I’m tired. Like, really tired. I’m finding it hard to get interested in things I used to absolutely adore. For instance, the Winter Olympics, by far the best Olympics, passed without me noticing it much at all. I watched part of a hockey game and some figure skating, but that was it. There was a time when I could watch curling and downhill skiing and speed skating for hours. But now? Not so much.
A lot of people I know report the same kind of feelings. Pandemic fatigue is a real thing, after all. For those of us who always took the pandemic seriously, and who did everything we could to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, the past two years have been an exhausting grind. That’s what it’s like living through times like ours: they take a toll.
But there are other dimensions to this kind of tiredness. One long-term crisis is bad enough, but we’ve actually been living through three of them. And the people we need most to get us through these crises are the ones who are feeling the most burned out.
When we talk about pandemic fatigue, we’re really talking about two different, overlapping phenomena. The first is the kind of weariness that the day-to-day calculus of pandemic leaves us with. Okay, so you want to go to the grocery store. Will people be wearing masks there? Should you try to go when it’s not busy? The numbers are down, so it’s probably alright if you’re there with a lot of people. You second-guess yourself, but end up going and it’s fine. You don’t catch it, you don’t bring it home to your loved ones, but man, it’s a lot.
The second is just generally being fed up with life being thrown out of whack. People hate restrictions and mandates, they hate sending kids to school with masks, and they hate thinking and talking about this freaking pandemic all the time. Some people grit their teeth and get through it, because that’s how we all stay safe. That’s the tiring way to do it.
Others take a completely different approach. They hold loud protests, they get up in people’s faces during school board meetings, they go out without masks and flash “gotcha” grins at anyone wearing one, and they form big truck convoys and take over national capitals.
These people aren’t tired. They seem to have endless energy. And that leads us to crisis number two.
We’re in the midst of a long political crisis that has affected democracies all over the world. The rise of stop-at-nothing, ultranationalist, authoritarian right-wing populism is one of the worst threats to liberal democracy since the end of the Second World War, and I don’t say that lightly. In this country it’s been fueled by 30 years of cynical demagogues exploiting racial and cultural grievances, all of which culminated in the Trump administration and the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Right now there’s a lot of overlap between the sorts of people who cheered on Jan. 6 and the ones who protest pandemic restrictions. You don’t believe me? Then explain to me why a rally against masks in schools at the state Capitol in Hartford a few weeks back broke out into a sustained, wholehearted “Let’s Go, Brandon” chant. As the man himself says, c’mon, man. We know who they are.
From 2015 to 2020, populist authoritarianism reared its ugly head in this country. We fought it and we won. Barely. If that sounds like some kind of over-dramatization of the situation, I have to ask: do you remember the Trump years? Do you remember the lies, the gaslighting, the abuses of power, the rallies, the cynicism, and everything else?
I admit, I’m having trouble hanging on to a lot of it, myself. But it happened, and it burned out a lot of people on politics for good. When exhaustion in the center and on the left allow the Republicans, a party that by all rights should have disqualified itself from ever holding office in this country again, to come back to power this November, we will be reminded.
There is a third crisis behind all of these: the slow-moving but inexorable march of climate change. New England is warming faster than other parts of the country and we feel it. If you’re tuned to the seasons like I am, you notice when something’s not right, and there really hasn’t been a “normal” year since 2010. Unlike the pandemic or the rise of right-wing authoritarianism, there’s no exit ramp. It’s too late to stop climate change; all we can do is mitigate it. We’re not even doing a very good job of that.
What’s the future going to be like? How will our civilization change? How do we even plan for this?
It’s tiring. I’m exhausted. But the pandemic, the “Let’s Go, Brandon” chanters, and the changing climate are all wide awake.