For a long stretch of 2020, I became mildly obsessed with the question of whether I’d be permanently changed by the pandemic. Specifically, whether I’d someday become the subject of a remark like: She was never the same.
Because that can happen. Usually after bad events (though sometimes good ones, or neutral but decisive changes), like deaths and illnesses, people can change, or seem diminished (though sometimes enlivened, kinder, stronger). There is a sense — from the outside, in private conversation or late-night reflection, or an awkward but clarifying moment — of a before and after. This, too, can work in negative space; that everyone else changes, and one remains behind, static and immutable. The concern here, or mine anyway, during the enduring fall of 2020, was some kind of unplanned solo voyage of the mind after a failure to grapple with an uncontrollable event.
Now: Nothing unusual or unusually bad happened to me then, outside of having had abnormal amounts of time to myself, living alone. This was not Afghanistan during the evacuation of Kabul, or Ukraine during Russia’s invasion now, or Queens at the height of the pandemic. I am fine; I was fine; I knew and know that. But that is the kind of question that preoccupied me, in part because of the idle time, but also because this was and remains a plainly historic period of time, filled with uncertainty, uncontrollable events, and waves of suffering that is at times surreal. You cannot pretend the expanses of bad outcomes haven’t grown larger and world order can’t be precarious, and you cannot say that the tenor of discourse at the national level or even at some party on a Saturday night feels stable and grounded. As the pandemic ebbs again in the United States, and war in Europe dominates, I do think the unsettled nature of the individual, and the unsettled nature of what we’re even living in, undergirds a tiny part of the chaotic, anarchic, deeply emotional way news gets talked about. If we are falling into, or already in, a globally bad era, when would we know?
The premier problems of the time since the United States shut down two years ago are the big, literal ones: disease, war, electoral instability, the flow of goods and their prices. And at the same time, the way anyone perceives events does flow through, to some extent, their own consciousness and their own experience; the unfinished nature of “What happened to you? What happened to the people around you?” during this unpredictable time makes it harder to make sense of it, and to put it into proportion. Each little event and its effect on people you know can sometimes feel like billiards balls breaking in six different directions.
Even far from the worst of events, I mean people in a haze about when X or Y happened in 2020 or 2022, this winter or last, a sort of whoosh of time. Friends describing returns to places and knowing that the places and people have already changed — even in the most literal sense, with new children, older children, lost relatives, or physical moves shifting once-familiar places. Friends who, presented with the idea of someone never being the same after the early 2020s, theorize that everyone will have changed so much that nobody will really ever be able to tell what anyone was like before. If your understanding of yourself relies in some ways on how people you know view you, and not just the people you already know very well, and confirming or cutting against those views, assessing who you are in relation to what's happening in a chaotic period can be challenging.
It is not like dipping into a movie theater and walking away with the compression of time and change into narrative cohesion. Joachim Trier, the Norwegian director behind this year’s The Worst Person in the World, has discussed “the negotiation between the imagined self and the real self that plays out in time.” His latest follows the titular shiftless, big city millennial through poor decisions, then shifts midway through to a sadder, more existential, but realistic problem. “I think that’s the confusion we all feel, is that we always learn too late,” Trier said about the film last year. “We go through things that are completely inexplicable and mysterious. And then years later, we realize.”
If you’ve been seeing the big awards movies — and possibly this is through the lens of an unsettled time — you get that shifting sense of when one subject really becomes about another. Pedro Almovódar’s Parallel Mothers shapes up like a sexual melodrama about a tragic mistake — but it’s actually about lies, memory, and the Spanish Civil War. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, a film technically about the Troubles, concerns most vividly decades-later clarity on two parents and their decision to leave home. These are far more extreme events (if told in fiction) than most people are dealing with — but still: What is this period? What happened to you? It’s not like time’s stopped.
“Those were still real years,” as the subject of the recent piece on vibe shifts put it. “People’s opinions were changing, things were happening.”
So: Will one of us never be the same? Will either of us ever know? Is it possible to receive change with an open heart after a few years of uncontrollable, despairing events? These can be lucky problems and important questions at the same time.
There’s a part in The Great Fire, a deeply weird book by the late Australian-American author Shirley Hazzard, that I’ve thought a lot about since I read it last fall. In Hazzard’s books, people sometimes turn and make pronouncements etched of cold marble, or remember for a flash, a grisly scene of their WWI youth during dinner in the 1950s; people in these books are “helpless” against events. Hazzard was clearly preoccupied with small changes in character, and the ways the memory of history and nightmares lingers and reappears, especially among people who didn’t really see the worst of world history. The Great Fire follows two men — a British war hero and an Australian lawyer — navigating destroyed landscapes in Asia and Europe after WWII. One night, in colonial Hong Kong, they dine with a new acquaintance, a bright but slightly world-weary woman, worried about what will follow WWII. “Both men wondered about her war,” Hazzard writes, “there was her age, perhaps 27, 28. Very probable, the lost fiancé, bereavement, anguish. The bombardment, and possibly the women’s army.”
The appeal of this observation has a twinned dimension. On a micro level, in a book about the 1940s published in the 2000s, Hazzard also captures the mysterious opacity and specificity and depth of someone else’s experience of what is technically a shared event. The central vividness of this period depends so much on individual circumstance, that it’s hard to even communicate what ails people, much less answer the question of what happens next or even what is happening now.
But on the macro level, Hazzard’s obsession with the ruined landscapes and lives of her youth — and other books I’ve read this last year about uncertain times, ruined worlds, displaced people — underlines how long, bitter, meager, uncertain the bad times were a century ago. The yearslong grind of the Depression; segregation; the repeated carving up of Europe and the horrors that involved; how many people left home for the United States and elsewhere to never return; brothers, husbands, boyfriends going away, work and school interrupted, ended, displaced, replaced — just relentlessly, in that period beginning with the first World War.
That’s a straightforward historical fact, and not particularly novel, to appreciate how fragile stability and luck can be, and how society improved since then but can break down far, far further. But my busted ability to cope with what were good circumstances made alive to me how grim things were then, and how acutely grim things have become the last two years in certain places and times, that people who had a few minutes to pack up in Kabul or Kyiv may never return.
Taken together, these are just two kinds of consciousness: the grim knowledge of how bad things can be; and the imperfect inability to judge what happened to oneself and to see inside the depths of others. It’s a part of the unsettled nature of this bad period of time, even if just a small one. One day, there will be linear versions of these events, about individuals and in competing histories; this is just a dispatch from a place that someday soon will no longer exist. ●