Illustration by Maye McPhail
For one of the first times in my life, I don’t know what I’m allowed to feel. There have been plenty of times when I haven’t known what to feel, but this is different. It’s a global pandemic, extreme economic regression veering toward recession, a state of panic, misinformation, and dire realities. It’s a total upending of our world order.
Only two months ago I wrote about the outbreak of COVID-19 in mainland China and the resulting rise of sinophobia stateside. The World Health Organization hadn’t yet declared it a global health emergency and naively, it seemed an ocean away. I failed to remember that those thousands of miles can be traversed in a number of hours via airplane.
We watched as the pandemic injected itself into the heart of Europe, ceasing life as Italians, Spaniards, and soon all other Europeans knew it. We watched as Iran was devastated by the virus and glued our eyes to our screens, watching their own governments' dismal handling of it. And yet, we were somehow unprepared, caught frozen as COVID-19 rampaged through a Washington senior center, crept across the country into Westchester and turned New York City into an epicenter. It took us one month to go from one death to 1,000 deaths. It took us 48 hours to go from 1,000 deaths to over 2,000 deaths. I do know how to feel about that kind of exponential rise: terrified.
I think it’s the rest that I’m unsure of—anything other than anxiety, distress, pain, fear, and uncertainty seems taboo. Even those I don’t necessarily feel entitled to, because all things considered, I’m very privileged. Everything that I could complain about, there’s an equal, usually taken-for-granted, positive waiting for me. I’m financially stable, at home with my family, with a WiFi connection to be able to participate in my online classes. I might’ve been laid off from my retail job, but I only needed that income as extra pocket money, whereas many people that I know relied on their paycheck for rent and groceries. Although I’m frightened of the virus, I haven’t been personally victimized by it.
Then come the more convivial emotions—happiness, serendipity, gratitude, relief, contentment. Is it just as privileged and therefore unadvisable to allow myself to feel these things? Am I allowed to laugh at a funny joke, take pride in a good exam grade, post a selfie from my bedroom, or daydream of things I’ll do when the world reopens? Can I cringe at the painfully awkward moments of Sex Education, find the utmost contentedness in rewatching all of Wes Anderson’s films in chronological order, and dance to Dua Lipa’s new album? Can I not think about the devastation this virus is causing? À la Carrie Bradshaw, I can’t help but wonder, in this moment of global devastation, what are the ethics of feeling? Am I too privileged for both sides of the emotional spectrum?
The ethics of doing are a subject of mainstream discourse; what actions are or are not ethical has been the subject of intense debate and scrutiny since time immemorial. The ethics of feeling are far less talked about, because the conversation about what emotions are “right” and what emotions are “wrong” is typically up to your own interpretation and context. Usually I feel without questioning those feelings—I simply feel. With seemingly unending time on my hands, even my most basic emotions have become the object of philosophical questioning. Ethics are no longer reserved for my tangible actions, but for my idle thoughts and mental state.
I don’t know what I have a “right” to feel at this point. I see the severity of the situation that my city, my country, the world faces. The entire world has seemingly been put on pause in the attempt to slow this virus. Many people have lost their source of income and many more will follow. Many have lost their lives and many more will follow. These people should not become statistics, “the millions who filed for unemployment” or the “thousands who have died,” but many of us will view them as such.
The vast majority of us who survive this pandemic—and when I refer to “this pandemic,” I mean not only the disease itself, but the economic repercussions of it as well—will exist in a new world order. A “post COVID-19” world order. This thought in and of itself is extremely overwhelming. The job market will look completely different, our international relations will be in flux, and we will feel the weight of the likely economic recession far into this decade.
This seems like the likely “reality” of this pandemic, but the actual “reality” of this pandemic is uncertainty. I listen to experts tell me all day what “could” happen if we do this quarantine right, but most people aren’t taking it seriously enough. So scratch that, on to scenario number two, three, four, five…
I feel the uncertainty. I feel the severity. I feel all the good and all the bad, while also acknowledging how fortunate I am. Maybe where the ethics lie isn’t in the feelings themselves, but in accounting for my own privilege. Am I allowed to feel this array of emotions if I also account for my good fortune? Am I allowed to distract myself from COVID-19 if I acknowledge that it’s a privilege to be able to distract myself from it?
Many people can’t distract themselves from this pandemic, because they’ve already felt the effects of it too deeply. The people we need the most, our most essential workers—doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, volunteers, grocery store workers, sanitary workers, delivery drivers—cannot distract themselves from this pandemic because we derive our privilege from their service. Our lives depend on them.
It’s evident that I’m not confident in almost any of my emotions right now. But if I’m certain about feeling one thing at this moment, it’s gratitude. Gratitude for a roof over my head, three meals a day, FaceTime and Zoom, a heartbeat and a pulse. Gratitude for the elected officials that advocate for their constituents instead of themselves. I feel gratitude to those who are risking their lives to save the lives of others, those who are self-isolating and self-quarantining, those who check me out at the grocery store. It’s because of all of these things that I can even have this conversation with myself. How privileged it is to have the time to dissect the ethics of emotions in the midst of a global pandemic.