Women bang pots and pans to show their support for the emergency services
dealing with the coronavirus outbreak © Atul Loke/Panos Pic
Stories are all important, something I’ve written about before. In “The World is Made of Stories,” David Loy shows how stories allow us to make sense of the world and teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible.
Being able to tell stories is a significant reason humankind has been so successful, as the historian Yuval Noah Harari has told us: They “enable us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.”1
People who study the structure of stories are called narratologists, like Frederick Kaufman, who recently wrote a NYT’s column, How Covid breaks All the Rules of Human Narrative.2 I was excited to read his piece and wasn’t disappointed. He pointed out something that’s missing: While we have been inundated with a mountain of information about Covid, so far, no one has told us a story about it.
That's not unusual. When we tell our stories, we tend to block out events too painful to talk about. We did just that with our last pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed over 50 million people worldwide: It has been called the biggest massacre of the twentieth century yet little was written about it –or remembered – in a massive case of collective forgetting.
Without a story – without remembering – we were unprepared for Covid-19, a pandemic so unexpected that many of us assumed it must be a hoax!
Kaufman juxtaposes our reluctance to tell stories about plague with our zest to tell stories about war: “Wars, by contrast, always loom large in our cultural imagination, and the First World War, which despite its ghastly toll took far fewer lives than the Spanish flu, inspired literary classics such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Sun Also Rises.”3
While Kaufman is accurate up until to a point, he leaves out a throbbing underbelly of pure pain: it neglects our aversion to owning up to the mental suffering of our soldiers as a result of combat. Because their heartbreaking suffering doesn’t jive with our preferred heroic war narrative, we repress it –only to sadly rediscover it in our next war.
As someone who specialized in treating PTSD, I am familiar with this collective forgetting. In every documented war, starting with Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the warriors doing the fighting have experienced grievous long-term consequences. But in each case, after the war was over, the veterans’ continuing suffering was forgotten by society.
What we are witnessing is a psychological defense mechanism on the societal level. While this might be beneficial at the individual level to protect from debilitating anxiety, on the collective level, it resembles an ostrich burrowing its head in the sand; as such, it prevents us from preparing for the next pandemic that is sure to come.
Recently in the Monitor, Brendan Williams, CEO of NH Health Care warned us of this shortcoming: In our “rush to put this exhausting pandemic in the rear-view mirror we may overlook the collateral damage” to our health care providers, whether it has been “death or serious illness, post-traumatic stress disorder from laboring daily to combat the virus or the economic calamity” [it has caused.]”
In war, it is easy to tell stories about the valor of the soldier who charged a machine gun nest or the regiment that triumphed over incredible odds. We tell stories about that. And to ensure we don’t forget, we memorialize war with national holidays, including Memorial Day which is coming up.
Yet, judging from the past pandemics, we will soon forget the trials and tribulations of Covid-19: Unlike what happens after war, we will fail again to memorialize the courage and selfless commitment of our health care workers who have been laboring in the trenches to save our lives?
It shouldn’t be that difficult!
I remember my adrenaline pumping seeing Italians on the news, all as one, lean out of their windows or stand on their balconies beating pots and pans to applaud healthcare workers putting their lives in danger, working around the clock to save them?
I suggest incorporating this irrepressible ritual into a new national holiday, celebrating not only the heroism of the scientists and healthcare workers who curbed the worst of Covid, but the steadfastness and stamina of the rest of us who have survived the gauntlet of the last two years.