At first, it seemed like New York would be shut for a couple weeks, maybe. Then Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the order through April 15, along with school closures. Now we are in May, and while the calendar says the shutdown is up on Friday, large swaths of the state will remain closed until they meet enough criteria to be deemed safe to reopen. School won’t come back this academic year, at least. Some businesses, unable to survive, have simply shuttered for good.
This is only one tiny slice of the problem, in one part of the country. No matter where you live or what you are going through, you have had a million billion small promises of when life will return, when we won’t fear for our health, and even when patients with coronavirus will finally feel better, propped up like bowling pins, only to be barreled over by the coronavirus, again and again. If a busy few months at work or a period spent caring for a loved one might have previously been framed as a season of sacrifice, the era of the coronavirus is an abyss of despair. There are no plans or futures that it cannot swallow. When will it be over? We don’t even have a reliable timeline for a vaccine; we just know it won’t be soon. That we have no idea when the stress will end makes dealing with it now so much worse.
“The brain is really bad at saying ‘we don’t know,’ ” says Pascal Wallisch, a psychologist at New York University, and Slate contributor, whose PR person pitched him to me as an expert who could explain “our obsession with deadlines” and the coronavirus back in March. Back in March, I thought that was silly. That month, we were at a phase in the pandemic where Slate’s CEO was telling us we should prep to “work remotely for a week or longer,” which at the time seemed reasonable and now seems naïve. By May, after I had spent hundreds of dollars on home office furniture, I was ready to call Wallisch up.
Deadlines help us endure more pain, he explained. Anyone who has done a workout with a trainer knows that the key to getting through a difficult rep of push-ups, or a sprint on a stationary bike is to have someone shout at you that it’s going to be over soon. “Basically they are leading you along—‘it’s going to be one more thing,’ ” Wallisch explained. “People can put up with a lot if they know what to expect.” The thing about the coronavirus is that no one, even people with authority and cutting-edge knowledge of the situation, knows what to expect. At best, people who give us end dates to any aspect of this crisis are making an educated guess. Mostly, though, we are all in a big experiment together.
“If there was an end date in the far future, you could plan for it,” says Wallisch. Imagine knowing that the pandemic would be over by October 2021, for example. That’s a long way away. But think of the one-year-left-to-go parties we’d have this Halloween. Think of the hotels that would be advertising vacation packages for November 2021 getaways. To be more practical, think of the clear-cut aid packages voters could ask for, set amounts of money metered out on a finite timeline. In this fantasy, of course, the pandemic ends in one swift motion, at which point the economy returns to full health, and people take their work clothes to the laundromat and resume their commutes. But it’s not even just that we don’t have an end date. It’s also that some consequences will be infinite.
In the absence of a clear end point, we have to turn to other things to keep calm, explains therapist Kathleen Smith, author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible and also a very helpful newsletter. Without a master plan for how and when the coronavirus will end, to the extent that it will even end, “we have to sit with the discomfort of problem solving along the way,” Smith says. She also pointed out that this is sort of how things went in nonpandemic times, too, even if the uncertainty is a little less widespread and dramatic: “We don’t know how our lives are going to unfold as much as we think we do.” It used to be possible to sort of ignore that, at least most of the time. (Recalling the fact that you have gotten through terrible events like a layoff, major breakup, or death before might help a lot now.) Now that we’re all forced to reckon with uncertainty, Smith suggests reigning in your instinct to create a master plan to solve everything, and instead asking: “What is the reality of this problem today?”
That looks incredibly different for everyone, and even for each person, from day to day. It might mean putting in eight hours of work, or it might mean taking a sick day and finding time to meditate (or maybe saying “fuck it” to trying to meditate). It might mean following up with a doctor, or checking in with a loved one. It matters less what exactly your day looks like than how it makes you feel. In a recent edition of her newsletter, headlined “Flexibility Will See Us Through,” Smith suggests focusing on small, controllable ways to evaluate how the day went, like “was I honest about what I could and couldn’t do?” and “did I let myself be delighted by something ridiculous?” In this current moment of uncertainty, our deadlines just might have to be incredibly small.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to What Next.