A War of Tiny Defeats

Why Covid Part 2 is exhausting

Susan Orlean

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Alex Liew / Getty Images

Obviously, there are the epic defeats that Covid has delivered— thousands dead, many more thousands seriously ill, economic devastation for countless others. Covid has been unusually cruel in that way. But for many of us, who have been fortunate in having stayed healthy and gainfully employed, it’s also been crushing in quieter, subtler ways.

The defeats for the lucky among us have been small, but each one has delivered a hard punch of realization that things are not normal, not at all. For instance, I often occupy myself — or rather, I often used to occupy myself — fantasizing about trips I wanted to take, and when the time was right, planning them. The actual taking of the trip was great, but the pleasure was a whole process of anticipation, strategizing, imagining; the experience of the trip was found in the combination of all those dimensions of before, during, and after.

Now, nothing. It’s not just that the trips aren’t happening; the emotional arc of travel isn’t happening, either, so we have none of the radiating effect of the experience to enjoy. That’s what accounts for the curious flatness of time since Covid. Our days aren’t marked by the anticipation of these big, desirable disruptions like travel that take up so much more than simply their allotted time. They used to take up mental space that now feels unfilled and undifferentiated.

I’ve always entertained a lot. Even though it’s now been deemed safe to gather with friends, I’m so rusty that I haven’t gotten back in the swing. Having friends over gave my time, in the past, a kind of texture. Like travel, entertaining occupied more than just the specifics of the event. I spent so much time beforehand on the mechanics of entertaining — inviting people, deciding what food to make, tidying my house, picking music.

Now, again, nothing. I miss having friends over, but even more, I miss the way the anticipation, the preparation, and always, the post-party debriefing, changed up the regularness of life. Yes, my time is much smoother now, less interrupted. But does that feel good? No, it feels monotonous, dull. I don’t think we’re meant to live without goalposts marking our days, whether it’s a holiday or a dinner we’re organizing or an accomplishment we’re aiming for. Covid has…

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Susan Orlean

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)