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emily dickinson

Science and psychology of a virus

Certainly we find ourselves in trying times, between a global pandemic, with all of its economic implications, and the social unrest that simmers and then boils over onto the streets of American cities. It’s tough out there, and it’s hard to get our bearings in the 24/7 news cycle with its constant stream of information and conflicting reports. 

Meanwhile, parents face the strain of determining their children’s future, as they weigh whether to continue at-home schooling (in one form or another) or to return, cautiously to in-person schooling. As the Wall Street Journal reported today, within families and across friendships, these decisions are producing inordinate pressures on parents to determine what’s best—and they are torn by concerns over the health of their children, both physical and psychological. According to a recent survey by CivicScience, more than 25% of parents describe the decision-making process as “very stressful.” Many of us can relate. 

At the same time, numerous factors weigh heavy on our minds: making sense of the variability of the viral outbreak (peaks and troughs)wrestling with the indeterminacy of testing measures (some more reliable than others)anxiously anticipating the discovery of a vaccine; carrying concerns, even despairing over our economic future; and so on. The presence of COVID-19 has produced a slew of psychological issues that affect us daily—even as we hunker down at home. 

While it’s difficult to find historical precedents within living memory, the long-view provides earlier episodes of greater catastrophic scope: the Spanish Flu of 1918, the Great Plague of London (1665), the Black Death (1346-1353) to name a few.  As difficult as our current moment feels, these former devastations are beyond anything we can imagine—like trying to conceive the distance to the nearest star outside our solar system. As such, we might take some Stoic comfort from realizing that “this too will pass,” even as we make those tough decisions about how to educate our children. 

Wrecognize that the virology tracking and counting COVID-19 is a branch of science that continues to unfold—as the data rolls in, with hopefully greater precision in the coming months. Meanwhile, we should live in light of those activities with the greatest potential to fulfill our humanity: reading great books, speaking with friendscomposing our thoughts with greater care, solving problems, and searching for those signs of hope that lift the spirit 

Today, perhaps more than usual, we need that buoyancy of spirit, as Emily Dickinson describes it: “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all 

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