I am not an optimist. In fact, I am an anxiety-ridden pessimist that will imagine the worst case of any given scenario.
One day, my husband said to me: “You know the worst outcome isn’t any more likely than any other outcome.”
“Yeah, so? It could still happen.”
“So could the best outcome. Why not visualize that one instead? It’s just as likely or unlikely as the worst.”
It seems so obvious, but for a moment I was taken aback. Why does fantasizing about positive outcomes feel frivolous while ruminating about disaster feels pragmatic?
In recent years I’ve taken his advice to heart; it helps me recognize when I’m “doomsdaying” and allows me to visualize (and therefore work toward) positive outcomes. That doesn’t mean I ignore or refuse to prepare for challenges, but it allows me to protect my mental health so that I am strong enough to accept turns for the worst.
By now, you probably know where I’m going with this.
COVID-19 is happening. However we anticipate or prepare, the disease is a reality that we will have to accept. Maybe it will effect us directly (or depending where you live, maybe it already has.) Maybe we will escape its reach. Except we won’t, because its very threat is already weighing on us: in our social media feeds, in the news, in our thoughts. It whispers through the phone lines when we call our family and friends, it lingers in our goodnight kisses, it sits on our chests as we lay in bed at night.
Let’s be honest — pop culture does not have a great track record for preparing us for crisis. We love our postapocalyptic fiction — the grittier, the better — and it has ingrained in us a certain set of expectations about what humanity does when faced with a threat:
Every person for themselves.
Conflict between small groups.
General lawlessness and anarchy.
When we hear the word “pandemic,” “quarantine,” and “lock down,” I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the images that come to mind are bleak.
And there are very real challenges to a pandemic like this: there are deaths (and no, “elderly, disabled, and immuno-compromised does not lighten that blow), there is loneliness, there is anxiety, general inconvenience, and boredom.
But, my God, there is also beauty. Not that pandemics are desireable or beautiful things, but nor do they entirely eradicate the ability of humans to experience wonderful things. Lock downs, quarantines, and sickness are not experiences we would choose for ourselves, but we manage to live through them anyway.
Here’s the thing, when faced with a crisis, humanity does not devolve into madness. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary.
Hugo-award winning author N.K. Jemisin has pointed this out on multiple occasions. Her intensive research and world-building is what makes her postapocalyptic Broken Earth series so engaging.
That doesn’t mean that the Stillness –the world in which the Broken Earth narrative takes place — is without violence, systemic oppression, death, or any other number of terrible things; they are often central to the story. But they are also not presented for “shock value.” They are authentic qualities of the world, they aren’t exploited to manipulate the audience’s attention and emotional reaction, they are not contrived, and that’s what makes her writing so compelling and important. Its world encourages the audience to more deeply examine their own reality, it provides meaningful perspectives and the tools to navigate them. It also leaves room for hope.
(By the way, I highly recommend reading the article mentioned in the tweet — written by Arkady Martine, another fantastic SF writer — you can check it out here: https://www.tor.com/2018/11/14/what-really-happens-after-the-apocalypse/)
COVID-19 is not an apocalypse. It is a moment that will pass, which does not mean it will leave the world the same once it is gone. Hope and acceptance are reasonable things to have during its stay.
Despite everything, good things will happen. Cooperation. Generosity. Laughter, even. And when we can visualize these moments, it becomes easier to recognize and embrace them. To share them.
Stories from China and Italy are already demonstrating this.
Moments of peace slip into the tiniest gaps left by fear, anxiety, and even grief.
I think there is a delicate balance that fiction can strike which can help us during times like these. Fiction can recognize and challenge difficult situations, it can tackle issues like inequality, violence, and loss, it can evoke uncomfortable feelings from a “safe” perspective.
My goal as a writer for the past few years has been to create fiction that offers relief and escape without sacrificing responsibility. I want to find beauty in mundane moments, “good” and “bad”. I want to help give people the safety and space to begin valuing these moments in their own lives. (And also therefore, room to acknowledge and dismantle obstacles and injustices.)
I am working on a short-run web fiction series that focuses on isolation, illness, connection, and loss. Maybe it will help me deal with some of the anxiety that comes from living in this media-driven world during a time of difficulty, and maybe it will bring someone else a brief moment of peace too.
All of this to say that: this is a moment. It’s reasonable to feel anticipation, fear, anxiety. It’s responsible not to ignore the challenges ahead, but it’s also responsible to remember that you are not alone. That there will be times when things are not okay, but there will be times when they will be. That this is not an interruption to your life, it IS your life.
It’s okay to imagine a world where things work out. It’s okay to want to see that world in the fiction you consume and the reality you live. It’s okay to feel what you feel when things get difficult.
But whatever happens, we will still move forward, together.