As a life-long Sci-Fi nerd, I always wondered what it would be like to live in a parallel universe. Well now I know. We are living in a state of altered reality, with not just one mirror universe, but many multiverses. In each of these worlds there seems to be a different reality: the most popular one being the world where COVID-19 has been vanquished and is no longer a threat. In my universe it’s still out there, and I am doing my best to stay safe, though others may scoff.
I don’t consider myself a snob. I would never, ever use the term ‘the great unwashed’. But lately I have come to think of the majority of people outside as ‘the great unmasked’. I understand that some of this behavior is the result of the mixed messages and conflicting advice being given by ‘the authorities’ – many of whom differ greatly in their own opinions of how to handle the crisis. The great unmasked saunter out in public, bare-faced, carefree and nonchalant – ‘jaunty jolly’, as my father would say. Should I be jealous that their lives are worry-free? Should I feel silly for wearing my mask whenever I venture out? Is this COVID business much ado about nothing? Should I be angry that so many people cavalierly flout the law?
I am not jealous, and I am not angry. I am surprised to see how few people wear masks outside. But they are not threatening me. I take my own precautions, keep my distance, wear my mask, wash my hands… I do not feel endangered by my neighbors’ behavior, just curious about their thinking. What’s it like to live in their universe, where the pandemic is over? What’s it like to be free of fear? All of this is ironic because I, too, was once fearless. Years ago I was cool and carefree, reckless even. On a personality test I’d been forced to take for one of my managerial roles, I was identified as an extreme risk-taker. (I guess that was considered a good thing in business back then, because I got the promotion.) In fact, I was an adrenaline junkie in my younger years. I volunteered for hazardous assignments. When the Yom Kippur war broke out, I was a 21-year-old junior reporter at a local news agency. I begged to be sent into the battle zone on assignment. I relished the excitement of bouncing around the border in an open jeep, with no protective gear; with nothing more than the metal Olivetti typewriter balanced on my lap. In those years, I rode on the backs of motorcycles with no helmet. I sped in cars. I went on night hikes in the desert in the days before cell phones and GPS. I did all the stupid things 20-somethings do without compunction. I had lots of adventures, lots of close calls and lots of fun.
But that was then. Somewhere along the way from then to now, I grew up. These days I am careful. Not anxiety-ridden, but far more cautious than I was in my 20’s and 30’s. I look both ways before crossing the street. I guess I’ve acquired a bit of common sense over the years. I keep updated on world events. I believe my decisions are well-informed.
But being well-informed in the age of COVID 19 leads to cognitive dissonance. Are we in the throes of a global pandemic? Is it all just undue panic, fed by politicians with their own agendas? Are the epidemiologists right? Are they simply fear mongers? Is the answer somewhere in between? According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I can see two sides to this strange reality. I believe that there is, indeed, an actual pandemic; that this disease can be devastating for certain people but not for others; and that the amount of precautions one needs to take will vary based on one’s age and state of health. I know that we each must make our own decision about how to live these days. Laws and public health guidelines are important. But we each need to find our way through this mess of information overload, conflicting messages, and sometimes purposeful misinformation.
I read an article in Psychology Today called “Why Your Neighbor Won’t Stay-At-Home” about the varied reactions to COVID 19 restrictions. The article discussed differing levels of risk tolerance and loss aversion, that behavioral trait identified by two of our own Nobel Prize winners, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. “To the risk tolerant, the same .5 to 1 percent risk of dying from COVID-19 feels small in comparison to the personal liberties and freedoms they wish to regain; to the loss averse, the same risk feels much larger and the rationale for temporary restrictions on services, travel, and freedoms seems incontrovertible.“
My adolescent love of Sci-Fi introduced me to parallel universes, time travel, and alternate dimensions. I devoured every book I could find by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. Star Trek came along when I was 14, and despite the campy costumes and bad dialog, I was hooked. So yes, I am a Trekkie, though I’ve never been to a convention. And it was thanks to my favorite author, Asimov, that I got into science – another life-long love of mine. The clear explanations in Asimov’s popular science books were perfect for me: a curious kid but a very poor student. Once I started reading about science, I realized that the possibilities posed by quantum physics and chaos theory were even wilder than my wildest Sci-Fi dreams. In my younger days, I dreamt of parallel worlds. Now I live there.