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COVID-19: The Third Side of the Coin

Hope, grief, and complexity in times of the Coronavirus

Perhaps one day we’ll look back on this time with 20/20 hindsight. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have that luxury. It’s not the time to look back and it’s not enough to just look ahead. It’s time for us to look around.

We are seeing the closing of schools, workplaces, pubs, restaurants, and shops. Broadway and Disneyland are closed. Cities like Tokyo and New York, known for their nonstop lights and life, have gone quiet. People are quarantined and asked to stay home: locked-down. A state of emergency. And of course, the chilling word itself: pandemic. We cannot ignore the global havoc wreaked on our societies by COVID-19, nor deny the ongoing and impending damage to our economies, our way of life, our communities, livelihoods, and most importantly, to our people.

COVID or CO-VID?

This novel Coronavirus has limited our lives in so many ways and people are struggling to find meaning in the madness. As a linguist (and, admittedly, a pun-addict), I can’t help but read into words and phrases, seeking alternate meanings and perspectives. When I look at COVID-19, I see a few things.

Co-, of course, means joint, mutual, or common: to do together. We have co-pilots, and co-parents; we co-operate, cohabitate, and coordinate.

As a Spanish-speaker, I see vid and think of vida, which means life. To me, COVID looks like CO-VID: living together. What could be more fitting in this time of quarantines and lockdowns?

I did some digging and found out the root vid means a few things in different languages, all of which are relevant. In Latin, –vid means to see (as in evidence and visual). In Sanskrit, -vid means to know (related to veda).

What if we were to reframe COVID-19 as CO-VID: an opportunity for us to live together, see together, and know together?

The Third Side of the Coin

In times of loss and crisis, people often tell us to “make the most of the situation” or “find the silver lining.” It comes from a desire to ease the pain and to find meaning in tragedy and challenging times but in many ways, I think it misses the point.

When you see the world through the lens of either/or, it often creates false, and divisive, binaries. Instead, looking at things with a both/and lens actually allows for complexity. To admit that two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time takes a lot – both mentally and emotionally – but it’s not only more realistic, it’s ultimately more rewarding.

To reframe COVID as Co-Vid – the opportunity to see, know, and live together, doesn’t detract anything from the destruction it’s caused. I’m not asking you to see it as “a blessing” rather than “a curse” – there is no rather than. The point is to see them together. Yes, this virus is changing our world in unprecedented ways, and yes, it will leave lasting damage from which we may never recover. Lives have been lost. Jobs have been lost. People are living in fear, uncertainty, and panic. The stock market is hitting all-time lows, travel is restricted, tourism is suffering, and our healthcare systems are being tested in unimaginable ways. And let’s not even start with politics – a mess, to say the least. All of these things are true.

At the same time, people are staying home and discovering new ways of existing alone and together. They’re reaching out to each other virtually, scheduling meetings and happy hours online, sharing their resources for free. We are singing to each other from quarantined balconies and offering free art access and live concerts over the internet. There are support groups forming, coaching workshops springing up, and couches and apartments offered for people in need. We are coming together. We are learning from each other. We’re seeing what humanity looks like when put to the test.

The point is that both of these things are true and happening at once, and learning to accept that is not generous or wishful, it’s just reality. The Chinese idea of yin and yang captures this duality so beautifully: darkness and light. It’s about the interconnectedness, interdependence, and complementarity that exists all around us.

We say there are two sides to any coin. Heads or Tails. Usually one wins, one loses. We see them as distinct. But to step back and hold the coin – to flip it in our hands knowing that it’s always heads and tails, that the two sides belong to one thing  – well, that is a third side. And perhaps the most important one. One side of the coin is not better than the other; one side is only one side and it is a part of something bigger.

So often we find ourselves trapped by our circumstances, unable to see past what’s happening in the moment. This is particularly true in difficult times. But if we can expand our view to see multiple perspectives as parts of one whole, we can begin to hold them simultaneously. Then, and only then, can we begin to grasp the world as it is. Life is complex; to experience its depth and meaning, we must be able to grapple with its complexities.

Grief and Complexity

When I was 19, my world fell into darkness with the sudden, unexpected death of my brother. He was 25 and perfectly healthy. When he collapsed, so did my life. Losing a sibling is a particular kind of grief because it’s them who have known us our whole lives, and whom we expect to be there when our parents are gone. When my brother died, I lost him, along with huge parts of myself, my past, and my future. Each day I dragged myself out of bed, went to my classes, ate dinner in the dining hall with friends, enduring mindless conversations about tv shows and college antics. And each night, when it was all over and my roommates were asleep, I’d crumple on the bathroom floor, silently weeping until the morning, wishing with every bone in my body that things were different. Yet knowing, all the while, that they never would be.

Grief is a special teacher. It takes over your life and penetrates every inch of your being. It’s dedicated – you’ll never be alone again because it’s always there, by your side. When you manage to feel a brief hint of laughter or joy, grief quickly pokes its head around the corner, reminding you it’s never too far away.

Grief is a strict teacher. It is immune to your pain and does not care how much you cry, scream, or beg. It will never give in; it won’t even waver. Grief will not give you what you want. It cannot. But that does not stop you from wanting. Like a dog howling at the moon, you wish and pray – hoping beyond all reason that somehow, magically, life will return what it’s stolen from you.

But it won’t. You will never get back what you’ve lost. It’s a very humbling experience to know that nothing will ever be as you thought, and no matter how much you want things to be different, they won’t be. They can’t be. You learn the true meaning of the word “futile.” You’re forced to live a life that you did not choose and that you do not want. A life, that in many ways, you cannot imagine enduring.

You will get something else, though: grief teaches you to live anyway. To live without the thing you want most in the world. To forge ahead and find another path. To let go of all your preconceived ideas, abandoning the life you once imagined, re-crafting your hopes and dreams.

Grief splits your life in two: there is a distinct before and after. And to survive in this new world, you must carry your past – not as a comparison, but as a companion. The musician Tracy Grammer once described it as “a low hum” constantly heard under everything in your life from now on. You go on living, learning each day how to carry the burden a little bit better – it may take weeks, months, years – and even then, it will still get you.

But you carry it. You learn how to carry crippling sadness into your bright future; how to carry a dead person into the world of the living. You learn that fairness is an illusion yet we must still fight for it. You learn that crying and laughter are just a step away from one another, and that true, unbridled emotion often brings them both out. You learn how to be happy again, not because you’ve forgotten your grief, but in spite of it. You slowly begin to see the world through the eyes of those you’ve lost. You learn to live enough for both of you, realizing that every moment is precious in its own right because experiencing it is a blessing; it means you’re alive.

You find beauty and meaning in the miniscule, the absurd, and the tragic. You allow yourself to feel – even revel in – the full spectrum of human emotions, not just the “good” ones. Grief weaves sadness and pain into the fabric of your life. They cannot be ignored or discarded so you find ways to live around them, beyond them, despite them, and through them. Ultimately, you learn to accept and live with them. Like messy roommates. They become part of your foundation, and you slowly begin to see how they enrich your life, not just ruin it. They allow you to feel more deeply: the highs, the lows, the extremes, and the quotidian. For as long as you live, you’ll carry your loss; the pain and sadness are always there, reminding you that so are you. Nobody chooses grief – it’s thrust upon us. When we lose what we love, we must grieve. Martín Prechtel wisely says: “Grief is praise because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”

Make no mistake, in this time of COVID-19, we are all grieving. It’s ongoing grief and we have no idea what the future will bring. Lives, jobs, homes are being lost. Important events that were planned and anticipated like weddings, vacations, reunions, graduations are canceled. We’ve lost our social outings: the ability to hug our friends, to travel to our families, to feel and hear their presence in the same room. The sense of health that many of us took for granted is suddenly compromised. Beyond all of this, I think the greatest thing that many of us are grieving is our sense of normalcy and the ability to simply live our lives as we know them. Our sense of stability and the status quo that we did not expect to disappear within a matter of weeks, and for some people, overnight. These losses are real and we must acknowledge them and grieve them. As we prepare to face the hard times ahead, we owe this to ourselves. We must begin seeing the world, our lives, and each other through new eyes.

Honoring our own complexity

It’s common for people to de-value their own problems when they know others are facing greater ones. But there will always be someone with problems far worse than yours; it is simply the way of the world. It does not take away from the pain you are feeling. Nor the anger. The fear or anxiety. To disregard your own struggles because others are suffering more is also seeing only one side of the coin. Have perspective, yes – but allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. It’s okay to feel sad that the wedding you’ve spent years dreaming and planning is suddenly postponed. Of course you’re disappointed that your classes are suddenly online and your graduation is canceled. Heartbroken that your music tour is impossible, and absolutely devastated you can’t mourn the death of your grandfather with a funeral. Acknowledging those things in a world crisis isn’t selfish, it’s necessary.

Taking it down another level, it’s also okay to be pissed that you’re out of coffee and you can’t just pop to the store to buy more. Or that you could really use a damn haircut. Or that you just miss happy hour and trivia at your favorite pub! These things may seem small, especially compared to the fact that thousands of people are dying around the world and millions are at risk; our health systems are overwhelmed, the stock market is collapsing, people are losing jobs, can’t pay their rent, and are in truly dire straits. Those things are all happening, and of course they are worse – but loss is loss. You’ve lost crucial parts of the life that you are used to and the best thing we can do – for the health of ourselves and our society – is to mourn those losses, without judgment, while maintaining perspective.

Look at what you’ve lost and honor it. Carry that with you as you take stock of what’s going on around you – in your home, family, community. What has been lost? What has changed? Then look again: what beauty and novelty has been borne from that change? What value have you found in these times together? What else can you learn? Honor it all and take it with you as you step back once again to look at the world, and – you guessed it, honor that, too.

Heads AND Tails

In this time when we all feel a loss of control and a lack of agency, we still have a choice in how we look at things. COVID-19 is an unprecedented force of destruction that is ravaging our world, our people, and our way of life, yes. But there are other sides to that coin.

CO-VID: To Live Together. We are being forced to go home and stay there, to spend time with our families, and with ourselves. To return to the basics. To make phone calls to the people we love. To learn how to work and collaborate from a distance. To pay attention to all people – regardless of their race, gender, socio-economic status. Younger people are accountable for older people – we are all responsible for each other. I’ve been moved seeing how people have been working to keep joy and humor alive amidst the fear and threat of COVID-19. They are taking it seriously, and adhering to all the appropriate precautions, while also posting hilarious content that reminds us all that life still goes on. We are learning how to live with the reality of this pandemic while maintaining some semblance of sanity and humanity.

CO-VID: To See Together. We’re being called to reckon with our societal structures, our politics. To re-examine our priorities, and acknowledge just how connected we are to the world, and in many cases, how disconnected we are from ourselves. To take a good look at who we are and how we got here, for better and worse. We are seeing just how capable we are as a collective species, and how quickly people can spring into action when the circumstances call for it. There has been an outpouring of love and care for humanity in the form of art and music sharing, educational offerings, support for the vulnerable, supplies for service workers and hospitals. For the first time in my lifetime, people are looking beyond their own lives and beginning to see themselves as a part of something bigger.

CO-VID: To Know Together. At this time of uncertainty, when so much is still unknown and developing, we are seeing the world pool its resources and information so we can figure this out and know together. I have never seen countries come together like this, with global communication and cooperation – except for in apocalyptic movies about aliens, meteorites, or zombies, of course. They always say it takes a common enemy to bring disparate groups together, and we are seeing that now, in full force.  

COVID-19 is testing us, our world, and our way of life as we know it. Some of us will not make it out, and none of us will be the same on the other side. As life starts to feel more like a gamble, remember that third side of the coin. Look at what we’ve lost, what we’re losing: heads (COVID). Look at what we’ve gained, how we’re growing: tails (CO-VID). These things are not mutually exclusive. Flip the coin around: look at one side, then the other. Trace your finger along the ring joining the two. Feel the weight of that coin in your hand as you toss it from one palm to the other. It’s all there. We are all there. And we will survive this.

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