There will come a day, maybe even a day in the next few months, when Americans wake up, leave their homes, shed their masks, and resume their lives. That day will end the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020-21.
Ridiculous, right? A devoutly desirable consummation, but highly unlikely.
Here’s the problem with anticipating the end of the pandemic: No one is sure what that end will look like or when it will come, or even if we will know it when we see it.
Will it be when most of the country is vaccinated? When will all the schools safely reconvene? When are COVID hospital beds empty? When are American stadiums packed for a summer baseball game? When does Disneyland reopen? When does wearing a mask seem strange again?
“I don’t know if I see a specific ending,” says Erica Rhodes, a Los Angeles comedian who has found unique ways to act during the pandemic. “I don’t anticipate a moment when I say, ‘Oh, everything is exactly as it was.’
The kind of ending the coronavirus has in store for weary Americans has no definite ending. It’s a difficult pill to swallow for a nation trained for a long time, in some cases quite literally, to expect well-defined and often optimistic conclusions from devious sagas.
“Finding light in the dark is a very American thing,” President Joe Biden said this month. “In fact,” he said, “it may be the most American thing we do.”
The problem is that the real world often doesn’t deliver. Sure, movies are free to be like “Independence Day,” where an unequal group of Americans led by Will Smith defeats the invading enemy. Real life? More like the conclusion to “The Sopranos”, when everything goes black, forever unsolved as Journey sings that “the movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on.”
THE CLARITY OF THE ENDINGS
The American style of the ending, borrowed from the classical Greek narrative, turned into an industrial force over four generations by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, goes something like this: a story concludes with a specific resolution, usually after some action, heroism of good or bad great … time in character development and usually at a specific and discernible time.
Are we heading towards that with the pandemic? It is almost certainly not. And the gradual nature of things is hindering the works, because it is not over until it is over, and even then it may not be over.
“Not having that clarity, we’re not used to that,” says Phil Johnston, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director who worked on “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia.”
“I guess everyone has made their own version of this ‘movie,’” he says, offering his own: “I was able to see a series of dissolutions over a long period of time. A boy leaves his house. The mask is removed. He sits in a restaurant. And then it’s the passage of time, this long montage and this guy sits back and realizes, ‘Oh, this is life. Life is back to normal. ‘
All sorts of momentous things that humans today are enduring have no distinct endings. Climate change. The “war on terror”. Persistence of racism and sexism and homophobia. Those stories ebb and flow, but because they are not considered specific “events” they are often viewed differently.
Yet something akin to the pandemic, despite its protracted nature, falls squarely into the public and media bucket of “an event,” and that comes with certain expectations. Between them there is a discreet ending.
“We have this human tendency to structure our life events at plot points. It helps us create a world that is more interpretable and more predictable, ”says Kaitlin Fitzgerald, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, who studies the role emotions play in how stories are consumed.
“But as we know in the real world, recovery is not a linear process and does not have a clearly defined end,” he says. “These popular media narratives describe it as happening within minutes. That affects our expectations of how things should end. And when those expectations don’t match reality, it’s hard. “
Elaine Paravati Harrigan, Fitzgerald’s research partner and visiting assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College, has delved into the same attitudes while teaching her “pandemic psychology” course last year.
“Without some kind of blueprint, we are just living life. And that can be confusing and overwhelming, ”he says. “If I can think that there is some kind of arch, some kind of plane that can help me understand my journey, it helps me find meaning in my day-to-day life.”
SAILING TO THE END
Children have been a particular focus of this kind of attention over the past year, as the adults in their lives help them navigate a positive end to the pandemic without offering false hope.
“In my opinion, discovering this endgame piece will really be a challenge for adults. And it will be a challenge not to build children’s mindsets around that, ”says Chuck Herring, director of diversity, equity and inclusion in the South Fayette School District near Pittsburgh.
“People keep talking about when it ends, when it ‘goes back to normal.’ I tell them that it will not go back to normal. At least not like many people think, ”Herring says.
However, the notion of an ending exists for a reason: people need markers in their lives to show that they have experienced things, that they are moving from one phase to another, that there is somehow meaning in what they endure.
That is why Jennifer Talarico, who studies how people remember personally lived events, suggests that even if there is no actual moment when the pandemic ends, it is important to find a way to mark it.
“I think of VE Day or VJ Day. Clearly, that is not the end of the war; it took longer than that. But we have these days where there was a big community celebration, ”says Talarico, a psychology professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.
“We build relationships based on common elements even though your story and mine are unique and may not have been shared at the time. Sharing the story becomes the way we know each other, ”he says. “So ‘Where did you go for Remembrance Day or Pandemicpalooza or whatever?’ Telling that story to younger generations years later can be a community moment.”
In the end, so to speak, managing expectations of the conclusion of a pandemic is an exercise in procrastination, in dealing with everyday life without losing sight of the great things that could be improved. Remembering the lost. Anchored in the details, without losing the biggest plot. Creating meaning. Much, you could say, like a movie.
We leave you, then, with two quotes, uttered half a century apart by two very different writers.
The first comes from the little narrator of “When the Pandemic Is Over”, a 2020 children’s book by Iesha Mason: “I will be so happy once we get out of this crisis,” he says.
The second comes from science fiction writer Frank Herbert: “There is no real ending,” he said. “It is the place where history stops.”
Which, for the purposes of our ending story, is here. Even as the story of the pandemic continues.
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted