I am loath to ask this, but could it be that the subjects on the reality television show “Doomsday Preppers” had a couple of things right? Who could have imagined that the vicissitudes of life would find American store shelves bereft of potatoes, canned goods, flour, meat, rice, dried beans, and toilet paper? Reality television and the existential crisis brought on by COVID-19 converged on a March day at my rural community’s Walmart as, in disbelief, I snapped photos of entire isles of shelves empty of product. The scary part? It was only just the beginning of a series of changes that COVID-19 invidiously inflicted upon just about every aspect of daily American life. Hours after my grocery shopping experience, schools and colleges suspended traditional classroom instruction in favor of on-line instruction in compliance with lockdown protocol. Like dominoes exposed to gale force wind—NCAA and professional basketball games along with salon appointments and worship services, triathlon races to graduation and wedding ceremonies fell under the restrictive curse of pandemic pandemonium. Not even the venerated funeral with traditional community grieving was spared from the rupture in normalcy. Life as we had known it quickly and inexorably shuttered against the rising tide of a plague.
The rapid acceleration of change combined with uncharacteristically gloomy, cold, and wet late March days was almost too much to process and left me grief-stricken, restless, and unable to concentrate on my writing projects as the important things in my routine disappeared as fast as toilet paper from the grocer’s shelf. In the span of months, an unseen worldwide phenomenon with a propensity for depredation and death spread its hateful tentacles into our every way of being, mocking even the most carefully planned schedule. The reality of the threat
ushered in a pervasive sense of alienation about our collective lot as humans without COVID-19 immunity. A dark cloud of uncertainty settled among my peers as leaders maladroitly responded to an unfamiliar, ominous threat. The stock market tanked. No one was exempt from being thrown into the vortex of uncertainty.
This reflective essay analyzes one week during March 2020—the week planned for the 4Cs—in order to explore a few revelations brought on by the pandemic-related lockdown through the lens of phenomenology. Loosely defined, phenomenology is “the study of individual lived experience within the world” (Neubauer, Witkop, and Varpio 90). Although this brief essay is by no means a comprehensive treatment of the complexities of phenomenology, I suggest the value of phenomenology in synthesizing the experience of what Heidegger terms “unhomelike being-in-the-world” (Blattner 233) via the lens of a moment in time during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Specifically, I identify three phenomenological principles from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and conflate these ideas with the emergence of meaning-making that arises through the experience of otherness imposed through upheaval. The principles are these: first, COVID-19 has provoked existential angst that reminds us that our existence is at once beautiful, yet mysterious; second, this protracted period of social isolation has revealed that connectivity to others is essential; and finally, the pandemic has exposed the antithetical nature of inauthenticity to freedom. Each of these principles are examined in relation to my experience as a writer living through a sequence of days under the early stage of state-issued, stay-at-home orders.
Dasein (Da-Sein) or “there-being” is a term Heidegger uses in Being in Time to interrogate existence and being (Wheeler). John Haugeland argues that Dasein refers not to a single person, but to “a way of life shared by members of a community” (423). Viewed in this context, a global pandemic not only affects the life of a person living alone, but the community in which she is situated. Pandemic, then, is a shared experience. During the last week of March 2020, the pandemic transitioned from a distant subject, treated relentlessly by the media, to a very present reality for me—in part, because my husband is a dentist, and he, like many others in the healthcare sector, faces increased exposure to airborne pathogens. When the governor of our state announced the shuttering of all dental practices to all but emergency cases because of the rapid spread of COVID-19, the shit got real. Fast.
In the coming days, my spouse and I contemplated the unprecedented and dire condition of the implications of the pandemic on our finances and our health. The rapidly evolving strangeness included the curtailment of all but essential travel and necessitated that his employees carry a certificate identifying them as “essential” workers as they traveled about. As I helped him write the letter, I could not escape the sense that the act of carrying papers about town seemed like a remnant of World War II Europe. The magnitude of the crisis grew exponentially with each new day, as did our fear of the very present but invisible unknown. Apprehensive for my husband’s well-being and that of our country, our economy, and our world, I felt incapacitated by fear. William Blattner writes of the paralysis that fear instills. He states, “In anxiety we cannot press forward into possibilities, because we cannot understand ourselves in terms of the world” (141). The daily, life-altering changes inherent with the loss of socialization, the potential loss of health, the closing of the pool where I swam almost daily, and the cancellation of national conferences for which I’d been preparing, created an indeterminacy of “now” and a feeling that Heidegger describes as “uncanniness” or feeling “not at home” in the world (233). The world as I understood it—with my healthy husband going off to work and me doing research and writing in between adjunct gigs; shopping at a grocery store with full shelves; triathlon training with friends on group bike rides and long swims; conference trips to Milwaukee and Oregon in the coming weeks—gone.
It was difficult to process the swiftly developing nature of change and the increasing presence of danger posed by working in a profession my husband had practiced for decades. During this period of transition from normalcy to the abnormal, we began to take stock. One evening, under a cloud of the particularly bad news that several friends had contracted the
dreaded virus, a phenomenological shift occurred in our collective way of thinking. In the spirit of hermeneutics, we re-interpreted our place within the maelstrom of COVID-19. Instead of passively reacting to the crisis, we began approaching the COVID-19 pandemic from a position of opportunity. In short, we decided to lay aside our mounting fears and live. We had the important conversation about instructions if one of us became catastrophically ill, and then woke early the next morning to go fishing—taking our new outlook with us along with our poles. The warmth of the spring sun on our faces, the spring breeze through our hair, the smell of the pines and the sight of the osprey hunting for her chicks affirmed our situatedness in the vast web of creation. We chose that morning to begin living in the moment while treasuring the vitality within ourselves and nature in spite of the inevitable finitude of existence. In the absence of his long days of work, my husband found a renewed interest in our grandchildren, in yard work, and in the simple joys that had kept him from seriously contemplating his impending retirement. After four decades in practice, he peeked at possibilities beyond the familiar. The COVID-19 pandemic and the socio-cultural changes attendant with stopping its spread inadvertently became a catalyst for us to re-examine our priorities.
In between writing projects, I took long runs despite the relentless rain and reorganized every imaginable space in our home, including my long-neglected desk. With all restaurants closed in our small community, meal preparation was no longer a choice, but a necessity. Instead of seeing the act of cooking as a chore, I sought creative ways to prepare and present our meals as gifts to our healthy bodies. I learned how to bake bread and marveled at the accomplishment of sharing a simple task that women through the millennia have lovingly undertaken for their families and helped our local food bank feed families facing food insecurity brought on by loss of work.
After conceptualizing that this challenging time together offered us clarity, my spouse and I chose an outlook of Dasein in order to appreciate the health and goodness of the “now.” “Dasein,” Heidegger writes, “finds itself proximally in what it does, uses, expects, avoids—in those things environmentally ready-to-hand with which it is proximally concerned” (155). Heidegger’s Dasein (or “there being”) is the capturing of the “so what” of our experience as humans during the course of our entanglement with the experiences of life. Dasein hints at who we are, what we value, where and how we invest our passions.
The pandemic is living proof of the brevity and uncertainty of life. Just as the fact of the future victims that COVID-19 will claim remains a mystery, so too are the joys following each new dawn. As humans, our shared vulnerability gives us courage and strength to ride out the waves of anxiety with hope to move forward into a brighter day. COVID-19 will, too, in time, fall apart—just as the 4Cs conference disintegrated under its weight. But we can and will adjust in its aftermath, together.
One morning, I received an email from a fellow 4Cs panelist initiating contact in the absence of our conference. He sparked a thread of lively conversation between three panelists who had never met before. The thread substantiated one aspect of that which I cherish about the 4Cs—the unexpected connections that spontaneously emerge among scholars who share similar interests. The conversations we shared buoyed my spirits and filled me with gratitude for the kindness of others, particularly the comments shared by a widely-published scholar who offered to serve as a mentor in my nascent adventure into a field outside my dissertation research. Another panelist offered advice on textbook selection from his experience teaching a class I am scheduled to teach in the fall—though the manner of instruction is, as of yet, undecided. Who knows if our institution will see another semester with its classrooms locked, libraries shuttered, campus quad populated only by squirrels and chipmunks searching in vain for french fries. We agreed to share our work and stay in touch. COVID-19 could not stop the making of new friends and colleagues.
As social distancing became requisite, and workplaces, libraries, shops, worship centers, swimming pools, and gyms closed, the need for human interaction became pronounced in the absence of interpersonal interactions. The sense of alienation fostered what Heidegger describes as “unhomelike being in the world” as the pandemic dramatically decreased social contact, relegating handshakes and hugs cultural conventions of a bygone era (Blattner 233). This new way of being apart from others made visible what was previously invisible: the joy of connection through casual conversations with colleagues and students, sharing songs in corporate worship services, chatting with a neighbor while checking the mail, sitting in a restaurant and ordering a meal with others. In defining how he uses the term “Others” Heidegger explains:
By ‘Others’ we do not mean everyone else but me—those over against whom the ‘I’ stands out. They are rather those from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself—those among whom one is too . . . By reason of this with like being-in-the world, the world is always the one that I share with Others. (Being in Time 26: 154-5)
Others, according to Heidegger, are my neighbors, co-workers, the exhausted nurses and doctors we see on newscasts, people whose names I will never know. They are us. Still, the constraints of the pandemic and the unpredictable transmission of COVID-19 strained the bonds of familial relationships through quarantine measures intended to ensure safety. While physicians warned of the possibility of the contagion spreading asymptomatically, families physically distanced themselves from adult children and even their own grandchildren. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities closed to all but staff members, and urgently ill hospital patients— forbidden from receiving visitors—faced the unimaginable condition of dying alone. Loneliness, heartbreak, and despair were unwelcome companions to untold numbers of families. In many cases, frontline healthcare workers, hearts filled with compassion, arranged telephone FaceTime meetings between patient and family to mitigate the unbearable heartache of separation in a time of plague. Indeed, the oft-repeated mantra of “we’re all in this together” rang true. Though our collective political and religious beliefs diverge, we are all united in a global kinship of suffering. The pandemic has awakened us to others in their various permutations of misery; my mother-in-law in her assisted living facility enduring confinement to her room while awaiting the test results of a fellow resident, now sick; the school-aged child who goes hungry with the closure of school; the neighbor, whose wife is dying of cancer even as he loses his job; tornado victims in nearby Nashville who, in addition to the pandemic, now have nowhere to live; the dentist who wonders if he will survive to retire in the face of the dual threats of sickness and tremendous loss of income. Human misery knows no end.
As global citizens, the pandemic has helped us to recognize that we, confined to our separate communities within the United States, are not separate from the whole of the suffering world. Each of us is united in our common being and our human condition requires us to come together to resist the “nothingness” of despair when things fall apart.
In the comfort of the pre-pandemic days, it was easy to entertain the abstract idea of death as an inevitability that will occur at some point in the distant future. However, in those jaded days, we likely did not live with the looming specter of death when making trivial decisions such as touching our face or deciding whether to wear a mask into a grocery store. But the pandemic altered our indifference to death and made it a combatant—and in the process, freed us to become our authentic selves. Regarding freedom, Heidegger argues,
When one becomes free for one’s own death, one is liberated from one’s lostness in those possibilities which may accidentally thrust themselves upon one; and one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities lying ahead of that possibility which is not to be outstripped [death]. (308)
Authenticity, for Heidegger, is the re-possession of the self that was once subsumed in the meaninglessness of the daily grind. Authenticity is the reclamation of the sublime and the valuable, and the intentional realigning of priorities to live in symbiosis with the self we present to the world and the self that no one sees. Authenticity is understanding who we really are against the prison of conformity and self-estrangement. The pandemic is a space in which the sense-making world of Dasein contrasts with the inauthentic. The existential challenge of the ground falling beneath us in this moment offers up a space where the possibilities of turning from the superficial to the important can be grasped.
From a Heideggarian and humanitarian perspective, the “Doomsday Preppers” didn’t have it right at all. Crises challenge us and expose our true character, and in the case of the “Doomsday Preppers,” their carefully planned preparation appears to generally be focused upon the survival of “me and mine.” Writing in The New York Times about the reality television show, Neil Genzlinger cautions that “amusement may give way to annoyance at how offensively anti-life these [types of shows] are, full of contempt for humankind.” There will never be enough flour, rice, or toilet paper to sustain life interminably. Hoarding is futile. But sharing is not. During the lifetimes of our forebears, existential challenges have altered perceptions of reality, and our parents and grandparents—just like us—adapted to a way of life that is not the way it once was. We will somehow do the same, in this moment.
In this era of clear plexiglass, let’s look inward to decide how our being-in-the-world can benefit others while the temporarily unfamiliar evolves into the norm.
In revisiting my essay, “Phenomenology and Pandemic: a Personal Perspective” for the first time after writing it in early 2020, I was reminded of the stark fear that many of us faced as our world changed daily, even hourly during those nascent days of the pandemic. For the first time in my life, the great and ominous unknowns far outweighed the familiar as 2020 ended and 2021 dawned. Yet this strange situation created an opportunity to live with intention even as dire warnings were buttressed by empty shelves and long lines for Covid testing stations. It was cinematic in its surrealness. Sometimes that fear seemed misplaced . . . even at times ridiculous . . . but so was the moment in which we found ourselves.
In re-reading my Documentarian Tale, the following sentence struck me as prescient:
“But the pandemic altered our indifference to death and made it a combatant.” I couldn’t know then the toll Covid-19 would take upon even the most careful among us, including a young man we’d watch grow from a local farm boy to a Harvard graduate turned orthopedic surgeon. Perpetually masked and fully vaccinated, the brilliant and accomplished 36-year-old Dr. Barton Williams died of extremely virulent, sudden, and rare complications of Covid-19 just five weeks after his December 2020 marriage. His funeral and wedding were held in the same cathedral with the same officiants; his bride was left to acknowledge wedding gifts and memorials in the same breath.
The axis separating celebratory joy from unfathomable tragedy was alarmingly cruel, short, and pronounced. As Covid-19 rained down among us, rivers of happiness were supplanted by eddies of despair in the span of a mere handful of weeks. Many no doubt, have similar stories of near bottomless grief caused by a merciless virus—the vicissitudes of life indeed.
I look back at the past year recalling with great sadness the veil of death that swallowed the aspirations and hopes of many of our own neighbors and close friends who were among the millions whose lives were unexpectedly cut short by Covid-19. Again, I realize the temporal nature of our corporeal existence. Reflecting on my earlier words, I find wisdom in them in context of the heartache that Covid has wrought. In referencing Heidegger, I wrote, “Authenticity is the reclamation of the sublime and the valuable, and the intentional realigning of priorities to live in symbiosis with the self we present to the world and the self that no one sees.”
In the wake of what we know, what we felt, what we have survived, and what we have yet to experience, an attitude of thankfulness mixed with a focus upon that which is truly important is my waypoint to elusive “normalcy.” The sublime and the valuable transcend the minutiae that would vie for our attention as we move through the unfolding of our days.
Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.” In the unwrapping of the “present,” may we find joy in the beauty that is life, however splendid or brief.
Blattner, William D. Heidegger’s Being and Time: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum Readers’ Guides). Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2006.
Neubauer, Brian E., Catherine T. Witkop, and Lara Varpio. “How Phenomenology Can Help Us Learn from the Experiences of Others.” Perspectives on Medical Education, vol. 8, no. 2, 2019, pp. 90–97., doi:10.1007/s40037-019-0509-2.
Genzlinger, Neil. “Doomsday Has Its Day in the Sun.” The New York Times, 11 Mar. 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/12/arts/television/doomsday-preppers-and-doomsday-bunkers-tv-reality-shows.html?searchResultPosition=1.
Haugeland, John. “Reading Brandom Reading Heidegger.” European Journal of Philosophy, vol. 13, no. 3, 2005, pp. 421–428., doi:10.1111/j.1468-0378.2005.00237.x.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time: Transl. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962. (Original work published 1927).
Wheeler, Michael. “Martin Heidegger.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 12 Oct. 2011, plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/heidegger/.