Joe Pinsker writes for The Atlantic that “the narrative structure of COVID—defined by its false endings, exhausting duration, and inscrutable villain, a virus—would be unwatchable” as a movie, notwithstanding, per psychology professor Monisha Pasupathi, “a taste for the avant-garde”.
The coronavirus’s volatile arc has thwarted a basic human impulse to storifyreality—instinctively, people tend to try to make sense of events in the world and in their lives by mapping them onto a narrative. If we struggle to do that, researchers who study the psychology of narratives told me, a number of unpleasant consequences might result: stress, anxiety, depression, a sense of fatalism, and, as one expert put it, “feeling kind of crummy.”
This must be especially true when this unnarratable experience also has been serving as backdrop to accumulating traumas (the pandemic, but also Trump; the pandemic, but also police shootings of Black people; the pandemic, but also the invasion of Ukraine by a nuclear power). “If dealing with an ongoing pandemic and the rippling effects of an overseas war seems like too much,” Alexandra Frost writes for Popular Science, “it’s because it is.” Just so.
“When you want reality to match a story line you’re accustomed to but reality doesn’t comply,” notes Pinsker, “that’s stressful.” He adds that Angus Fletcher, a professor of story science (a thing I did not know existed), “said that this idea—that we’ve been deprived of the life story we wanted to be living—stresses us out because it implies a loss of authorship over our personal narrative.”
Which brings me to Megan Marz writing for Real Life about the purported “decline of ‘storytelling’ or ‘narrative’ itself” and a recollection of reading blogs in the mid-2000s.
I don’t really remember the specifics of their posts. I certainly don’t remember the overarching plots, because there were none. There were voices and there was a sense of ongoingness. […] The action took place in real time, in the world I knew, and it wasn’t always “action.” […] I didn’t know where it was going, and they didn’t know either. Reading a blog wasn’t something you could do over a weekend, like reading a novel. It was part of your daily life, until it wasn’t.
Blogs, for Marz, “appeared to leak literary expression back into the daily flow, making everyday life, for a minute here and there, feel as meaningful as art”. For a time, didn’t the onset of the pandemic have a similar effect?
Marz also talks about “the mass of retrievable data” about one’s life and the world, and whether they only “could be meaningfully apprehended […] through […] database logic”. This tension between “topic” and “story” somewhat defines what eventually propelled me away from social media, whose feeds I’ve elsewhere described as the overwhelm of a database as compared to the structure of narrative. Surely, per both Pinsker and Frost, this only has exacerbated the mental health stresses of life during the pandemic.
When so much of what you’re taking in about a continuous event comes “surrounded by jokes, lists, random thoughts, impromptu book and movie reviews, and recipes” from a context-collapsed mass of people (things that for Marz, and for me, made a more narrative type of sense on the blog of an individual), it’s no wonder we can’t seem to form a cohesive, comprehensible pandemic narrative.
Citing psychology professor Dan McAdams, Pinsker notes “that people, and perhaps Americans especially, have a strong desire for, even an expectation of, ‘redemptive’ narratives […] but the pandemic’s story has withheld that positive resolution and refused to end, let alone end well.”
McAdams thinks that instead of grasping for a redemptive story to tell about the pandemic overall, we might be more at peace if we select a frame that’s humble and realistic. “I like this idea that we’re going to have to ‘learn to live with the virus.’ I think that’s right—it’s not like a war that’s going to end and we’re the victors,” he said. Instead, we can acknowledge “that there will always be adversity and that we need to be clear-eyed about that, and learn to manage adversity when it cannot be fully overcome.” Accepting that story, even if it’s bittersweet, beats holding out for a Hollywood ending that will never arrive.
Which brings me, at the last, to Tanya Lewis writing at Scientific American, who cautions that knowing when the pandemic is over “may lie more in sociology than epidemiology”.
“I believe that pandemics end partially because humans declare them at an end,” says Marion Dorsey, an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, who studies past pandemics, including the devastating 1918 influenza pandemic. […] “Every time people walk into stores without masks or even just walk into stores for pleasure, they’re indicating they think the pandemic is winding down, if not over,” Dorsey says. Whether or not there is an official declaration of some kind, “I don’t think anything really has a meaning until, as a society…, we act as if it is.”
Living in a pandemic isn’t something you can do over a weekend, like reading a novel. It’s part of your daily life, until it isn’t.