COVID, Monsters, and Power
Shaunesse' is a PhD student at Boston University studying ethics and theology, and is an Interfaith America Racial Equity Media Fellow.
Since December, I’ve found myself struggling to write. The entirety of 2020, despite many good memories and experiences, was so draining that I wanted nothing more than to curl in a ball and skip every Zoom meeting on my calendar. I wanted to throw all of my devices out of the window and hope the lack of tech was a viable excuse to avoid the virtual world that I might sit with myself to reflect on all that transpired. That didn’t happen because I’m typing this post on the very laptop I wanted to throw away and I keep checking news updates on the very phone I wanted to smash. If you couldn’t tell, I was slightly frustrated and at my wits’ end.
I’m positive there are many others who felt this way as we all pretended that the absurd increase in “productivity” during a global pandemic that continues shifting our culture was actually normal and necessary. We continued working, producing, and shaming ourselves for not being productive enough, proving that we learned nothing from those early months when our lives slowed, and we briefly reassessed what was most important. We promised to establish newer, healthier boundaries and protect our physical wellbeing. We were going to spend more time with our loved ones and remove ourselves from toxic relationships. We were even considering investing in our passions and doing the things that gave us most fulfillment. Yet, here we are one month into the new year performing the same troublesome tasks we were performing a year ago. If this is the case for no one else, it’s the case for me.
As I grapple daily with the ways a months-long battle with COVID-19 continues to wreck my body, I am painfully aware I have not learned balance. I have not set boundaries. And I definitely have not protected my physical wellbeing. What does it look like to stare down a monster and take back the power you once gave it? I believe many communities across the country are asking some form of this question these days. Please bear with me as I attempt a creative analysis tying together my experience with that of the nation’s.
From mid-March to June I suffered a severe case of COVID-19 and the first thing I had to accept was the new reality that I would feel close to normal a handful of days followed by a week or more of intense and debilitating symptoms. My first symptom was sneezing, which I brushed off as allergies. Then I had no appetite for an entire day, but I explained that away as my attention being fully captured by a marathon of documentaries I delayed watching due to my demanding graduate school work schedule. Finally, I attempted to walk from my couch to my kitchen—less than fifteen steps apart—only to feel as though I was standing in a pool and someone was pulling down on my body with all their might. For two days prior, I felt my body changing but I ignored and explained away my symptoms until I couldn’t breathe. I don’t know if anything would change had I paid attention to my symptoms earlier, but those first days alerted me to the necessity of checking in with myself regularly to understand my limitations and to begin administering the care I need in the moment. As one of many COVID long-haulers, I can no longer wait until I can’t breathe to take care of myself.
My healing journey has not been linear in any sense of the word, but it has been crucial in shaping how I now choose to show up in the world. I see many similarities between my COVID-19 journey and the current state of the nation. Many of us naively fell into the short-lived relief that Joe Biden’s presidential win would solve many of the caustic problems we experienced under Trumpism. While there would still be work to do, it would feel different to engage in that justice work because an intentionally divisive person would no longer be leading the country. In the final days of the Trump presidency, we ignored the symptoms of antagonistic tweets, emotionally charged demands for loyalty, planned challenges to the electoral college votes, and harassment of elected officials in airports. We explained away those symptoms as minimal backlash and crushed emotions. We missed abundant opportunities to address the virus that had long ago overtaken the country and was headed for a vital organ. And we were very avoidant of checking in with ourselves to understand our real needs.
On 6 January 2021, the country tried to take a step forward from one presidency to the next, but it felt as though something heavy was pulling the nation down. A rally at the White House evolved into a siege at the Capitol, attempted coup, and the last lived day for six people. The country’s infection reached its highest point. We couldn’t breathe. As a quick aside, I think of each of the nation’s communities—you pick how those are differentiated—as important organs, each contributing to our overall health. Many communities—read systemically, politically, and economically marginalized—knew all too well about this virus because we became so accustomed to illness and neglected care that we never assumed we would know health. But some communities were just feeling the intense effects of this viral takeover; and now that we’re all up to speed, important healing work must be done.
As with my COVID-19 recovery, this is not a linear process. We have to go back to the onset of our symptoms, understand how we willingly subjected parts of our national body to such horrors, and begin holistically caring for our newly recognized needs. Do we continue explaining away symptoms because we think we’re healed under a new administration, or do we sit with an unwell system and collectively engage in betterment? Do we force a linear healing journey, or do we educate ourselves about the many ills that have plagued our country and address each of them to root out injustice? How do we stare down the monster and take back the power we once gave it?
After watching the presidential inauguration out of genuine fear that someone would be assassinated and desperately needing to know everyone walked away alive, I made many pledges to myself because I found myself not breathing for extended periods of time. I pledged to myself that I will stare down the racist stereotype monster and live a life of joy impervious to the claws of white supremacist narratives. I will stare down the religious homophobia monster and live out a God-ordained interfaith ministry that affirms the divine in all things, even this queer little theologian/ethicist from Shreveport, LA. I will stare down the capitalist monster and practice intentional boundaries that protect my mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing. I will stare down the institutional monster and no longer allow imposter syndrome to make me feel inferior in spaces in which I rightly and meritoriously deserve to be. I will continue staring down every inequity monster I encounter and amplify the voices of my siblings who have yet to find their microphones. How will you engage in staring down your monsters to reclaim the power you once gave them? How will your individual life heal this nation? How will we all be made whole this new year?
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.