An email came at the end of my work day, announcing that I’d won a prestigious, once-in-a-lifetime research grant to spend the summer in France. It was April 15. For just over a month I’d been locked down in my New York City apartment, straying out into the hesitant, leafy spring days only for groceries and dog walks.
When I’d applied for the grant the previous autumn, with the combination of grandiosity and self-loathing that these kinds of longshots evoke, France seemed like a dream. By April, the only thing it seemed was decidedly outside the ten-block radius around my building that had come to feel like the limits of the known world.
And so my summer became marked by the thing that didn’t happen –– the thing I had planned toward and hoped for and that, had the world been different, I imagine I would have done. The mark is not just of the loss itself. It’s disappointing, but under most circumstances loss is also bearable. What I have had a much harder time bearing is its implication: the loss of trust in my ability to plan.
The disaster of this pandemic might seem like a perfect storm –– a virus jumps species at a moment led by uniquely inept and venal politicians, presiding over a particularly grinding form of capitalism that encouraged global travel and rationed health care. It’s not probable for these conditions to come together just so, but it turns out to be entirely possible. Being alert to that possibility provides little recourse, however, as there is ultimately nothing to prevent this or some other life-wide disruption from happening to us all again. And even if, against all odds, nothing goes disastrously wrong in our lifetimes, it’s at our own potential peril that we would now forget that it could. Disaster’s great lesson is its own possibility; it is, otherwise, the most indifferent of teachers.
I don’t think of myself as especially bullish on the future, but it turns out I had indeed been making plans, and in any case my days were animated by the assumption that I retained some control over what was going to happen in the negligible corner of the universe called my life. My assumption all the way into the second week of March had been that I could exercise this control because the world I lived in would more or less continue, whether I liked it or not. But as I looked up, on April 15, from the email I’d dreamed about receiving and out the window at the city I hadn’t left or stopped living in and yet missed so much, I felt the ache of losing something I was in the middle of getting to have.
I had not, until that point, absorbed disaster’s great lesson, even though I’d had the chance to learn it before.
Not going to France is bad, but so many things are worse. People are dying, starving, suffering; Black people are being murdered; wildfires are burning; hurricanes are looming. It all fits under the heading of loss, but not all losses are the same, either in scale or consequence. The point of telling my comparatively privileged story is not to solicit a pity that it doesn’t merit, so much as to register, for what it’s worth, that loss can seep into even the smallest cracks. However unimportant a given loss may look or in fact be in the grand scheme of things, it still aims for the gut when it punches.
It’s also true that responses to loss aren’t all the same. Mine tend to be displaced. Feelings of loss hit me hardest when I encounter someone else –– in a book or a movie, for instance –– having some version of them. Loss arrives at the scene of my grief in full force but at unexpected moments.
I didn’t feel like waiting, and so all summer I tried to provoke myself toward a grief I just wanted to be done with already, as if I could expel my loss like some kind of emotional bulimic. I thought a lot about the biblical story of Lot’s wife, who was spared when God destroyed Sodom –– when, for her, it could have been worse –– but on the condition that she flee without feeling sorry for what she or anyone else was losing, and so when she looked back on her way out of town, she turned into a pillar of salt.
I tried to empathize and feel her loss, but the circumstances of our respective calamities don’t line up. Hers seems to me almost enviably black and white, with its unmistakable divine commandment, with the orderly, clear, given directions that she just as clearly could defy, with the cause-and-effect simplicity of it all — never mind whether (not to question God’s judgment or anything) her punishment seems totally fair. In contrast, my own experience felt confused, as if Lot’s wife got lost on her way out of town and looked back in the wrong direction.
The experience of our pandemic world is often the jumbled experience of looking back and looking forward at once. As we fill our days with the frustrated sense of losing and having, often the same objects, often at the same time, it’s a small wonder that so many people report that time feels wonky. But it’s also not surprising that many people are trying to order time –– to create a schedule, to establish a routine –– for themselves or their children or some other parts of their lives.
We resist the jumbling even as we feel it. We insist that we haven’t lost the ability to plan, even though the plans we’re making are indelibly marked by the thing we didn’t plan for. Perhaps our experience is less biblical and more like that of the patients about whom the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote, people who sought the aid of therapy not because they were falling apart, but because they were afraid they were about to. He later concluded that their fear of breakdown was related to difficult events in their past. What his patients were afraid of, in other words, was the thing that had already happened.
The summer we didn’t have is a lesson in disaster’s possibility, but who would want to have to learn it?
When it comes to disaster I, at least, am revealed to be a terrible student. You see this summer’s interrupted trip is actually the third time I didn’t go to France. The first was a junior year abroad I couldn’t afford, the second was a solo trip in my thirties where I actually got as far as Amsterdam before getting the call that a loved one was sick enough that I had to turn around.
It’s clear enough why I didn’t get to go each time, but what’s been harder to explain is why I keep at it. What am I doing, trying the same experiment and expecting different results? By some accounts that is the definition of insanity. But it’s been admitting defeat –– admitting that maybe not going is the only going that’s going to happen –– that made me the craziest.
France was what I dreamed of the last time I was in lockdown, during the ages of 13-17, a high schooler trying to use his grammar lessons and his copy of L’Étranger to brace a homelife that threatened to cave in every time someone made an unexpected move. I had never been to Chicago, let alone Europe. France was nothing I understood and nothing I really knew that much about. But what mattered was the elsewhere it held the place of. It’s not hard to imagine, really, why I might so doggedly keep trying to get there.
The depth of loss I carried about not going that first time eluded me until I had the chance to go the second time. Then I planned excitedly, feverishly, only gradually realizing I was trying to cram a year abroad into a scant week. I was turning around and looking back. All my planning suddenly seemed a little sweet, even if “middle-aged man tries to recapture lost youth” isn’t a very original story. But then the call came and I had to turn around literally, drop my plans, and go. Booking a transatlantic flight for the next day was and is still the most glamorous thing I have ever done, and yet as I found my way home, some part of me was lost.
And now it’s happened again.
It’s always true, and therefore not especially meaningful, that if things had been different, then they’d have been different. Our complex world admits few variables in isolation, and so who really knows, had we had some version of the summer we’d planned for and not the one we hadn’t, what any of us would actually have ended up doing, or why, or under what conditions.
It’s also always true that what happens depends on an infinite number of other things not happening –– to arrive safely means you didn’t crash, to be in France is to not be in New York, etc. Each possibility shuts down every other one. And though that’s always true, we usually move along, luxuriating in the bliss of not thinking about it –– until, that is, disaster shows up unannounced, letting us know that it can. And in its wake of frustrated plans, of so many losses large and small, we begin to focus on how what didn’t happen has now become what happened.
As the summer we didn’t have stretches into the autumn we are scrambling so hard to plan for, all of us have to figure out whether we want to learn disaster’s lesson or not. I have good enough reason to finally learn it, but I resist it too, sometimes stubbornly, and sometimes almost involuntarily. Though I won’t be going to France any time soon, I can’t stop imagining that I will go eventually. It doesn’t feel like a plan. It’s just I can’t seem to give up looking forward to a future that might hold a different kind of present, a different kind of past.
Jordan Alexander Stein: Not always the theory guy.