IT SEEMS that every writing-obsessed reader in North America couldn’t stop gushing last week about a 212-word sentence that the science journalist Ed Yong had written about the pandemic. One of the writing coaches whose work I love, Roy Peter Clark, even called it “the sentence of the year.”
Can you blame anyone for wanting to see what the fuss was about?
Reader, the entire story astonishes. I’m not going to repeat that sentence here because if you enjoy reading at all, you deserve to discover it for yourself. And if you stay with this essay until the end (pardon the blatant self-promotion, please), I’ll share the link with you here.
What makes the story work? For one, it raises the question every conscious adult has asked these days and tried to find answers for. “How did it come to this?” And rather than attempting a small and quick sketch, Yong gives us the big picture. “Water running along a pavement will readily seep into every crack; so, too, did the unchecked coronavirus seep into every fault line in the modern world.” Yong shows us those fault lines in his clear and graceful prose.
His timing couldn’t have been better.
Last week, the columnist Jennifer Senior wrote in The New York Times that she felt like she had hit a wall. “Call it pandemic fatigue; call it the summer poop-out; call it whatever you wish,” she wrote. She cited a finding from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics that this year, one in three American adults reported symptoms of an anxiety disorder. This time last year, that number was just one in every 12.
Participants of that U.S. Household Pulse Survey were asked how often in the past seven days they had felt nervous or on edge (not at all, several days, more than half the days, or nearly every day). How often had they been bothered by not being able to stop or control worrying?
All that sounded familiar.
In early May, the Social Weather Stations polled nearly 1,600 Filipinos (388 of them in the Visayas) and found that 89 percent reported feeling “great stress” or “much stress” because of the pandemic. One month later, the numbers improved a little. In July, 86 percent reported great or much stress. A blessed 14 percent (an improvement from 11 percent in May) reported that they had felt little or no stress at all.
As a way to rise above stress, I have found that it helps to draw from a book I read in July 2015 and have since given away. It joined a batch of books that I left in the Little Free Library on the roof garden of Ayala Center Cebu last January, before 2020 unleashed its many and varied surprises. One of my hopes these days is that someone picked it up from the free library’s shelves and found some comfort in it.
In that book, the British journalist Oliver Burkeman suggests that in order to find happiness, we could try to reconcile ourselves with uncertainty. When we learn to accept how fleeting joy is, we also teach ourselves to relish it more fully. And when a cloud of doubt or anxiety hovers over us (more frequently than usual these days than in years before), we know enough to remind ourselves how impermanent that will be too.
The challenge, Burkeman wrote, was to develop “a kind of muscular calm in the face of trying circumstances.” To learn, like the philosopher Martin Heidegger, to “move from focusing on ‘how things are’ to the fact that ‘things are’ – the sheer astonishing is-ness of existence.”
What makes Yong’s story work? I don’t know if ambition is the right word for it, but he inspires us to come to terms with the largest and most complicated challenge of our lives by trying to understand it more fully. To see with a wide-angle lens, rather than narrow our focus down to what we can control or what we are certain of. Call it ambition, then, or call it purpose. But let’s not allow this pandemic to take that away from us. So, life is uncertain. Create anyway.
(You’ll find Yong’s astonishing story here: https://bit.ly/2CdPmD4)