It’s on everyone’s mind these days, everywhere. It’s inescapable, it influences everything we do our say. Few issues—not perhaps since World War II—have been so all-encompassing and potent. The Covid pandemic, in the space of less than two years, has transformed the world, in every country and continent, in every individual human mind and family. Even if Covid finally subsides–through the efficacy of miraculous vaccines, new anti-viral medicines, and the natural ebb and flow of the virus itself—its aftermath will reverberate for years, if not decades. School children have lost months and years of irreplaceable educational opportunity. Grieving families will never recover from the loss of a loved one to this implacable disease. The impact of so-called “long Covid”—the mysterious syndrome that it’s said affects up to 30% of those who have had Covid and recovered—is yet to be understood and determined.
In the face of all this, I think it is worth stepping back and taking stock of this catastrophe that has upended all of our lives. In my latest book—Every Breath, New Chances: How to Age with Honor and Dignity—I have developed an inner contemplative exercise I call “deep mind reflection.” Deep Mind Reflections are a way for us to dig down beneath the surface of conscious awareness to unearth our deeper emotional and intuitive response to a matter. In the book I use deep mind reflections to explore the various topics of aging, but the method is equally applicable to the topic of Covid.
A deep mind reflection begins by selecting a “key word” and “key image” as the starting point for our journey. The key word to start with is of course “Covid.” To find a key image, I repeat the word “Covid” silently to myself a few times and watch to see what image comes to mind. Almost immediately I see myself in a hospital bed, surrounded by blinking machines and tubes. This is not just an image, it is a memory. There was a time in my life when, desperately ill, I was in just that situation. The image reflects the fear that we all had—especially we older adults—at the beginning of the pandemic, when there were no vaccines and at a moment’s notice an ambulance could take you into intensive care where no family member could visit. You would be utterly alone.
I continue repeat the key word Covid to myself until it changes. All at once it becomes “covenant,” as in vow, and I immediately picture my wife of 53 years, and realize that my early fear of Covid included her disappearing into the hospital, perhaps forever. That image is still painful to think about. For so many families all over the country and the world, losing a spouse to the impersonal machine of the hospital, perhaps never to emerge, is a lasting trauma.
Covid, Covid. I rest with this word and the image of my wife, feeling thankful that through it all neither one of us became ill, neither one of us disappeared into the hospital and now that fear is receding. Covert! My mind shifts to a new word, covert, as in secret, hidden. I look for an image and I see nothing, just invisible air, a breath of wind. One of the things that makes the era of Covid so frightening is that it is so invisible, carried in secret in microscopic particles that infect the very air we breathe. The only illness most people are familiar with that travels covertly in the air like that is measles, and measles has pretty much been eradicated—we were all vaccinated for it as children. Polio was another terrifying covert illness that struck fear into the hearts of our parents’ generation, but that too was eliminated by a miracle of modern science. Covid has not been eliminated, and the latest news from scientists is that it is unlikely to be—it will go from being a “pandemic” to being “endemic,” that is some people will still get it and we will learn to live with it.
Covert, covert, cove! Now I picture a cove, an inlet of calm ocean water, bordered by a beach and a row of tropical trees. A cove is a sheltered place, a refuge. During those early days we all learned the phrase “shelter in place.” We each created a cove of safety where we could abide while the spectre of disease and death haunted the formerly safe streets and shops where now we could only venture furtive and masked.
Cove, cove, love! The final transformation of this deep mind reflection is the word love. We have all lost so much in this age of Covid, the innocence of being able to go where we want and do what we want. We have learned to fear strangers in a way we never had before. But love is still with us. It is ineradicable, and in the end it is what will see us through. I look in my mind’s eye for an image to go with love and I just see a great big chocolate valentine, the kind I might have gotten when I was a child. Right now it is hard to see how, but one day we might again find that chocolate valentine in the center of our lives. Until then, we plan for the worst and hope for the best. That is our best hope.