Denial

How to leave behind our dreams that coronavirus will go away if we pretend it isn't real

I’ve been thinking a lot about denial.

It’s a powerful force, addictive even. 

Denial allows us outside of ourselves. It is not necessarily bad. 

The hero’s journey is in many ways a story of denial, of refusing to accept that the challenges set forth cannot be overcome, that the path to glory has been exhausted. There is often a place for a little blind faith in all of our lives. 

But the current state of denial in this country isn’t of the triumphant variety. This past week’s denial began with what is coming for all of us, and now denial that it has arrived. Coronavirus is here, has been here, and the time to pretend that things won’t be changing has expired. 

Last Wednesday night, when the president spoke and the NBA season was suspended, I was at a concert. At dinner before the show, we all knew this was it, fun at the end of the world. During the show I turned to my fiancé and said we shouldn’t be here. We stayed. 

I stood staring at my phone most of the time, denying that I was in a large gathering that less than 24 hours later would be banned by the city, denying that the entire sports world — my preferred distraction — would be shut down within a day, denying that that this was in fact the end of life as I knew it. At least for right now. I’d said the right things but I hadn’t understood what they really meant. I’m still not sure I do. 

I went to work every day this week. Took the subway. Anchored shows at Yahoo Finance. I covered one of the market’s worst sell-offs in history, the kind of moment a markets reporter prepares and waits for, an event no one in financial media would want to miss. And yet I couldn’t shake a sense that it was wrong to be there. Wrong to be viewing the upending of normal life through the abstraction of stock prices. Then again: that’s the job.

On Thursday and Friday I sat close to my co-anchor and colleagues. I sat close to an outside guest who had joined the show via Skype for every appearance of theirs for years and yet decided this week, of all weeks, it was time to come in. Denial takes many forms. 

Like many others, I’ve spent most of the past week enduring a series of low panic attacks rolling through me as I stare at Twitter, at the markets, listening to the President, playing back in my head the decisions I’ve been making, the decisions I might make, the ways I’ve been unable to accept the future coming at us every minute. 

I’ve talked to friends who still thought the coronavirus panic was overstated. Heard from others that my tweets were stoking their own anxieties about the situation. Been told by several people that I need to grab a drink and log off. I know these conversations aren’t unique to me, that the nature of this outbreak has created tiers, layers, the believers and those who lack faith. The reality of what is needed to confront this virus’ dangers — of what is required at this time — will be accepted at different speeds. 

It’s easy, sitting here in the apartment, just the two of us with a few weeks’ worth of food and paper products and the internet, to believe almost anything you want about what’s happening outside these walls. That life has come to a halt. That life goes on. Check Twitter get one reality. Check Instagram, get another. Look outside, a third.

As I write this the sun is shining, I can hear birds (thank you to the neighbor with a fancy roof situation ringed by arborvitae). Spring is coming. The earth is waking up from an abbreviated winter here in the Northeast. 

My friend Helene Meisler tweeted a chart Saturday morning about the 10-year Treasury that I think usefully frames how coronavirus is being understood outside of markets, too. 

In the bond market, Helene surmises that we’re just about leaving discouragement behind. I’m sure many readers of this note will have their own view on where the 10-year, the price of gold, and the stock market are headed in the days ahead. I think the public and their response to the coronavirus is somewhere between disbelief and panic.

The shelves of some stores in some cities indicate real fears rippling through our daily lives. The crowds at bars and restaurants in other cities — or even in these same cities — indicate otherwise. But I went to my brother’s apartment for a bit on Saturday night. We played Settlers of Catan. And as we looked out the window onto what is typically one of the most chaotic nightlife streets in Manhattan on a Saturday night, it seemed like everyone had gotten the message.

I expect in the week ahead that things will waterfall more quickly. Everything now is exponential. The time between when Italy locked down part of the country to the whole country was longer than it took for Spain and then France to follow Italy’s nationwide measures. I expect this new normal will jump across the Atlantic Ocean faster than many may now believe. If conventional wisdom is that we’re two or three weeks behind Italy today, we might soon cut that gap in half. This would be a positive development.  

A week ago, on the eve of publishing my first newsletter about coronavirus, I went to a friend’s 30th birthday party. 

The virus was low on the list of things to drunkenly argue about; if I texted that friend today I don’t think we’d be able to talk about anything else. So but eventually we got there, to the virus, and the pattern I came to know as part of everyday life by the end of this week played out for the first time. 

My view on the coronavirus was seen as alarmist, extreme. It seemed to my buddies that what I really needed was to just log off. I clearly had markets brain and it had broken me. And think about it, they said: way more people will die from the common flu than coronavirus anyway. This conversation unfolded after I’d already had last week’s post in the can.

Because a week ago, there were still many well-meaning people comparing the coronavirus to the common flu. Back then, the comparison was not an obvious attempt to bury one’s head in the sand. It was quite clear that the comparison was ill-informed, but to continue with this line of thinking wasn’t, perhaps, a necessarily disqualifying view. It didn’t require bad faith. Now, of course, everything has changed. This is what happens when time picks up the pace. 

In the last 48 hours, a view that has gained steam is that way too many in America today think coronavirus is a terrorist. And we don’t let the terrorists win. 

We don’t change our way of life because of terrorism, we stand tall in the face of terrorism, we don’t give the terrorists what they really want: our freedom. Investors started drawing more and more comparisons to the economic hard stop we experienced after 9/11 during this week’s market sell-off; I expect we’ll see more comparisons made in the political sphere to this same point in the time. 

But coronavirus is not a terrorist. Coronavirus is not trying to take away your freedom, coronavirus does not hate your values or your way of life, coronavirus is not a jihadi. A generation of young adults now believes living life to the fullest is a constitutional imperative. Someone is sitting down right now to write a protest song about fighting off COVID-19. 

Coronavirus is likely to spread widely in this country. Many of us will contract the virus and feel few or no symptoms. Others will not be so fortunate. How resolute you are about expressing your freedom will matter not. Now is a time for restraint, solitude, solidarity, and clean living.

The time for acceptance is here.

Leave your denial at the door.


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