Growing up, I had two things that shaped not only my childhood but much of my adult life as well: asthma and a protective mother.
I almost wrote “overprotective,” because that’s the attitude a restrained child adopts. But that would have been unfair to my mother and counter to the way the world works.
It is the job of the parents to set limits and of the child to test them. So it has always been and always will be.
But I was restrained, more than most. Many of my early memories involve being stuck in the house, reading or writing or coloring in a book while my classmates roamed the great outdoors, having adventures and creating mischief.
I know that many people so sheltered rebel and go the other way when they grow up, living lives of reckless abandon, always taking the greater risk, regardless of how slight the reward might be.
I did not.
I absorbed my mother’s careful wariness so deeply into my spirit that it became part of my character. I became a cautious person, always calculating the odds and flinching when they did not guarantee success. Looking back, my greatest regret in life is that I did not take more chances and so seldom pushed beyond my comfort zone to court failure in pursuit of grandeur.
I reveal this dissatisfaction so that readers might judge with some perspective what I’m going to say next about COVID-19 and the lockdown-in-lockstep response to it.
It might be that my background gives me a special insight into what has become a national panic attack. On the other hand, perhaps my experience has created a blind spot that makes my observations and conclusions suspect.
So, take this with however big a grain of salt you think you need and react accordingly.
It seems to me that we are creating and, I suspect, even nurturing a society full of excessive caution based on unreasonable fear. We are all letting ourselves be restrained in the house and hesitant to roam in search of adventure.
I saw a guy bicycling through the neighborhood the other day, his mask held tightly in place, and wondered what in the world he was thinking.
Was he unclear on the concept of virus and the fact that being by himself outdoors meant he had zero chance of either catching or transmitting anything?
Was he virtue signaling that he took our social-distancing instructions seriously and shame, shame on anyone who believed otherwise, perhaps in the process shouting a political statement across the partisan divide?
Or was he just a good little soldier following his orders as he understood them without ever really thinking about them?
Could have been any one of them, really, because they are all out there.
When I saw him, I had been on the way to the Post Office. When I got there, I stood in place with all the other masked-up patrons, as forlorn a bunch of people as I’ve ever seen. There was none of the usual idle chatting in line, the way people brought together by personal chores try to reach out to strangers in a casual way.
I had the same alone-together feeling a couple of days later on my regular trip to the supermarket. People listlessly pushed their carts around, avoiding eye contact and barely noticing whatever they were dropping into their carts. Not a drop of joy in the whole place.
We have been like a bunch of refugees, wandering through a post-apocalyptic wilderness in a desperate search for some semblance of normality, all of us pondering variations of the same lament: Will this ever end?
Perhaps not, we might think with every news broadcast we see.
There is the governor, once more extending the “final” stage of his economic re-entry plan. There he is – again – adding another four weeks to his mask mandate. There are the gin-up-the-dread controversies over the dumbest things. We must have vote by mail to acknowledge that those few minutes we spend at the polls might tip us into mass extinction We must keep our classrooms shuttered despite the fact that children’s chances of dying from the virus are virtually non-existent.
Before you patiently explain it to me, yes, I know that COVID-19 is communicable, passed human to human by close contact. I understand that the death count shows it is more dangerous than the seasonal flu and that it is prudent to take commonsense precautions.
But I also know other things.
The lockdowns were supposed to be temporary and not intended to beat the virus – a virus is a virus and will take the path that a virus takes – but to “flatten the curve” so as not to overwhelm the medical system. But temporary is becoming permanent, with the original rationale long discarded.
And I know, though it is seldom mentioned by the news readers breathlessly reporting the daily number of new cases as evidence of Armageddon, that the overwhelming majority of deaths are suffered by people over 65 with underlying conditions. Take them out of the equation, and the risk to the rest of the population is nowhere close to scary. Isolate and protect that vulnerable group, and the rest of the nation could go about its business.
There was no need, in other words, to destroy the economy to combat COVID-19 and add to our misery instead of alleviating it. We badly overreacted and continue to do so.
Which could have one of two awful long-term effects.
One of them, pronounced likely in libertarian and some conservative circles, is that when a deadlier virus comes along – and one will, do not doubt it – people will remember officials who cried wolf and ignore efforts to combat it. This is even more possible given how many leaders are squandering the public trust by ignoring and sometimes even condoning organized violence in our biggest cities.
There will be what amounts to the anarchy of a universal “Atlas Shrugged” moment. It will be the equivalent of the rebellious life of wild abandon in my childhood-of-restraint analogy.
But I fear (get out that grain of salt) the opposite, that our society will absorb the current careful wariness so deeply into its spirit that it becomes part of the national character. We will be forever a cautious people, with zero tolerance for risk, always calculating the odds and afraid to take a chance.
This will no longer be the country we thought we knew. People will be reduced to lives of quiet regret and resentment, and the petty tyrants will rule.