This is the first post I started to write without a word in mind. It had to be about the coronavirus and COVID-19, of course — the situation is so overwhelmingly pervasive that this post started writing itself in my mind without even waiting for a word to come along. So I went ahead and kept writing it, expecting that the word would naturally emerge as I put my thoughts and feelings in order. Instead of letting inspiration come from a word previously chosen, as I usually do, I was hoping that this time the word would reveal itself from what I’d written, that it would appear to me in a flash of glory, perfectly matched to the current situation.
That didn’t happen, of course. I spent at least a week poring over hundreds of unusual and untranslatable words from over a dozen sources, and while there were a number of contenders that were relevant in one way or another, none of them felt quite like the one. Eventually, I conceded that the one probably didn’t exist. The world has never seen a situation quite like this one before, so it makes sense that there might not be a single, perfect word for this brand-new zeitgeist.
But for a blog whose tagline is “There’s a word for that”, admitting to there not being the right word for something is tantamount to admitting defeat. I had to figure out something else. I considered, at least briefly, choosing a word completely unrelated to the current situation and writing something lighthearted instead — but it didn’t feel right to gloss over the subject either. It’s all I — and, it seems, the rest of the world — can think about, always hovering in the back of my mind, and so it was naturally all I could bring myself to write about. I decided I had to persevere without the perfect word.
alexithymia / noun / English
the inability to identify and express or describe one’s feelings.
My struggle is rather allegorical, I’ve realized — searching desperately for a word to express how this all feels, only to come to the realization that no such word exists. It’s kind of like how it feels to live in the world right now. In every way, we are in uncharted territory.
Part of the problem may be that it’s simply too difficult to decipher the current mood of things. There are many different factors that people may feel many different ways about, and the situation is changing so rapidly that nothing is constant, not even the emotions we feel.
So, rather than just picking a word that’s “close enough” and letting my thoughts form themselves around it, I’ve decided to take the complete opposite approach. One individual word is not enough, I’ve concluded; there simply isn’t one that captures all the shades and facets of the current situation by itself. But perhaps together, a collection of words can join together to create a meaning more powerful than any of them could achieve alone.
Alexithymia seemed like a good starting point. It’s actually primarily a psychiatric term, but I felt it was too appropriate for this context to pass up. I don’t think I’m alone in not being quite sure how to feel about all of this; the world feels like it’s still reeling in shock from how quickly and dramatically things have changed.
But with one aspect of the situation thusly named, the rest soon begins to fall into place.
koyaanisqatsi / noun / Hopi
life or nature out of balance; a state of things that calls for another way of living.
As much as the current situation is unfamiliar and scary, the prevailing feeling right now is just one of strangeness. The world of today is vastly different from the world of a month ago, and the transition has been more abrupt than I think any of us knew was possible. There’s no easy way to process it all. The only certain feeling is that things are deeply not right.
And while we can certainly feel that difference while isolated inside our homes, on the outside it’s even more pervasive. The world feels empty. Someone on YouTube edited video footage of major cities around the world, shut down and deserted, over the Disturbed cover of “The Sound of Silence”, and the result is poignant and jarring and bleak and perfectly captures that feeling of dissonance.
Living in the world right now, powerlessly watching this all unfold, feels eerily apocalyptic. People don’t even need to call the coronavirus by its name; it’s often referred to as simply “the virus”, which sounds like something directly out of a disaster movie. The world has shut down. Highways are cleared of traffic, and if you do find yourself traveling on one, every electronic sign you’ll see flashes out the same message: “Stay home. Stop the spread.” In one park that I walked through, a playground sat newly abandoned, with the only sign of life being a police cruiser slowly driving past it to make sure children were keeping out; in another park, the playground was wrapped up with caution tape, as if it were a crime scene.
There’s a heaviness that pervades everything, like the feeling in the air just before a storm hits, an unspoken sense that things are not going to be normal again for a long time. That the way we live may be in the process of changing forever.
vemod / noun / Swedish
tender sadness, pensive melancholy; the resigned nostalgia of knowing that something positive or significant in one’s life has been lost or is over, and will never be back.
There’s a lot of speculation about when and how things might return to “normal”, with projected timelines ranging from weeks (spoiler: it’s unlikely) to years, hopefully ending with the development of a successful vaccine — but we can’t be sure. Even if all goes according to plan, the scars left by the virus will be long-lasting and may never completely fade. The practice of social distancing has taken root so deeply that when a TV show or movie features a large crowd of people, it already feels like it’s from a different time, blissfully unaware of this scary new future.
Travel bans and social distancing are probably the biggest sacrifices required in our day-to-day lives. But as time goes on, as it really sinks in how much we’ve already lost, all the little things that we’re having to live without are starting to become more apparent, too. No more going out to eat when there’s nothing in the fridge. No more meeting up with friends over the weekend. No more movies in theaters. No more receiving packages and bringing them inside without thinking twice. No more bookstores.
The downtown area of my city is one of my favorite things about it. It’s home to dozens of charming independent shops and wonderful restaurants, normally alive and buzzing with people. I haven’t ventured there since the virus started taking hold, but I feel an emptiness when I picture it: just like the Sound of Silence video, all closed down, probably deserted and lifeless. No lights illuminating the weekend nights. No groups of friends lending a lively warmth to the already welcoming atmosphere. It’s hard not to wonder whether all the shops and restaurants will survive, or if downtown will ever feel quite the same again — or if there will always be echoes reminding us of the time the world shut down.
But there are scarier questions. As someone who is somewhat immunocompromised, words of reassurance are difficult to come by. We know by now that I am probably in the elevated risk category, but that’s about all we know. What does “elevated risk” mean for me? What might happen to me if I get the virus? How severe could it get? Will it be safe for me to receive a vaccine when one becomes available, or will I have to rely on herd immunity and live the rest of my life in trepidation of the outside world?
The problem is that because the virus is so new, there’s not enough data to answer any of these important questions with confidence. All that the doctors can say is “We don’t know”. And until we do know, I will probably have to be afraid of those outside my little sanitary bubble — and because I don’t live alone, I have to rely on the people I live with to be as cautious as I am, which effectively doubles the number of things for me to be worried about.
And that comes with its own sense of vemod too, for the time when these scary questions didn’t matter to me. When I didn’t have to hope for a very specific area of research to turn up answers. When I was part of the general population, the majority, not any more at risk than the next person.
When will I be able to travel again, to plan my next adventure in the reaches of the world that once seemed so inviting? When will it once again be safe for people like me to go out into the world — or even outside my apartment community — without fear? When will I be able to stop worrying about whether I or someone I live with has managed to pick up the virus without knowing, by passing a stranger on the sidewalk, touching a contaminated surface, or risking a trip to the grocery store?
Will I be able to do any of those things again? Or will I be burdened with the weight of extra precautions for the rest of my life? Are there now parts of the world I’ll never get to see?
We don’t know.
There’s one source of comfort in all this, though.
tuko pamoja / noun / Swahili
“we are (in this) together”; literally, “one place”; a shared sense of purpose and motivation in a group or community that transcends mere agreement and implies empathetic understanding among the members of the group.
I think if I had to pick a plague to live through, it would be this one. Not just because we have a more advanced understanding of health and hygiene now than we have at any other point in human history — although that certainly helps — but because we are also more inextricably connected to one another than we have ever been before. And while that is a double-edged sword, inciting panic, misinformation spreading, and toilet paper hoarding, if you can look past the ugliness it’s also kind of beautiful.
A sense of community is blossoming in the online sphere right now. Because of Facebook, I was able to see a video captured in my old hometown where a bagpiper and drummer stood near the entrance of the local hospital, playing “Amazing Grace” to the medical workers on their way to and from their shifts. With the rise of video conferencing programs like Zoom, families are able to stay connected across distances of hundreds of miles and see each other more often than ever before. On YouTube, the hashtag #withme has been trending, creating a sense of togetherness where one didn’t previously exist; there are featured playlists on the home page for things like cooking, exercise, and meditation, titled “Stay Home and _____ #WithMe”. Content creators are continuing to put out new material, sometimes collaborating remotely with other creators, and sometimes in the form of livestreams that provide a virtual space for their audiences to gather and feel less alone for a while. Even in our isolation, we are finding ways to be together.
(Personally, I’ve been training for this situation for years. Millenials and Gen Z-ers — at least one of which is the generation I belong to, depending on your definition — are rather uniquely equipped to deal with the limitations of social distancing, being the first generations accustomed to the idea of social interaction over the internet. To me, there’s nothing weird about having a six-hour Skype call with someone far away, using screen sharing to watch videos together, or even just doing separate things together. The knowledge that there’s someone else with you, physically or not, can make a world of a difference. We are apart, but not alone.)
Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring out the best in people. And right now, the human spirit remains unfazed in all the best ways possible. Solidarity is manifesting itself in many forms, from the solemn to the heartwarmingly hilarious. Coronavirus-themed song parodies are popping up left and right, covering everything from Adele’s “Hello” to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, spanning Disney, Broadway, and pop songs. They interject the situation with humor while serving as a reminder to stay indoors and wash your hands — and on top of all that, they’re all messages from people going through the same experiences you are. None of us have to be in this alone.
Humans are pretty fantastic. There’s something undeniably admirable about the things we can create when left to our own devices, especially when provided with just the right combination of free time, boredom, and circumstance.
orenda / noun / Huron
The extraordinary, supernatural power that exists to varying degrees within every natural being, capable of being exerted at the will of its possessor; it is what empowers people to change the world in the face of powerful forces such as fate.
arrangiarsi / verb / Italian
to get by, to make do; refers to the skill, even the art, of resourcefulness and ingenuity.
This phenomenon is not just online. It’s happening in the real world, too, if you know where to look. My apartment community had to cancel their annual Easter egg hunt because of concern over the virus — but instead of doing nothing, they sent around printable coloring pages of Easter eggs, encouraging residents to put them up in their windows so that people could still “egg hunt” just by going for a walk around the property. Even something as simple as seeing the little egg-shaped pops of color appearing in windows as the week went on provided its own sense of comfort. It sent the hopeful message that things would find a way to continue.
As scary and uncertain as the current situation is, some of the ways the world is changing are definitely for the better. My personal favorite piece of news at the moment is that with people staying home, out of factories and off of highways, air pollution levels are at a record low. As we are healing, as individuals and as a society and a world, the earth is healing too.
Being in isolation has also brought out the hidden creativity in many people. Left with an abundance of time on their hands, people are discovering new hobbies that they didn’t previously have time for. I’ve heard about lots of people taking up homemade breadmaking rather than taking their chances at the grocery store; for some people, culinary creations improvised based on the ingredients found in the fridge are becoming the norm. Being stuck inside is also the perfect time for all the things you’ve been “meaning to get around to” — that art or craft kit that’s been sitting untouched in the closet, the new game you’ve been wanting to try, even home workouts or yoga.
Being forced to make do really makes you appreciate what you already have. During a time like this, it’s important to remember to count our blessings. Personally, I’m lucky that I still have my job, working as a developer for a web platform, a position that I can perform from anywhere that has a wifi connection. I’m lucky to live somewhere that’s not densely populated, where avoiding contact with other people is fairly easy, where the virus’s spread is slow and hospitals aren’t overwhelmed yet. I’m lucky to have plenty of indoor hobbies that will keep me entertained. As a naturally solitary person, I’m lucky that I’m able to retain something akin to normalcy.
And we are all lucky to be alive right now, at the healthiest, smartest, and most connected time that history has ever seen. Like the individual words featured in this post, alone we may feel powerless — but together, we can be so much more than the sum of our parts. We are living through history right now, which is a reminder in itself that this, too, shall pass. Until then, it’s up to us to continue doing what we’ve always done: creating, sharing, learning about ourselves, and appreciating the world around us.
Trees are budding. Flowers are blooming. Birds are singing and animals are coming out of hiding from the winter. Life goes on for them, as it will, one way or another, for us.
sisu / noun / Finnish
strength of will, determination, grit, resilience; previously unknown strength, perseverance, and courage in the face of adversity or perceived impossible odds, and the ability to sustain that courage.