April 24, 2020
For a long time now, I have believed in the power of words. This is much to my wife’s chagrin (she often accuses me of taking her words too literally, an oxymoron since, in my view, words can only be taken to mean what they… well… mean). I so hold to this notion that in college I once gave an entire speech on the importance of word choice. While researching that assignment, I discovered a quote by Mark Twain that has become one of my favorite sayings. In The Art of Authorship, Twain is quoted as saying, “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
Words matter. They possess power – the power to fortify or transform, to connect or divide, to heal or destroy, and to spread love or sow fear. Words are so consequential in our world because of one very specific aspect of human nature: we are social. We desire connection. Human beings are not meant to live in isolation. And while this may seem obvious, this truth has manifested itself in our lives more dramatically in the past month than any other time in recent history.
When I first considered writing something related to the quarantine, my inclination was to write something philosophical. I’ve always gravitated towards the abstract, and this seemed like an ideal situation for exploring deep unanswered questions about the nature of thought and existence. After all, during unfamiliar, challenging times, we discover truths about ourselves and the world around us. And so I attempted to access those conceptions. I burrowed deep into my mind in an effort to ruminate on personal, raw feelings – feelings about self-worth, about purpose, and feelings about misplaced priorities worthy of re-examination in light of the pandemic.
I relied on some trusted sources for inspiration – I tried reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau to get back in touch with nature and to appreciate my newfound isolation. I spent time sitting outdoors looking up at the sky or studying trees. Taken alone, these activities sound pretentious. This was not my intent, though. I wasn’t trying to elevate myself above others or imbue some deep, sanctimonious motif into the world’s suffering. Instead, I sought a simplicity I felt was missing from life up until this moment. Really, though, I was grasping for meaning, trying to yank some sliver of significance out of a chaotic, meaningless situation. And so I resolved to appreciate the world around me instead of letting it slip by unnoticed.
Except that my moods and, consequently, ideas changed too rapidly. Another aspect of the quarantine (one I failed to plan for) is its ability to cause dramatic emotional swings. At times, I found solace in the quiet. At other points, though, I felt lonely. Sometimes the forced simplicity of the pandemic was heartening – we were learning that people and relationships matter more than status or wealth. Other times, skepticism set in – even on the idea of how to save lives, we stand divided. I saw the existential in this moment in time: our experience of the shelter-in-place order will be what we make of it. But I also recognized the nihilism: sometimes our circumstances push and pull us, and we are helpless to fight the storm.
Instead of feverishly writing about these conflicting ideas, I sat immobile. Every night, after a day of working from home and discussing COVID-19 and taking care of the kids, I found myself mentally and emotionally exhausted. The idea of meditating on the meaning of our current situation drained me further.
What I should have recognized is that this is a symptom of the times. The pandemic derailed our entire way of life, and we are struggling to respond. It is natural to waver. When we endure fear and boredom simultaneously, we are reacting naturally, though it feels foreign. Many of us fight helplessness daily, and end up overwhelmed and empty. For once, we don’t know what to think or how to respond. And so, we bounce around, listless, irritable, downtrodden.
Recently, I learned of the #ReadALetter campaign. Website Open Culture posted an article discussing the campaign, and in it author Colin Marshall proclaims that instead of reducing connectedness, the Coronavirus pandemic has “certainly intensified global communication.” He goes on to remind us that, in the absence of social media and constant news cycles, letter writing was the preferred method of communication.
Upon reading this, I realized that this is what is needed in the here and now. Discovering life-altering truths is noble. It is admirable to take this time to learn something new or to eliminate bad habits. Certainly, this pandemic is revealing what it means to be human, and it is worthwhile to explore these ideas and to better ourselves.
But what should we do if we aren’t at that point in the cycle? What about those of us that are exhausted from constant anxiety? What about mothers that are now teachers? What about parents that must balance full-time work-from-home arrangements while also providing constant attention to frustrated, stir-crazy kids? What about students missing out on formative social experiences, or young professionals trying to enter a workforce that is on hold? And let us not forget the hardest hit among us – people who have lost their jobs, or the essential who are forced to endanger themselves for minimal pay. Doctors, nurses, surgeons, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and more, daily coming into contact with a disease that keeps the rest of us locked away. What is there to say to those of us who can’t find the energy to move beyond the moment-to-moment?
To us, I say – Words have power. They give us strength. They bring us together. Words build us up and let us know that we are not alone. We do not need to be defined by our differences. We do not need to face this thing and each other. We can do this together. Let’s move beyond the trivial to unite against the monumental. Let’s lean on each other and hold each other up.
So, I decided to write a letter. More than theories and worldviews and essays deconstructing existence, I am convinced that we need something uplifting. People need to connect, and letters remind us that even when physically isolated, we do not need to lift our burdens alone.
My letter is simply a confession. I am strained right now. I am weary. Some days I am optimistic. I commit to changing for the better – I will extend more grace and kindness; I will serve others; I will devote my time to worthwhile pursuits. Other days, I fail miserably. I am short with those around me. I become frustrated. And I eat too much and watch too much Netflix.
But words can help. We can remind each other that this great Mosaic can only be properly viewed and enjoyed when done so in collaboration. One may know they are not alone, but to empathize with neighbors, to commiserate with friends who are trapped in similar cycles of despair, to fight alongside one another and to struggle in unison and to celebrate as one, that is the very definition of life.
Read these words and take heart: People are good, life is good, we will overcome. Together.