Disaster, pandemics, and emergencies often produce stories of courage. Such stories lift us, and catastrophes can bring us closer towards the ideals of community and altruism. This is highlighted in an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: “The word emergency comes from emerge, to rise out of, the opposite of merge, which comes from mergere, to be within or under a liquid, immersed, submerged. An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.”
Solnit’s exploration of disaster covers individual and community reactions to natural disasters, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Loma Prieta earthquake. But as transformative as emergence can be, what does this look like while still in the midst of it?
It feels preemptive to discuss emergence while sitting in the living room where I’ve spent 15 hours a day for the past month — bradycardic afternoons mirroring the day prior. Yet each day the sun emerges, and we along with it, venturing out onto balconies and porches. As medical students, we take our pro re nata walks and remember to cross the street so our paths don’t intersect those of our neighbors. Press briefings keep us up at night while final exams pass without a fuss.
I resist the pressure to use this time to be more “productive,” to finish research projects and ramp up studying for board exams, all while rising to the occasion of addressing a global pandemic. Medical professionals are dying, and the collective trauma morphs and expands. Meanwhile, I watch lectures online and take proctored exams from the safety of my living room. I finished my didactic coursework in pulmonology as the COVID-19 pandemic took over 80,000 lives in the United States.
This isn’t to say that I don’t feel honored to work alongside and help front-line workers facing the brunt of COVID-19. I could talk about the masks we’ve made, resources we’ve commandeered, children we’ve watched, and all the time spent on Zoom calls. At the same time, it feels insincere to use this space to write about specific examples from my experience because I would not want anyone to compare their experience with mine.
I suppose the thread throughout these rambling thoughts is that everyone is experiencing a dichotomy. We are collectively fluctuating between productivity and staring at a wall, wondering how to help. Extra time from foregone commutes is now spent refreshing the news, then using our anxiety-fueled bursts of energy to write op-eds, build volunteer networks, or collect personal protective equipment.
Most days, I feel more in the midst of submersion than emergence. We’re drowning in our decisions, indecisions, doubt, and guilt. How does one focus on emerging a better person while merely trying to survive?
The weight of COVID-19 feels all-encompassing. But self-worth is not measured by the number of Zoom calls we join or grants written for an unknown future. We do not have to “make the most” out of our collective trauma.
At the end of the day, it is okay if your experience doesn’t look like that of your fellow trainee. For example, I cannot imagine going through this while navigating being a full-time caretaker and student. As a first-year medical student, I also haven’t grieved lost Match Day or commencement celebrations, and I haven’t experienced the turmoil of canceled board exams.
If courage for you is making it through the day, week, month without seeing your loved ones, then you are courageous. Ultimately, it is only through kindness and gratitude towards ourselves that will we emerge on the other side.