Seeing Double: A Guide to Living in Interesting Times

For many Amherst students, the COVID-19 pandemic is the most disruptive global event of our lives. As we all adapt to the sudden changes in our learning environments and lifestyles, it’s important to remember that disruptions like this are one of the few certainties of world history. 

COVID-19 may be the first global event of this magnitude in our collective memory, but it certainly won’t be the last. In the last 200 years, almost every generation has endured life-altering global events — some ultimately good, others not. From economic plunges to wars to pandemics, history has shown us countless examples of phenomena that result in disruption, displacement, uncertainty and fear. 

But the inherent instability of our world shouldn’t be a cause for hopelessness. Every change brings opportunity, and the way people choose to respond to global shocks has a huge impact on where we go afterward. With that in mind, (and because a friend of mine on The Student keeps telling me that my column needs more listicles) here are six tips — inspired by history — on how to live through interesting times without losing your sanity. 

1. Be prepared for changes

Global events like COVID-19 transform the world. So, while it’s natural and understandable to want everything to go back to the way it was, that mindset is hard to sustain in the long term (particularly since we’re only at the start of this particular crisis). If you can, try to see what the crisis can add to your life, be it opportunities to complete forgotten projects, write letters to your friends or even write op-eds for The Student.  It would be obscene to ask people to be excited about the changes caused by COVID-19, especially as many lives have taken a devastating turn, but a sense of acceptance may make coping easier. 

2. Don’t be scared

While global events transform the world, they never change it completely. Some parts of your life will change during and after the crisis, but much will likely remain the same. After the pandemic ends, you’ll reunite with your friends, return to Amherst, complete your degree, and move on. 

After all, consider the generations before us. It sometimes seems impossible to imagine how they could have lived through so many disruptive events, but they did and came out the other side with relatively normal lives. 

During World War II, for instance, commonplace items like butter, sugar and gas were strictly rationed, and the government strongly discouraged unnecessary travel. For more than three years, people adapted to the changes as best they could. Carpooling grew more common and countless families developed wartime cookbooks that adapted old recipes to the new constraints. The war years were certainly not easy ones, but, somehow, lives went on. So will ours. 

3. Avoid your worst impulses

However, times of trial do not necessarily inherently bring out the best in people. One need look no farther than the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to see how fear-mongering and misplaced blame can lead to dire consequences. We’ve already seen hate crimes committed against Asian Americans skyrocket to over 100 per day as a result of fear-mongering blaming them for the spread of the virus. Such heinous acts spring up as regularly as clockwork during a crisis such as this. It’s time we learned from our past mistakes. 

4. Keep a level head

One of the worst parts of this crisis is the anxiety and uncertainty it causes. The isolation caused by quarantine and social distancing is a huge emotional burden, especially for the more than a fifth of America that experiences mental illness. That isolation, paired with the stress of global events, makes everyone vulnerable to giving into depression, negative thoughts, or any of a myriad of harmful mental spaces. The mental wounds of coronavirus will last long past the actual pandemic. But a good way to prevent all that is by, as I said above, embracing the changes while also taking solace in life’s constants. 

5. Document it

Documenting your experiences is one of the best ways to get perspective on your own condition. Keeping notes of your experience could effectively serve the same role that accounts of the World War II home front play today. Documentation proves that it’s possible to live through even the most disruptive events. It can mean keeping a journal, recording videos or even posting #quarantinelife pictures on your Instagram story. You’ll be reminding everyone — from yourself to your peers and even posterity itself — that life goes on no matter what’s going wrong. 

6. Reach out to others

And finally, remember to keep in touch with others. Some people may be less negatively impacted, even by events as disruptive as a pandemic. Others, however, must live with complex family circumstances or struggle with mental or physical health or financial issues. 

Quarantine creates a temptation to split up society into numerous little pieces. Some exist happily in this atomized state. Others suffer tremendously. Reaching out will give you a greater sense of connectivity and help lift up those who are especially affected. Besides, this is one of those rare opportunities to reopen contact with friends from high school or even earlier. 

In many ways, history is just a series of unpredictable lurches from one disruptive crisis to another. Crises are inevitable, but the only thing we can control is how we react to them, not just at the national level but also a personal level. 

These next few months will be difficult. People will die and families will struggle. We should do all in our power to prevent both of these outcomes, but dealing with the crisis takes more than fighting its direct consequences. Everyone must also look after their own mental wellbeing, in order to ensure that we can, in good time, move past COVID-19, just as we have every other crisis we’ve ever faced.