UncategorizedOpinion | We Weren’t Happy Before the Pandemic, Either

Opinion | We Weren’t Happy Before the Pandemic, Either

I do not remember the last conversation I had with my father before he died. The weeks and months before his passing were like the months and years of our life together: full of starts and stops. We tried to create the relationship we knew that fathers and sons should have but that we didn’t, because he left our family when I was young. There were times when I called and he did not answer. In other cases, I missed his attempts to connect.

In August 2017, I received a phone call in the middle of the night. My father had died in a single-vehicle accident in California, far from those who knew and loved him.

As I grieved, my father’s death brought a certain clarity about my calling as a husband and parent. If my relationship with my dad had been marked by brokenness, I wanted my relationship with my wife and children to be marked by healing. It also forced me to re-evaluate my career. Impressing other writers and academics ceased to be my goal. Instead, I would focus on using my words to find beauty and hope. I couldn’t write a different ending for my father’s story, but I could show that a different ending was possible for others.

Over the past year and a half, many people have experienced something similar to what I did when my father died. I am not the only one who has received a terrifying call that wakes us from our slumber and changes us forever. It may have been a notification about a loved one going on a ventilator rather than dying in a car crash, but the trauma is the same. This pandemic has left conversations and lives cut short.

And it seems to be bringing a similar clarity to people about their priorities: The pandemic has led to one of the largest shifts in jobs in recent memory, with millions of Americans making changes. The housing market is exploding as many people reconsider where they want to live. We are in the midst of a societal shift, an awakening to how much we want our lives to be different. But the changes leave an issue unaddressed: Why didn’t we know all of that before?

All these changes that people are embarking on during the pandemic make me think that we weren’t that happy before the pandemic. What about our lives prevented us from seeing things that are so clear to us now? When I talked to friends and neighbors about this, two themes emerged. The pandemic has disabused us of the illusion of time as a limitless resource and of the false promise that the sacrifices we make for our careers are always worth it.

Before the pandemic, we knew we were going to die, but we did not believe it. Maybe we believed it, but considered it a problem to be dealt with later. In the meantime, exercise and a reasonable diet was the tithe we paid to our fears. We believed we had time.

For all that we know about the relatively low mortality rates of Covid-19 among the young, it remains something of a deadly lottery. You could take all the precautions, be basically healthy, and still die, quickly. I have classmates and friends who graduated from high school and college alongside me who have died from this disease.

We have had to consider our collective mortality. And we are now faced with the question of meaning. Like the biblical psalmist says, “We have escaped like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped.” (Psalm 124:7). Covid-19 threatened to capture us in its snare, but thus far we have eluded it. What shall we do with this opportunity?

This opportunity made plain what may have been hidden. Maybe the sacrifices we make for our careers are not worth it. When we had the illusion of time, the lower pay, long commutes, high cost of living and separation from loved ones seemed a small price to pay for a successful career. But the pandemic reminded us that there are some things more important than vocational progress.

Friends with children came to see that living far from family meant that they did not have a social network that could help them when school and life logistics became difficult. Covid-19 showed us that when systems break we need people.

This was equally true for single friends who lived in areas where the entire social scene catered to married people with families. Being at home helped many people realize how lonely they were before the pandemic and how few people they could really turn to in need.

The pandemic has reminded us that life is more than what we do. It is about whom we spend our lives with. We cannot hug a career or laugh with a promotion. We are made for friendship, love and community.

I recognize that for some, Covid-19 did not raise the same existential questions. They had to deal with the issues of survival, including the need for food and a warm place to sleep. Nonetheless, I have relatives in service industries raising similar questions. They are no longer willing to deal with harassment from rude customers for a barely livable wage. They are struggling to pay their bills, but they are doing so on their terms with their humanity intact.

If there is a lesson in this for employers, it is to remember that employees are more than workers. We have an identity outside the hours committed to making a living. Jobs that treat their employees honorably, provide flexibility and leave room for life outside of work will thrive.

I did not get to speak to my father a final time, but I did deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The need to make sense of his death revealed what was so often hard to see in the ebb and flow of our life together. He was not simply the villain who caused so much pain to our family; he was a broken person trying to find himself in a world that rarely shows damaged Black men pity. He was like most of us, a mass of contradictions.

In that eulogy I spoke about how an earlier brush with death via a heart attack changed him. He finally began to ask ultimate questions and work his way toward his own answers. He and I began to have hard and necessary conversations. I confronted him about things he had done and the real pain he caused. It was not a healing, but it began something we never got to finish.

When he died, I was in the early stages of writing what became “Reading While Black.” It has the following dedication: “This book is dedicated to the memory of Esau McCaulley Sr., who died before he ever got to see a book bearing our name in print. Whatever else I am, I will always remain your son.”

I did not dedicate the book to him because we were close. We were not. I dedicated it to him because his life and later tragic death forced me to make decisions about who and what I wanted to be. It gave me courage to write even if the world rejected it. I was changed through the calamity of his death, and the changes continue. It seems that Covid-19 has dealt a collective trauma to the American consciousness and that the full fruit of that trauma remains uncertain. One thing is clear: Our previous normal was not as good as we thought it was.

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