These Three Irrational Thoughts Keep Tugging on My Mind in the Age of COVID-19.

Analog wall clock

This is a strange time.

I love Joan Didion’s haunting memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (Amazon, Bookshop), and I was particularly struck by her description of her irrational responses after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. If I remember correctly (I can’t find my copy of the book to check), she had the thought, “If it’s three hours earlier in California, is John still alive there?” She was distressed by reading obituaries about John, because, she thought, “I had allowed other people to believe he was dead.”

I absolutely understand the dream logic of those ideas.

And as the pandemic continues, I find myself having strange, irrational thoughts—which I recognize as irrational, yet tug on my mind.

First, I have the feeling that we’re in a temporary alternate universe. It’s very interesting to watch everything play out, but at a certain point, a giant finger will push the “rewind” button, and we’ll all zip back to the time before everything changed, and we’ll resume the previously scheduled programming. Like the movie Sliding Doors, this has been an experiment in what-if, just-imagine, and what-would-you-do.

Second, I have the oddest feeling that all this is somehow optional. I’m being a good citizen and opting in to this experiment, but it’s voluntary. At some point, I might opt out.

Third, I have the unshakeable sensation that no time is passing. I see the seasons change, school has ended and plans for the fall have been announced, we’ve had family birthdays; and yet I feel like I’m suspended in a present moment that keeps stretching but doesn’t flip to the next moment.

All of this is utterly irrational, of course. And I know it. Time is passing, it’s irreversible, I can’t opt out.

At least I realize that I’m having these irrational thoughts, so I can recognize and try to adjust for them—but I do still have them.

There’s another line of irrational thought that I don’t experience, but I’ve heard from many people—including my sister Elizabeth—who do. That’s the feeling that “This doesn’t count. We’re in a global pandemic, this is unprecedented and unplanned for, nothing counts during this time.” It’s true, of course, that this situation is unprecedented and unplanned for, and we all face uncertainty in every direction, but at the same time, everything counts. (This idea also comes up in the context of the “This Doesn’t Count” Loophole that I write about in Better Than Before, my book about how to make and break habits.)

Everything reminds me of a favorite quotation, and during this time, one line in particular keeps ringing in my head, from the Roman poet Ovid: “Be patient and tough; one day this pain will be useful to you.” As terrible as this time is, I’m trying to learn from it—and I can’t learn from this pain if I’m not seeing it clearly.

Have you found yourself having irrational thoughts or responses to the current situation?

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