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Our Pandemic Life: The most dreadful year drags on

| By Shawn Vestal

Highly personal reflections on life during the coronavirus from photographer Brian Plonka and columnist Shawn Vestal.

Calpurnia pleaded with Caesar not to go to the Senate on that fateful March day.

The previous night’s portents were dire: A lioness gave birth in the streets. The graves opened and out came the dead. Ghosts raced in the streets, shrieking. Spectral warriors fought battles in the clouds, raining blood on the Capitol.

“You shall not stir out of your house today,” Calpurnia implored her husband, in the second act of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

Caesar’s answer was fearless – and reckless: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never die but once.”

He did go to the Senate that day, of course, where a mob of senators delivered his one valiant death. What might have saved his life is a little of the wise fear Calpurnia tried to instill in him.

A little dread.

You cannot live your life in continual fear, but only a fool does not fear the legitimately fearful.

Which brings us to 2020, the year of perpetual dread.

• • •

Trump supporters garner attention above Interstate 90 in North Idaho (Brian Plonka)
Trump supporters garner attention above Interstate 90 in North Idaho (Brian Plonka)

Was there a blood rain last November? Did the graves yawn and lionesses whelp in the streets?

Eleven months into the pandemic, the curve soars, unflattened. Hospitals overflow. Hundreds and hundreds of Americans die every single day, a pace unchecked for months. The virus is spreading so widely that in many places it is no longer practical, or possible, to trace the path of the infections.

It’s everywhere. And the experts are warning that it will get worse.

Such a dreadful year.

Millions upon millions are without work, searching for employment in a brutal job market. Businesses have closed or teeter on the brink. For many of us, the next mortgage payment or rent check carry an added layer of stress and uncertainty. Essential workers walk the line between going broke and risking their health. Public institutions face deep shortfalls threatening everything they do, from providing college educations to picking up the garbage.

Such a dread-full year.

A Trump supporter spends his day driving and gathering support for President Trump in Post Falls, Idaho (Brian Plonka)
A Trump supporter spends his day driving and gathering support for President Trump in Post Falls, Idaho (Brian Plonka)

Politically, we are wildly divided, an anxious, angry nation marching to the strains of competing fife-and-drum corps – opposing contingents defending contradictory creeds, avowing contradictory truths, worshipping contradictory faiths, alleging contradictory blasphemies.

Most of us understand and accept the need for the sacrifices we’re making now. Most of us can do the math – 240,000 dead and counting, from a virus met with a federal shrug. Most of us, like Calpurnia, look at the state of the world and think: Be careful. Be wise. Stay home.

But even the would-be Caesars, the supposedly valiant, who deny the reality of the pandemic or refuse to adopt simple, safe precautions – they, too, are marching to the meter of dread and dread’s close cousins: fear, anxiety, sadness, fury.

Dread of unseen forces controlling the world. Dread of existential threats to their vision of union. Dread of a pandemic conspiracy or shadowy cabals of liberal pedophiles. Dread of the other side, of other people, the wrong people, the servants of a dangerous future.

• • •

It is not, of course, only a dreadful year. Life proceeds. Life adapts. Some of us, under the pressure of constant family togetherness, have forged stronger ties with our loved ones. Some of us, under the pressure of extended family absence, have gained new appreciation for those we miss.

Absence has made our hearts grow fond of so much – fond of the people we rarely see, fond of the things we love to do in normal times, fond of the simple pleasures of being out in the community, together.

A movie. A show. A game. A wedding.

And there have been inspiring examples of sacrifice and generosity, from the hospitals to the food banks, from teachers to epidemiologists. Doctors and nurses rising to meet the challenge of a lifetime. Neighbors reaching out to lift neighbors.

We know this is where the light is.

In helping others. In thinking of others.

We know this will pass.

Yet it often feels as if it will not. The virus, the economy, the uncertainty – it’s as if there were a low, disorienting, inescapable hum running continually behind these strange days.

We move among each other, masked and separate, alienated by precaution. Childhoods have been rendered unrecognizable, from the classroom to the football field to the senior prom. Mere old age and infirmity have been made more treacherous. Work lives, for those of us lucky to have them, have been turned upside-down.

Real life – physical life, in-person life, human life – has been turned thin with digital substitutes.

• • •

Say you were required to receive an electric shock and given a choice between a mild shock several weeks from now or a higher-voltage shock right now.

Which would you choose?

A Trump supporter gets into his rig decorated with flags in Post Falls, Idaho. (Brian Plonka)
A Trump supporter gets into his rig decorated with flags in Post Falls, Idaho. (Brian Plonka)

Researchers, wanting to understand how people make decisions, have on more than one occasion put subjects through this scenario. Overwhelmingly, people choose to get it over with – to take the shock now. People whom the researchers call “extreme dreaders” accept much larger voltages to avoid the wait.

The idea of waiting – of experiencing even that minor level of dread – was considered more painful than the shock. What researchers found in one of these studies, published in 2006 in the journal Science, was that those with the greatest dread showed neurological activity in the brain’s so-called pain matrix, the network that responds to discomfort.

Dread is pain, and we are built to avoid pain. All this dread – and the ways we respond to it – is bad for us. Bad for our bodies and our minds. Dread, fear and anxiety have effects on the body. It influences our heart rate, our breathing, our brain chemistry. It trips neural triggers that hinder long-term thinking, trains our attention on future uncertainties, and it produces fight-or-flight chemicals in the brain.

Scientists are studying the role of dread in the poor decisions that many of us make, from eating too much to smoking – they hypothesize that dread, like its cousins fear and anxiety, clouds long-term thinking, makes it difficult to make the patient but wise choice in the face of the seemingly urgent need to do something to tamp down the dread.

A body under the influence of dread doesn’t work right.

Neither does a nation.

We get louder and meaner. We trade private opinion for public demonstration. We share and we share online, where we are relentless hawkers of today’s dreadful news. We trade a yard sign for a flag, and then for a larger flag, and then for two larger flags.

Dread tells us we’re right when we’re wrong. It tells us our neighbor is our enemy. It tells us our fear is wisdom, our anger is righteousness.

It floats inside us, loose and amorphous.

It looks for a host, where it can grow and grow.

More stories in this series: