Some years ago, life as I knew it was put on a sudden and dramatic hiatus in the form of an inattentive driver who attempted to cross U.S. 30 near Plymouth in the path of our car.
My left hip was broken and, this being before insurance companies decided an overnight stay was sufficient for anything less than a heart attack accompanied by a brain tumor and multiple gunshot wounds, I spent weeks in traction at a hospital in Michigan City.
The experience was at first frightening and then by turns sobering, frustrating, annoying, humbling and excruciatingly boring – all the gifts an extended convalescence can bestow.
But it was also liberating.
I had been abruptly yanked from the accrued anxieties and regrets of day-to-day existence — the home-work balancing act, the meetings and deadlines, the worry over paying bills, the messiness of relationships, the tallying of small victories and defeats against my betters and lessers — and sidelined on the injured-reserve list.
All I had to do was relax in my bed and let others minister to me. What needed to be taken care of in the world outside that hospital room would be done by others or simply would not get done. It was no longer my concern. There was literally nothing for me to worry about.
It was an opportunity to re-examine my whole life, what I had done with it and where I wanted to go with it. Delivered from the mental clutter that tunnels the vision, I could look at everything with a fresh perspective.
What a gift.
It might not seem so right now, but that is a gift we have all just received.
With astonishing speed, the coronavirus has pulled into the path of the whole world, putting life as everyone knew it on sudden and dramatic hold. We are asked to shelter in place when we can and practice social distancing when we can’t, with the simplest, most taken-for-granted privileges of ordinary life slipping from our grasp.
We are still in the early, frightening stage now. We wonder how long the dystopian nightmare will last, who will survive it and what society will look like when it’s all over. And, as was said many times about our “war on terror,” how will we know if and when it is over?
But we will ease into the other stages of extended convalescence – the frustrations and annoyances and sheer boredom. If we don’t let these inevitabilities overwhelm us, we will also be able to appreciate the liberating force of abrupt chance. We will have the opportunity to re-evaluate our relationships with each other, as friends and family and neighbors, as citizens and just as fellow human beings.
I notice that the coronavirus commentaries are starting to move beyond the bullet-point lamentations to focus on speculation about the long-term effects of the crisis.
Actually, a lot of it is pretty short-term. How many restaurants and other retail outlets will succumb and how well will the economy recover? What will this hurt or help the president’s re-election campaign? How much of education will migrate online?
As the commentators extend their speculation, they unfortunately tend to let their existing predispositions guide them. As in: Hey, urban planners, how’s that idea of herding people into cities and cramming them on public transportation looking now? Or: Gosh, deficit hawks, could that possibly be you we hear calling for an immediate cash infusion to save small businesses?
My favorite self-serving, dueling set of predictions is that the coronavirus scare will, a) kill the silly climate change fraud because we now know what a real disaster is, and that’s not it, and, b) strengthen the noble climate change battle because people are now being taught how they must behave to save the planet.
The speculation is harmless and most, if not all it, both short- and long-term, will be wrong. This is an unprecedented event in modern times, and there are just too many variables, and they will combine and recombine in ways we can’t even imagine.
I have my own idea, of course. I think the most probable outcome is the strengthening of two existing trends — our dependence on the federal government and our migration to an ever-more-digital existence. Those trends, not coincidentally, reinforce each other.
But I am likely wrong, too, so I won’t put too much of my self-esteem into that package. I’d rather talk about the gift of reflection we have been given and my hope that we don’t squander it.
As I, alas, squandered most of mine.
I’d like to report that my brush with death and subsequent bedridden-induced introspection forced me to undertake hard decisions and made me a much better person. But the truth is that day-to-day realities were too powerful and started crowding back in as soon as I got out of the hospital.
The one thing that survived was a clearer, stronger sense of something we all already know but ignore or at least don’t think about much: That we are each in charge of our own lives, until we are not.
Up until that turning point, we relinquish our autonomy, letting our course be dictated by habit and obligation and inertia, by our time, place and culture, by the explicit or inferred expectations of others. Then, when that moment of realization comes that circumstances have forced us into uncharted territory, we flounder.
Since that time, I have at least come to appreciate my limitations, as I think Dirty Harry once said. I can figure out what’s important and what to let go.
Yeah, sounds a lot like the serenity prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
That’s not a bad core philosophy. And not the worst sentiment we could come out of coronavirus with.
We had a gift after 9/11, too, and used it to come together as a country, standing together and supporting each other. For about 15 minutes, until day-to-day reality set back in.
We seem to be finding each other again, neighbors looking out for each other, even our politicians reaching across the political divide. May it last longer this time. That’s something we can choose to change.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at email@example.com.