What does COVID mean?
I ask myself this question all the time. Like many of you —– and perhaps simply as a symptom of being a reflective human being — I tend to seek meaning in hardship. Is God/the Universe/our Collective Unconscious punishing us? Have we pushed things so far in our shared ambition, greed, and short-sightedness that we’ve been placed in a collective lockdown-corner to think about what we’ve done? As childlike of an interpretation as this might sound (seeing COVID as the proportional response of a vengeful God/parent) I am aware that I don’t yet know what the pandemic means for me, let alone for all of us.
I do know that most of us have been pushed far past our edge over the last 18 months. Inner exhaustion and agitation have escaped an envelope that we hadn’t known our pre-pandemic coping skills to be. The impending —– or in some places, the already-progressing —– fourth wave will push us even further. COVID is changing us, and that feels scary. I see this all the time in the demoralized group psychotherapy patients I treat in my outpatient practice. I see it in my burnt-out colleagues and despairing inpatients at the hospital. I see it in me. Are we losing some kind of war within ourselves?
If there is a meaning, I think COVID is meant to break us, to weaken us. To take the wind out of sails on purpose. But I do not believe COVID is a punishment.
I have a bad ankle. From too many sprains on the basketball court and tennis court, and any other court I’ve spent too much time on, my right ankle is basically held together at this point with silly string and fairy dust. Unfortunately, sometimes the fairy dust fails and my ankle inverts —– another sprain. When this happens, I am devastated, angry, and in pain. I limp for a while.
When I’m healthy, I’m a natural, pitta-like hurrier. I walk fast and I know where I’m going. Sometimes I enjoy my hurry, sometimes I don’t. There’s exhilaration, stress, and absent-mindedness in the hurry. In the hospital, especially with the onslaught of COVID patients this past spring, there’s also a sense of self-efficacy and pride in the hurry. I think (fast), therefore I am (good).
A sprained ankle stops me in my tracks. There is the pain and frustration at not being at my best, but there’s also the slowwwwwwwness. As any of you who have had an acute or chronic lower limb condition know well, it’s hard to limp speedily. In fact, hurrying is so painfully out of the question that my inner hurrier eventually, reluctantly just gives up. Self-efficacy be damned!
There are two main ramifications of this surrender to slowness. First, I’m uncharacteristically late for things. I have a bad habit of overbooking myself, my success contingent on my frenetic pace of existence. Sadly, one can’t limp frenetically, and my schedule suffers the consequences. The second effect —– which never ceases to amaze me —– is that I see things that weren’t visible before. In my hurrying state, whether simply due to unconscious distraction or as a result of a ubiquitous ‘survival mode’ mentality, the suffering of others often fades into the background. The dishevelled, bone-thin man huddled in the corner of the subway station. The elderly woman tenuously balancing her walker on the ice as she reaches for the handicapped door button. Just like the infamous ‘good Samaritan’ psychology experiments, my hurrying can blind me to just about anything.
When I’m limping, however, I don’t just see more of the suffering: I actually want to help. My own slowness and suffering, as comparatively mild as it might be, does something to my empathic reserve. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t transform into some limping prophet of healing. It’s more like a curmudgeonly recognition of my ability to help, combined with a heightened willingness to do what I can. It’s some kind of alchemy that feels simultaneously obvious and difficult to accept. My own undeniable limitations laid plain before me by my weakened state make me more capable of compassionate action.
The interesting thing is, it doesn’t even feel that good! It only feels a little bit good. My own challenging experience of partial brokenness will still far outweigh any stranger’s gratitude, or any of my own do-gooder’s pride of selflessly doing good. I feel too weak to feel all that good anyway. But this is the best part: my weakness makes me both more willing to be compassionate and makes me care less about how good the results feel. In essence, experiencing weakness can make one care less about being better while paradoxically making one better.
To some of you, the comparison of the worst pandemic in 100 years to a sprained ankle might sound like a stretch. The idea that COVID was meant to weaken us in order to somehow make us better might sound like the privileged musings of a white, upper-middle-class doctor who managed to ride out lockdowns in relative ease. To those of you who think that, I say this: You’re absolutely right. I could enumerate all the ways my life has been disrupted by the pandemic, but they pale against the harms that have disproportionately hit underpaid essential workers and racialized communities. My prayers and sincere condolences go out every single day to those who have lost loved ones to this terrible disease, and to those whose livelihoods and life’s works have been irreparably damaged —– whether they are under my care or not.
But to those same skeptics, I will add this. Being constantly exhausted and agitated is horrible, even intolerable. It is hard to find meaning in this slog. I have a feeling, however, that if you’re reading this, you’re not going to stop searching for one. I’ll bet you might feel like you have way too much going on in your own life to add the stress of yet another ‘be more compassionate’ resolution to the list. You’re limping. I’m limping. If you help me, I can’t promise it will even feel that good. But it will probably feel a little bit good. And whether you feel it or not —– whether you have enough energy left to care —– I can promise you’ll be better for it.
About the Author
Dr. Joshua Weiss is an Assistant Clinical Professor at McMaster University. He received his BSc in Biochemistry from McGill University and his MD degree from the University of Manitoba. He completed his residency training at McMaster University, and served as Chief Resident in Family Medicine in his final year. Thereafter, Dr. Weiss accepted a position as a supervising hospitalist at the Brant Community Healthcare System, where he teaches McMaster University medical residents and medical students. In addition to teaching, Dr. Weiss has been the lead investigator for the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ Spontaneous Remission Annotated Bibliography (SRB) project since 2012. This IONS project has been ongoing since its initial publication in 1993 as the standard text on cancer and chronic disease spontaneous remission.