COVID and the Tyranny of Comfort
One year ago this week, we began what we thought would be a staycation. Today, we're less happy and less free.
One year ago this week, my old boss here at TAC told us to start working from home. I remember riding the Metro train back to my apartment that evening—the last time I took public transportation, as it turns out—and naively looking forward to the staycation to come. My inventory was in good shape: lots of canned soup and coffee, plenty of toilet paper and soap, books to read, whiskey in the pantry, a countertop grill, some new recipes I wanted to try, board games, Netflix, Hulu. “Two weeks to flatten the curve,” they said, like it was our “Remember the Maine,” and two weeks at home sounded nice. We would defeat this foe by sleeping in until eight and then maybe taking up homebrewing or knitting.
One year later and those two weeks still haven’t ended. Since then, well over half a million Americans have died, the economy has been paralyzed, racial wounds have been reopened, riots have broken out in cities, a contentious election has further depleted public trust, an insurrection has been carried out at the Capitol building, and that same Capitol has been fenced off and patrolled by gun-toting sentries. It’s a dismal anniversary, all in all. One never wants to dramatize the suffering of moderns—we’re plenty good at that on our own, and telecommuting is hardly the Somme—but all that talk about a lost generation increasingly sounds not just real but literal. This month brought news that hundreds of thousands of students have gone missing from their schools. I don’t think Hemingway had in mind truants pressing elevator buttons with their wrists, but here we are.
For those of us who weren’t initially doomsayers, it took some time for the reality to set in. I remember taking a walk on a gloomy day last March, passing by a gas station, and being shocked at how cheap a gallon of regular unleaded was. I’d noticed the streets were emptier but seeing “$1.95” blaring off an Exxon sign really drove it home. Everything—our society, our economy—was changing. I also remember starting to tune in to CNN in the afternoon even though I hate cable news. I told myself I was doing this to stay informed, but really I was trying to rationalize my denial, searching for green shoots to hedge against the darkness. When Donald Trump said he wanted to reopen the country by Easter, he was pummeled for it, but I still can’t fault him much. We were all grasping for hope back then, and false hope seemed better than none at all.
As it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t just going to just vanish, the full horror set in. Awful stories made the rounds: four people dead after a single family dinner, nurses treating COVID patients only to die themselves. There were economic victims too, the staff at all those restaurants and shops, each of which had a “closed for COVID” paper hanging in its window like a death notice. The economy was not just suffering but splitting, bifurcating between white-collar professionals who could work from home in their PJs and service industry employees who at best were preparing just enough take-out orders to scrape by and who at worst had been furloughed and were unsure of their fate.
What’s worse is that the public conversation over COVID was almost immediately hijacked by the haves, often at the expense of the have-nots. It was all well and good that Samuel L. Jackson wanted us to “stay the f*** at home,” given that his home has a pool and servants gliding about with platters of escargot balanced on their fingertips. For much of the rest of humanity, however, staying at home could mean losing that home. I tend to wince whenever someone says there are “two Americas.” It calls to mind snake-oil louts like John Edwards who live in the first America and seek vicarious absolution from the second. Yet even the most nose-upturned capitalist would be hard-pressed to deny that COVID has created worrisome economic inequality. And the division has been brutal; for months, America number two couldn’t even go to work.
Yet spare some sympathy also for America number one—the telecommuters, the Zoom orators, the greasy-haired Slack gossips, the nine-to-five bedroom-to-couch rat racers. This America found salvation of a sort in technology, which saved our jobs and gave us Disney+ to watch in the evening. Yet it also savagely reinforced just how insufficient that technology really is. Out of necessity, we swapped out genuine sociality for texting, Facebook Messenger, Gchat, and Slack. Yet as months went by, this came to feel like Rubashov in Darkness at Noon tapping morse code on his prison wall. We might have been interacting with others, but only as two-dimensional avatar pictures and blinking names on browser tabs. I’ve “met” a couple people since the pandemic began whom I’ve only ever talked to online. I know a good deal about them, yet I have no idea what they sound like, how they come off in person, their mannerisms—it’s surreal.
Likewise was the experience of shopping replaced by the email that a package from Amazon had just arrived. The dinner out became the knock at the door from the deliveryman who by the time you answered was already sprinting back down your driveway. And so on. It’s easy to feel spoiled kvetching about these things. During the Black Plague, people were dying in the street; during COVID, we looked at the Sweetgreen across the street, decided it was too far to walk, and opened up Uber Eats. But it’s still been profoundly inhuman, this exchange of the authentic for the artificial, this bargain of freedom for comfort. It was what the Savage protested against at the end of Brave New World:
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
I’ve always thought that’s the greatest howl against tyranny in all of literature, acknowledging as it does that life and liberty are still worth it even if they don’t gratify us as we wish. Yet it also, perhaps intentionally, sets up a false antithesis: comfort and unhappiness. In fact, we can be comfortable and still be deeply unhappy, as we’re now discovering. Freedom and happiness are vibrant, social things; they’re rarely found when you’re sedentary and alone, cozy though you might feel. If nothing else, this last year has been a reminder that community and liberty go together, that both are needed if we want to be happy.
No wonder, then, that the lockdowns have seen spikes in loneliness,suicidal thoughts, and interest in crackpot schemes and ideologies that promise liberation while reducing man to the abstract he is on the screen. And while we can’t be certain how life will look once the pandemic is over, it seems unlikely that the isolation will fully abate. Economists are now chattering about a “K-shaped recovery,” meaning a deeply unequal one, where America number one gets richer and America number two falls off. For the first group, telework is likely to become the new reality. For the second, unemployment will mean more time at home. One is clearly worse than the other, but both will feed into our auxiliary plague of loneliness.
Still, that’s yet to come. First, we need the virus to end and society to reopen. Because this is no way to live. And I say that as someone who’s never run low on toilet paper.