“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of the earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”
– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
A recent New Yorker cartoon, as so often happens, nicely captured one strand of the million emotions spawned by our collective self-imposed house arrest. A man hunkers in his apartment, shouting through the window at another person across the street in their apartment: “I see you touching your face in there!”
Pretty much the same thing happened to me, when a neighbor yelled across the street when my admin visited my home with a mask. In the immortal words of Gomer Pyle, “Shame, shame, shame, Sgt. Carter.”
It’s funny, but you know you’ve at least thought the same sort of thing at some point, about someone doing something insufficiently observant of the new social-distancing etiquette we’re building (and breaking) on the fly. Do you want blood on your hands for waving a banner to unlock America? And ought there be reparations of some kind by those ignorant of basic biology and indignant about society’s need for them to help keep all of us safe?
It’s also one side of the coin of shame that already has built up around COVID-19. That side: “Shame on you for putting me in potential danger from this virus we don’t yet understand.”
The other side is a seeming shame that some feel about contracting COVID-19, or worse, giving it to someone in their circle who may even have died from it. Who would want to cause someone to die from COVID-19 as part of their legacy, especially if it was caused by their own indignant behavior about the disease, right?
I say seeming shame because we know far more people are dying since the pandemic took off than has been acknowledged.
For instance, a new study led by the Yale School of Public Health found that the United States had 37,100 “excess deaths” more than would be expected in more normal times in the period between March 1 and April 14. We know that COVID-19 was officially blamed for about two-thirds of those “excess” deaths.
But something killed about 13,500 other additional people, and in just six weeks. Some of those might be people with other health issues who had delayed seeking treatment, or couldn’t get appropriate care in a timely fashion from an overwhelmed medical system. Or maybe they died before they could get tested.
Regardless, the experience of Sweden, which has seen a 27% excess death rate vs. negligible increases among its Scandinavian neighbors suggests that the bulk is directly related to COVID-19.
And the Yale study suggested it may be worse than that, given backlogs and other reporting issues to the National Center for Health Statistics that may mean months more before we get a complete tally.
“Shame is a soul eating emotion.”
― Carl Gustav Jung
Even without those numbers, you probably already have sensed that what’s happening is even bigger than we’re being told (even without efforts like those in Florida to suppress medical-examiner reporting of COVID-19 deaths).
When you see a story that someone notable has died, do you immediately look to see if COVID-19 is to blame? If no cause of death is immediately given, do you speculate that it might have been COVID-19 after all?
As Yale epidemiology professor Dan Weinberger said, “People need to be aware that the data they’re seeing on deaths is very incomplete.”
Some people don’t want to acknowledge this virus’ impacts. There’s fear, uncertainty, doubt, even some despair after weeks of isolation, or worse, required exposure because of a front-line job that puts your entire household at potential risk.
Both sides of this “shame coin” echo a different kind of pandemic 40 years ago, when AIDS began moving beyond its initial epicenters in San Francisco and New York, to places like Minneapolis, where I grew up.
As creative professionals in Minneapolis started dying, there was, yes, fear, uncertainty, doubt and despair. Could you safely hug someone? Could you die from being in the same classroom as a kid who’d become infected through a blood transfusion?
Being gay, or contracting a “gay plague” as some called AIDS then, was particularly dangerous in communities that had always been hostile to homosexuals and, often, other early at-risk groups, such as prostitutes, intravenous-drug users and Haitian immigrants.
The disease was misunderstood, and so many of us feared for our lives. It was all so seemingly random. There were people we knew who got this disease. In some cases it was because of what they did, using drugs, or having sex, or perhaps, for those “on the down low” or otherwise, because of sexual misconduct. But also, plenty of people contracted it because of not a single thing they knowingly did.
Regardless, the last thing we wanted to know was that they had gotten AIDS. Instead, a cause of death might be listed as “pneumonia” or “skin cancer,” instead of pneumocystis, or Kaposi’s sarcoma, rare AIDS-related diseases that suddenly weren’t so rare anymore.
“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
That pandemic eventually changed us, as pandemics do.
New behaviors and practices curbed the disease’s rapid spread. New treatments eventually cushioned AIDS’ impact enough that a diagnosis was no longer a death sentence. And new attitudes and acceptance toward LGBTQ+ people (if not toward immigrants) eased a notable portion of the shaming and recriminations, enough that 30 years along, people could finally legally marry who they wanted, whatever their gender preference..
Now we’re in the midst of another pandemic, more far-reaching and far more easily contracted than AIDS. Everyone is at risk. According to those official counts, already about 1.5 million Americans have gotten a confirmed case, and at least 90,000 have died.
And once again, we’re swirling in a spiral of shaming – for the risky behaviors of others – and shame – for the risky behaviors of our own – amid a pandemic.
But it’s not the time for shame during this genocide partially caused by ignorance and indignance.
From the global jet-setters who thought they were above the law and the virus, to the people who didn’t have a voice strong enough to demand protections, to the thousands of people who died without a test and were never counted.
So how will this pandemic change us? Will COVID-19 be so difficult to tackle that we lose millions of people over the next couple of years?
Will, for instance, your ignorance about social distancing, or indignance that you’re being forced to do it, lead you to expose yourself and others?
Will you create an emergency kit, in case you do contract COVID-19? Have you thought what it would be like if you got sick? Who would tend to your business? Who would take care of your affairs while you’re in a hospital, possibly intubated and sedated, attached to a ventilator, with a 50-50 shot at survival?
“Soul, if you want to learn secrets, your heart must forget about shame and dignity.
You are God’s lover, yet you worry what people are saying.”
― Rumi, The Essential Rumi
And how do we deal with the guilt and shame that can come from this moment? It’s not the time to be embarrassed about that European ski vacation you took just as the pandemic gained force, or that pandemic dinner party you held a couple of weeks later.
If you brought home the disease to others you care about, you’ll have to live with the same guilt that hangs over a drunk driver who plowed into another car or a pedestrian.
These are our most vulnerable times. Have you gotten clear with yourself? Have you spent any “impact time” helping people? What is your reason for being on earth, other than to love, and to help those around you stay alive?
Stand up. Don’t be ashamed about COVID-19. And shaming others about their decisions won’t help much either, any more than that guy shouting at his neighbor in the New Yorker cartoon. Don’t hide when there’s a choice of life or death.
This pandemic is a wakeup call for us all. How will we change and grow and evolve as we try to survive the challenges of this new era? How will we make our mark in our new world? Share your experience, don’t live in shame, live in abundance by helping other people survive.
Get Tested. Stay Safe. Look Inside Yourself.
“We can endure all kinds of pain. It’s shame that eats men whole.”
― Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom