Part of the human condition is to think we live in extraordinary times, to be certain our parents and grandparents and all previous generations never experienced life quite as good or as bad as we are experiencing today.
It’s a given – to many – that the world never has been graced by the likes of Beyoncé, LeBron James and Bill Gates and never has been challenged by our ubiquitous horrors of violent weather, violent rhetoric and violence in the streets, schools and places of worship.
And, of course, there’s our pandemic. Why must we be the ones to face this catastrophe?
A cursory look at history, even Wiki-history, exposes the arrogance of this myopic certainty. Every generation celebrates its cultural icons and faces struggles, sometimes even pandemics. As wonderful as our celebrities are, Sacagawea, Jesse Owens and Henry Ford may have been more wonderful. As real as our challenges are, the legacy of the Greatest Generation that tackled the Great Depression and won World War II is safe. As tragic as the death of 3 million people worldwide from COVID-19 is, it pales in comparison to the 75 million to 200 million killed by the Black Death (yes, the 14th century was not known for its precise recordkeeping).
Instead of pitting our experiences against history, perhaps there is meaning in our experiences that we can give voice to in a way that resonates for our generation, especially as one extraordinary experience – the lockdown – becomes history.
For 14 months, most of us have tried to quiet the clamor of misinformation and do the right thing by staying safe at home as much as we could. As we locked down, we were scared, confused and bored. We may have gained weight (19 being more than part of the name of this virus); we may have been depressed; and we may have grieved the loss of loved ones.
While not unique to history, a lockdown is something most generations never experienced, and it certainly was a new experience for nearly all of us.
My reflection on the meaning of the lockdown is assisted by one of my cultural icons, Missy Higgins, an Australian indie rock singer-songwriter, who explores the meaning of the lockdown in her song “When the Machine Starts Up Again.” She asks what we will do when the lockdown ends and the hectic hustle-bustle of life returns with all of the demands from this person and that bureaucracy: “When the machine starts up again / Will I be chasing every car / When the machine starts up again / Will I continue outrunning my heart / When the machine starts up again / Will I be spinning all the plates / Dancing in the mirrors / Clicking all the bait.”
She ends her song with a simple request: “When the machine starts up again / When the lockdown ends / And the speed is picking up / Will you remind me darling / What it felt like just to stop?”
It didn’t feel all bad just to stop.
The lockdown provided time to reconnect with ourselves and with loved ones. Families played together in their yards. Friends walked, 6 feet apart and masked. Bicycle sales soared. Friends and family separated by hundreds of miles used Zoom to reconnect via once-alien technologies. People learned how to be productive employees without the lost time and added stress of daily commutes. And we gave our planet a bit of a reprieve as we poured fewer pollutants into the air and water.
Just as a power outage during a storm forces us to light candles and exist quietly without modern distractions, the pandemic’s lockdown has given us an extended reprieve from frenzied and unhealthy day-to-day norms and an opportunity to redefine these norms. This extraordinary event has been part of our collective experience and – with reflection – can improve the human condition.
When the machine starts up again, perhaps we will choose to start up slowly, intentionally, choosing how and whether we engage in the frenzy awaiting us.
• David Hellmich is president of Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon. Reach him at email@example.com.