It was not too long ago that people looked forward to Saturday night, a bonus after Friday’s acronym affectionately referred to as TGIF. Kick off your shoes, put work on the back burner and have a few drinks. But now, we are all running on empty. If you are old enough to remember Jackson Browne’s folk rock, Running on Empty captured a state of perpetual exhaustion, and typified a generation’s yearning for a destination that may never come. As history has a way of repeating itself, it seems that a pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 5 million people worldwide has us in the same mindset. An entire generation of children are growing up deathly afraid of germs, the common cough and sore throats. They are wearing masks to school and playdates, and struggling with the oscillation of education that involves in person and virtual learning. Many adults find themselves in a state of perpetual exhaustion with no promise of a clear endpoint, a contemporary version of Running on Empty. We are all tired. We are all afraid of getting sick. And we are sick and tired of being afraid, sick and tired.
The pandemic has shown us how different we are in how we respond to crises. There are those that go out with reckless abandon, unafraid to get the virus. They are often the 20 and 30 year old’s who simply want to have fun – and why not? And then there are those who continue to stay home, cautiously allowing only vaccinated, boostered and masked people to enter their lives and homes. There are the haves and have nots. The haves (who have gotten the vaccine) look down on the have nots who have resisted both vaccine and booster, or some combination. There are the have nots (who have not gotten the shot) who say that those who have gotten the vaccine have still gotten Covid. The have nots see the haves as being “self-righteous.” Vaccinated Americans have nothing but utter disgust and derision for those who have refused to “stop the spread.” What about the social good, they say, and don’t forget that everyone was required to get the Polio vaccine? But the unvaccinated fight back with arguments about individual freedom and individual rights. It is tiring. All of the fighting is tiring and tiresome.
We are living in a time of social unrest and upheaval. We are also facing a mental health crisis that threatens millions of Americans with depression and anxiety. The world seems a foreign place. Grocery store shelves remind us of this crisis. We are told about the supply chain shortages that are limiting what we can buy. Some blame the President of the United States, while others blame the former President. “Trump” has become a noun and a verb. Russia looms in the background as a threat to our safety and freedoms. China has let the genie out of the bottle with the virus. Some people in American are preparing for civil war and a worldwide climate crisis that threatens extinction. Greta Thunberg is seen as seer to some and crazy to others. There are people buying up canned food and bottled water, and waiting for Armageddon. And then there is the pandemic, that has ignited our worst fears surrounding sickness and mortality. And the childhood longing to be safe. The threat of mortality is exhausting. And the fear of fever is paralyzing.
Covid-19 has given new meanings to words like “quarantine” and “lock down.” Working from home has been the savior of those who enjoy the freedom and flexibility of not having to go into an office. It has also given rise to psychological isolation by the lack of social engagement. Those who have been working from home for 2 plus years say that they cannot imagine going back into an office. But there is a cost to staying home all the time. Sure, you can run down for a snack, walk the dog and wear sweat pants below your suit jacket. But all gains have costs. The cost now is that the retreat inward has isolated more and more people from each other and from themselves. People are desperate to find therapists they can talk to and share their fears and thoughts. Many are living dichotomous lives with dichotomous feelings, desperate to connect but afraid to let go of the desire to retreat from the world and pull away. Many also have nagging feelings that something is not right. But something is not right today in this country and in the world. It is not right because we are living in a pandemic that is killing people every single day. Sick people are going to hospitals and they are unable to get beds. Elective surgeries are being deferred until covid dies down. Schools have a shortage of teachers because many of the teachers cannot report to work. The Governor of New Mexico has decided to take a position as a temporary sub until they can get more teachers. The world seems topsy turvy and dizzying. Talk of the pandemic has usurped almost all topics of conversation. It seems to be all we hear and read about every single day. And it is exhausting.
Used masks on the sidewalk are today’s litterbugs of the lost, lonely, angry, outraged and afraid. Restaurants have shortages in their waitstaff, while customers complain and grumble. Some Americans prefer unemployment to risking their lives to serve salads and burgers. Working in a restaurant involves attention to details in ways that didn’t exist before the Wuhan monkey in China infected the entire world. Drink glasses in all establishments must be triple sterilized. Counter that glasses are placed upon must be germ free. And the body of the hand that serves food and drinks must be free of all sign of cold, cough, body ache and especially fever. Pay close attention to any signs of a cough. Customers must make sure they bring 3 things when they go out: a mask, hand sanitizer, and vaccine card. Don’t leave home without them. It is exhausting to remember and exhausting to forget.
There is level of stress in America that has not existed here for a long time. If you decide to go out to eat or drink, will you be sitting too close to other guests? Are the waitstaff wearing masks? If you decide to stay home, who is it safe to invite over? Everyone is potentially a lethal threat to your life. If I were a cartoonist, I would draw a thought bubble with two questions. “Where have these people been? And have they been cautious?” The pandemic has been bullying us and wearing us down for two plus years. And yes, we have anthropomorphized a noun because we are all so tired of this! Many people are like children stamping their feet waiting for it to end, while others go on with life as normal. But the fact remains that we are ALL tired of covid tests, talks about covid tests, the shortage of covid tests, and the question of why it took so long for the United States government to send out free tests to every home? Shouldn’t we all be getting free m95 masks so that we don’t have to buy them? Why is gas so expensive? Stress, stress, and more stress. Aren’t we all tired of the stress?
Jackson Brownes’ lyrics seem timely as the world gets comfortable with the apathy and disorientation that often comes from sustained trauma. “Gotta do what you can to keep your love alive..and not confuse it with what you do to survive.” Professionals in the realm of psychology know that apathy often comes from events that are too difficult to process. Professionals also know that anger is a secondary emotion. Today’s rage is the color of the world’s pain, superimposed upon fear, sadness, and grief. Many people have died. Many more will continue to die and have virtual funerals. The world has changed. Traveling offers risks that often don’t seem worth the pleasure. We are all have different levels of apathy. And we all feel differing levels of fatigue. The dreaded fever that accompanies covid-19 has replaced the feverish fun of Saturday nights, and it echoes our apathy and our cry for help. “Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me.” Will it be the next booster that will save lives or the dive inward with your therapist to figure out who you are, what went wrong, and how to move forward in a world that has changed with you in it.