Meredith C. Carroll: Will COVID-19 trigger a resiliency epidemic?
It wasn’t the air raid drills during World War II that unnerved my dad as a little boy. After the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it was standard for towns and cities across the United States to rehearse defending themselves against enemy forces through a series of planned blackouts.
“My parents were really calm about it,” he told me the other day. “We just did what we had to do: We pulled down the shades and turned off the lights. The chances of the Nazis attacking (my house in) Scranton, Pennsylvania, seemed so remote.”
A few years later, however, the strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would go on to gut his sense of invincibility.
“It frightened me when the United States dropped the atom bomb,” he said. “We had to learn to hide under our desks at school in case of a nuclear blast. I remember feeling envious when passing by a cemetery, thinking, ‘At least the people in here don’t have to worry about it.’”
Picturing my dad living in fear of a mushroom cloud stirs up the same abject sadness I experience when checking my kids daily for symptoms of COVID-19. In addition to a telltale fever or cough, though, I also inspect them for signs of invisible damage wrought by a pandemic that has made them too aware too soon of their own fragility and mortality.
On a recent day as we drove west past Sardy Field with our 9-year-old daughter, my husband recounted the tragic March 2001 plane crash in Aspen that killed all 18 people on board.
“Did the pilots do it on purpose?” she asked.
It took a few moments before the provenance of her question dawned on us. It was less than two months ago on Sept. 11 of this year that she, for the first time, acquired an organic awareness of the 2001 terror attacks in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. (Thanks, TikTok.) We illustrated the day for her in broad strokes, even if her appetite for specific details about the terrorists, victims, survivors, Ground Zero, war, politics, religion, and the basic tenets of humanity seems more suited for a Las Vegas buffet than a Weight Watchers frozen entree.
Armed with a growing dossier filled with the kind of evil of which only humans are capable — from 9/11 to the Trump administration’s lethal pandemic neglect — my little girl’s limited supply of standard innocence issued to all babies at birth seems to be rapidly dwindling. She was the one who told me a week ago when the U.S. recorded 3,157 coronavirus deaths in a single day which, according to Johns Hopkins University (and my 9-year-old), is more Americans than were killed in the 9/11 terror attacks.
She’s only in fourth grade and yet waxes nostalgic for third grade (“We hardly ever had to wash our hands!”), like my dad explaining the supremacy of an egg cream over all other desserts: It feels too old for someone so young (especially for someone with their taste buds still intact). When the internet went down for a bit last week and effectively killed her distance-learning school day, she took it better than I did, proudly explaining how her teacher has said her class has done an excellent job of being flexible this year.
I used to listen to my dad’s stories of a television-free childhood with a strange fascination that’s reminiscent of my own kids’ shock (and horror) each time they realize that I’m older than the internet (“How did you Google stuff?” “Was your life in black and white or color?”). I can picture the questions their own children will ask them one day (“But why didn’t you always wear a mask? Did you not know how viruses spread?”)
Surely for better and not worse I made it to middle age before feeling the weight of the kind of worries my dad and now my babies had to carry much sooner. And while I know that resiliency is a critical development skill, I just keep wondering — and worrying — if there’s such a thing as too much of it.
More at MeredithCarroll.com and on Twitter @MCCarroll.
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Being a good parent is arguably the most important job one might ever have but, unfortunately, babies don’t come with instructions or training manuals.