagnose and repair an electrical issue in my home who had no training but very strong opinions about the subject. Feelings, opinions, flashes of inspiration, building group consensus, all these things are important in some areas of life. Science and fact-based reasoning are important in others. This is not to say that social, religious, and political leaders have no role to play in this situation, only that, in my opinion, they should not be in the lead.

My knowledge of the scientific method is limited, but it has not surprised me that it has taken some time for the scientific community to understand the pandemic and come up with ways to address it. In our present-day world, with its rapid communication, feedback loops, and incestuous amplification, it’s also not surprising that the perception has been that arriving at a solution has taken forever. Moving from one educated guess to the next, revising and sharpening the guesses based on knowledge gained from the previous attempts, has in the past been done without an audience commenting on each step along the way. This is no longer the case, and there is no way to distinguish, without careful examination, the difference between an unsupported claim and a hypothesis that is one of the steps of the scientific method. Figuring out the nature of the virus, its strengths and weaknesses, and the best way to combat it while minimizing the risk, is a deliberate process. Visiting a construction site and saying to the contractor, “That’s not what I want it to look like,” only demonstrates a lack of understanding that a thing, or an idea, or a work of art for that matter, looks very different while being created than it does when complete. There’s an old saying that states that it’s better not to know how laws and sausages are made, meaning, among other things, that the details of creation are messy.

So, when the scientific community in general and the CDC in particular told me I needed to stay at least six feet away from people, stop going out to eat, wear a mask when mingling with others was unavoidable, use curbside pickup at the grocery store, and all the other strategies that have been recommended or required, I followed the instructions without complaint or question. I assumed that these measures were temporary, and that after the crisis had been dealt with that we could relax our vigilance. I have long been a private person, introverted by nature, so this was largely a matter of inconvenience rather than anything more serious.

I have been, so I thought, looking forward to the “return to normal” that we’ve all assumed was coming. A couple of days ago the CDC lowered the risk for my particular corner of the world from high to medium and said, essentially, that I can leave my mask at home and go to the store, out to eat, and so on, since I am not immunocompromised or in any of the other high risk categories, and my vaccination and booster shots are up to date.

As it turns out, the fact that I have been living my life for the last two years or so in a way that deliberately minimizes risk has resulted in a pretty high degree of discomfort at the thought of, for example, just walking into a store and doing some shopping. Or going out to eat with friends. Or going to church. Or having a few people over for a dinner and conversation. That last one has been one of the pleasures even an introvert like me can enjoy.

The church shooting in 2008 left me with, among other things, an increased aversion to risk, particularly in regard to being in groups of people. COVID-19 is rekindling that mindset, I fear, and I don’t relish the thought of stepping back into the social world. The temptation to stay in retreat is very strong. On the other hand, last fall I did buy a weekend pass to this year’s Big Ears festival, so there’s that. Whether or not I go remains to be seen.

Reentry

For the last year, the prospect of contracting COVID-19 scared me. I stayed at home, masked up, ate in, sanitized, used curbside grocery shopping, modified holidays until they were almost unrecognizable, and generally hunkered down to ride it out. I got used to the new routines and stayed very faithful to them, partly out of concern for others, and partly out of self-preservation. I watched the pandemic roll across the globe, and I was afraid. For myself, for my aged parents, for my children and their children, and for all of us.

On Friday we will get our second round of Moderna, and join the growing group of people who have taken an important step toward beating back the pandemic. We’re beginning to talk about seeing friends, visiting our children and my parents, going into a grocery, a bookstore, a restaurant.

And I’m afraid.

I’m an introvert and have usually been at least a little uncomfortable in groups. My private nature has made hunkering down a relatively small adjustment, and I mostly worried in a general sense about the essential workers, and wondered at the risks the more (daring, reckless, stupid — pick your descriptor) among the rest of us were willing to accept. The thought of stepping back into the world scares the hell out of me.

One of our friends asked us to join him and his wife to celebrate her birthday yesterday. It was just the four of us, they have been as careful as we have been, we were out on their porch, they are fully vaccinated, and we have already had the first round. It was a relatively short visit, no birthday hugs, and all four of us were very careful. I spent a good portion of the morning worrying about the lunch visit. While it was really good to make contact, limited as it was, with good friends, it was hard. That very small step was difficult.

It took a little while to settle into the quarantine routine; I wonder about letting go of it. It’s become comfortable. I think about picking up where I left off a year ago, and it seems so very risky, like I’m consciously deciding to put myself and those around me at risk.

Life is risk. I know this. I know I’ll figure out how to adjust to whatever the new parameters and expectations are. Learning how to minimize risk in the post-quarantine environment is going to be a challenge for all of us, and scary for some, including me.

Wish me luck, y’all.

A Lost Year?

I am beginning to see more people voicing disagreement with the characterization of our children as having lost a year of school due to the pandemic, and I’m glad that is happening. While it is true that they have lost classroom time, it is not the case that they have gone a year without education.

We can, if we choose, regard these children as having been through an experience that is not quantifiable or measurable by any standardized test, a lesson in adaptation and resilience that could not have been planned or fit into a curriculum. We can try to be alert and sensitive to the emotional, physical, and spiritual damage that might have been done and also help them understand what new skills and strengths they have now. 

The above is true for the rest of us as well, and surviving this gives us all a unique opportunity to reinvent the world and our place in it. It would be a shame if we let it slip away from us while we tried to hang on to the way it used to be. There are things we have set aside, and soon we will begin deciding whether or not to pick them up again. Those decisions are better done on purpose, rather than without consideration. We all change the world in small ways every day, sometimes in one direction, sometimes another. Here is a chance to do so deliberately.

The pandemic has not offered us many silver linings, but this is a big one.