Finding Our Rhythm Again After COVID-19

by Curt Bentley

Over the years, I have learned something about performing music: Most of the time no one can really tell if you play a few wrong notes, but they’ll immediately pick up on a break or a pause, no matter how slight.

The predictable patterns of sound and space that form the rhythm of a song are taken for granted until taken away.  And, once removed, their absence is profoundly disorienting — both to the player and her audience.

Like a melody, the daily details of our lives float along over a predictable, comfortable rhythm: day blending into night and back into day, season following upon season, and year upon year.  For young children, school forms the daily pattern; for us older children, work.

Occasionally something happens — a lost job, a natural disaster, the death of a close loved one — that disrupts our rhythm and throws life into chaos.  We enter a temporary crisis mode, in which the underlying rhythm of our life pauses while we confront pressing details.  But this happens to individuals and small communities; perhaps, in the worst cases, a city or two.  Through it all, the daily rhythm goes on around us, and before long, pulls us back in sync.  Life, though perhaps modified in some unalterable way, moves on as before.

The rhythm of our life seems so constant, so strong, we cannot help but take it for granted.

Enter COVID-19, which has altered the rhythm of life in a way that no one alive has ever seen before.

Right now, despite our nascent re-opening, many of us are living in a sort of suspended reality; a temporary world.  I do not mean to say the current emergency isn’t real or serious.  Rather, to say that the way we’re living is not sustainable for any length of time.  We’re in crisis mode.  It’s human nature to focus on the challenge immediately in front of you — stay home, flatten the curve, stop the spread!

But what is abnormal is to see this type of suspension so universal, on such a large scale.  What happens when the whole world enters crisis mode at more or less the same time?  When we all stop together, who pulls us back on track?

For me, that thought is at least as terrifying as the immediate crisis.

Nearly two months into the COVID-19 pandemic (at least from the American point of view), we’re in a weird spot — the immediate danger of our healthcare system being overwhelmed has passed, while predictions of the death toll are again on the rise, after falling, after rising . . . . There is a sense, right or wrong, that we may have passed the worst of the pandemic, and concerns have shifted to the economic wreckage — much of it still unseen — left behind in its wake.

So what now?  We’ve flattened the curve as far as we’re able (or willing), and I think we’re still only beginning to perceive the real costs of COVID-19 — not masks and ventilators — but crippled industries, shuttered businesses, postponed health care, outwardly invisible mental and emotional damage, and profound loss of the sense of rhythm and normalcy.

In the coming months, we will learn whether a global economy can simply press “pause” for a month or two, hand out bridge loans in the meantime, and then resume life as normal.

I have no more of an idea of what to expect than anyone else.  But I’m worried and skeptical that too many of us think this is all too much like pressing play to restart an audio track after a brief conversation.  I suspect it is much more like an interrupted performance, which can sometimes be nearly impossible to just pick up and continue.

Some things that we’ve paused may never restart, and the ripple effects will be significant, cascading down through the decisions that form the the pattern of life — starting with the lost job, to the purchase decision, to the educational choice, the health consequence, relationship decision, and on and on.  Some of these changes may be beneficial; some might not be.  There’s likely to be a large disconnect between certain groups of white collar workers for whom social distancing principally meant work as usual with takeout instead of eat out, with some stimulus bonus cash, and those much more directly and comprehensively impacted.

The changes, and the unevenness of the impacts, all place stress on a rhythmic system designed to adapt to changes over time, not be shocked 10 years into the future with government orders and infusions of capital.  There are many lessons to be learned here, and it would behoove us to learn them quickly — especially with the uncertainty about what the upcoming flu season will bring.

In that spirit, let me offer a couple of things to think about as we prepare to resume in the aftermath of COVID-19

First, as we assess when and how we start life playing again, we would do well to consider very seriously the potential consequences of our current disruption.  Everyone — everyone — should be looking for ways to get back to the resumption of activities (I won’t say normal).  Quickly.  Safely.  Responsibly.  Crises are unavoidably political, but I worry that the debate about resuming activities will be tainted by political ideologies.  We are all the worse when we refuse to consider the ideas of half of our fellow citizens because of their political affiliations.  Restarting our global rhythm will be a collective endeavor.  It will be difficult to restart and move forward with each one pulling in different directions, undermining the other.  Keep an open mind and be willing to compromise.  In most things, we are not that far apart from each other.  Paralysis by disagreement will have even more serious consequences than usual.

Second — especially for those of us lucky enough to be able to move rather seamlessly back into work both COVID-19, let’s be mindful of the continuing nature of this crisis.  Such a severe disruption to life’s rhythm, both personal and economic, will have ongoing consequences.  For some who may have been living on the edge economically, socially, or emotionally prior to the current crisis, COVID-19 may be what pushes them into other emergency situations.  I worry that the support (especially of the non-economic variety) will dry up now that toilet paper is back on the shelves and there are outward signs that life is returning to normal.  The action and unity that’s been required of us in the current moment will be needed even more in the days ahead; unfortunately, I fear it will be in short supply.  Let’s remain mindful and careful of each other.

There are a number of very famous musicians who are so hyper-focused during performance that the slightest sound out of place — the misplaced cough or clap, or clatter from something dropped — so disturbs and throws them off-kilter that they have been known to stop performing and berate their audience!  This reminds me, to an extent, of our current situation.  This system we thought we largely impervious to interruption was brought to its knees by a relatively innocuous virus.  We have an opportunity to fix some of these hidden vulnerabilities.  Let’s be anxiously engaged in learning and preparing.  Whether it is for a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall, the next pandemic, or the next economic crisis, this is a nearly unprecedented learning opportunity.  Getting caught unprepared by an interruption like this once in a century is understandable, though unfortunate.  Twice in a year is unforgivable.  Let’s seize this chance and make sure we never have to see this type of panicked response again.

 

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