US Esquire's editor-at-large and resident (unlicensed) therapist Dave Holmes answers a question from readers.
I have a friend who posted pictures of themself at a wedding last weekend, where, like everybody in the pictures and stories, they were not wearing a mask. Oh, also, this person had told me a week before the wedding that they had COVID, then tested positive again on a Wednesday, and then went to the wedding on that Saturday. This person is, right now, on a group snowboarding trip out of state. Obviously, everyone flew.
Can I still be friends with this person?
Yeah, no, sorry, your friend is trying to kill you, so you should probably take a step back from this relationship.
Listen, we are all impatient here. More than ever. We are all sore from the emotional whiplash of celebrating a new year and inaugurating a new administration yet still being unable to hug our mothers or go see movies. There is relief on the horizon—sort of, maybe, if you squint—but that relief is not here yet, and that makes the struggle all the harder. Right now sucks real bad.
It reminds me of the last six miles of a marathon for a couple of reasons, one of which is that I would like everyone to know that I do marathons. But the other reason is that when you train for a marathon, which I’ve done, your longest weekend practice run before the race is twenty miles. You do this so that you don’t destroy every single one of your joints before the race, and that makes sense. But it also makes that last six miles excruciating. You have pushed past your limits, you are in physical agony in unfamiliar territory, and it’s just about to end except it keeps not ending. You know the finish line is ahead, but it could be ten steps away or a thousand or a million, so you just have to settle into the pain and the uncertainty and the confusion and the more pain and just keep going.
This is that last six miles for all of us, and it hurts, but a person can’t just pretend it’s over. Because if a person does, then another person will, and if enough people do, then the finish line gets moved and everybody will just be running this race forever. This is not a perfect metaphor, but go easy; I am first and foremost a competitive long-distance runner.
From the start of this pandemic, I’ve noticed a troubling trend, even among people I like, even among me. Sometimes, someone I know will say “I’m flying home to see family,” or “I’m having Christmas dinner inside with some friends,” or even, I swear, “my gym is kind of low-key open, I’m gonna go do a HIIT class.” I will ask, because I don’t know and I am wondering, “Is that safe?” The answer that comes back is always about the same, something along the lines of: “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
I’ll be fine is what’s doing us in. We are all supposed to be individualists here in America, and whether we accept or reject that classification, we still reflexively think primarily in terms of how our own actions will affect our own selves. And it is of course important to keep yourself safe and healthy, but it’s just as important to keep yourself from spreading something you may not ever know you had to someone else who won’t know they have it who spreads it to someone else who takes care of their grandma. I’ll be fine feels like license to do as you please when you don’t know too many very sick people, but getting this far in this thing without knowing too many very sick people means you’re privileged.
This article in the New York Times from a couple of weeks ago put it as plainly as I’ve ever read it: Los Angeles has become the country’s COVID hotspot because we’re barely shutting down retail, restaurants still have to stay open for take-out because they’re getting no financial relief, and all those low-wage workers who keep all those businesses moving are still stuck in tight quarters. They’re going from job to bus to second job to train to home, where they’re disproportionately living in small spaces with multiple generations. I am fine does not mean it is fine, it just means you’re shielded from the worst of it.
Witness the former president, who got himself sick despite being the most-protected person on planet Earth, then got the best medical care money can buy, then sealed his Secret Service agents into an SUV so he could wave at some Proud Boys, then recovered and threw big, packed, mask-less rallies for himself where he bragged about how good he felt. I am fine, so it is fine.
It is not fine.
I’m not here to sentence anyone to indefinite house arrest. There are of course responsible ways to travel and eat and work out. You can quarantine and you can test and you can mitigate the potential spread. There are safe ways to socialize; we’re back to hosting our quarantine pod for distanced backyard hangouts, back to throwing a frisbee in the park (the perfect COVID activity, when you bring hand sanitizer) with a small group of friends who get tested regularly. You can exist in the world and get the social interaction a human being needs.
But for Pete’s sake, if you had COVID on Wednesday, don’t go to a wedding on Saturday, and if you absolutely must, like if it’s some kind of doomsday cult wedding, keep that shit private.
I’ve failed at this myself. Last summer, I did something dumb: my larger circle of friends all decided we were going to get tested on a Wednesday and hang out on a Saturday. So we did, and everyone was negative, so we gathered in a friend’s backyard and caught up. We were responsibly distant at first, but beers were involved, and soon enough we were irresponsibly close. Hugging all up on each other like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in almost three months. And of course, because the world felt normal for a moment and I am an idiot, I posted a picture of a bunch of us, arm in arm. A real pandemic don’t. I was a COVID Goofus when we’d all been trying to be Gallant.
Every person getting back to regular life and posting it like it’s normal makes it feel more regular and normal to someone else, which gives them license to keep it loose, which keeps us stuck. I took it down because it was a bad look, because it was ethically wrong, and because my boyfriend yelled at me. We make mistakes. But we gotta start learning from those babies or we’re never getting out of this.
I want to say you can have a talk with this person about what you see as their lack of responsibility, to make them understand that there is more to life than what you want to do. But you’re already assiduously keeping their gender vague in a letter you’re writing anonymously, so I think deep down you’re already afraid they’re going to murder you. I say move on. If you feel the loss, you can resolve it in the After, when we get there.
When we get there. We will. Stay strong until then.
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