My mother used to get The Christophers newsletter in the mail, which enabled her to harangue me at least once a month with a print copy of their watchword in hand: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” I’m better at cursing. Cursing darkness right now might even be useful, even if not so useful as candle-lighting. COVID-19 might give us an opportunity to practice both.
I haven’t been able to smell or taste for two weeks. I know this is not that big a deal, not when people are dying in emergency rooms; being unable to taste is not like being unable to breathe. But admitting to this symptom of the new virus now is like admitting one has tested positive. It reveals a kind of fellowship with people who end up in emergency rooms, and also with others who are probably infected but have been unable to get a test. I learned this after Googling “sudden loss of smell and taste” and found these were telltale signs in people otherwise asymptomatic. In fact, I did have some other symptoms. I had fatigue, a dry cough, a sore throat. For a few days, coinciding with frequent news stories about healthy forty-somethings who ended up intubated after contracting COVID-19, I cringed and wondered whether that would happen to me. Each day I tested myself with things I know have scents: mustard (nothing), vinegar (nothing), bleach (nothing), cinnamon (nothing), coffee (nothing), ammonia (I felt it but did not smell it).
My other symptoms eventually went away. But I still have anosmia, the inability to smell, and its sidekick ageusia, the inability to taste. Not being able to smell or taste does not harm one’s health immediately. It could hurt me, indirectly, if I drank milk gone sour because I didn’t smell spoilage. Or if my daughter were not home to yell, “Is something burning?” when I forgot the cast-iron pan I left seasoning on the stove. Or if gas leaks.
Before I noticed loss of taste and smell, we were pretty much in quarantine anyway. But without smell and taste I feel marooned. I don’t smell the dog, the shampoo in the shower, the toothpaste, the heat coming on. I can’t taste coffee, only bitterness. I wonder why I should eat at all if I can’t taste. Why not make anosmia and ageusia a virtue? Why not turn it into a help to fasting or weight loss? On some days inability to taste my food makes me eat more, as I try thing after thing in case the next one has flavor. I boss myself like a picky toddler. Eat it because you feel hungry. Eat it because that food has nourishment to make your body grow strong. Like others, I felt Lent get abruptly more rigorous this year. But I can’t claim any gain from my self-denial. Incapacity rather than volition stays the appetite.
I love to eat. I’m good at it. I rationalize this as something beyond mere gluttony or gourmandise. My usual diet is pretty healthy. Eating well is my celebration of the created order, joy in the match between the world’s good things and my capacity to receive them. Finding food simultaneously desirable and nutritive feels almost like a talent, like being born sweet-tempered. I am not sweet-tempered. Eating is part of the sliver of my personality where the good comes naturally.
Anosmia and ageusia changed my relationship to the global crisis. The quarantine trend of cooking comfort foods is not available to me. I feel guilty, sure that I did questionable things before I knew I was probably infected. Now my handwashing is to protect you from me and not the other way around. I am thankful not to be in intensive care, thankful for household safety, but otherwise pretty useless. My carefully bought shelf-stable food and all this time to cook what I can’t taste feels like some metaphor for my quarantine.
I am doing my best to obey public-health warnings. But U.S. coronavirus responses have been piecemeal, contradicted from one day to the next and from one region to another. A great deal we wish we knew about the pandemic we still don’t know. Beyond their epidemiological rationale, the rhetorical push behind social distancing and sheltering-in-place has been a kind of solidarity. The argument is that we’re all in this together. We’re nudged to compare our lot with those of others; that is supposed to silence complaints about the inconvenience of shutdowns. “Your grandparents were called to war, you are called to sit on the couch and watch TV.” Staying home is the least we can do when others are being put on ventilators. So I stay home.
But killing time at home doesn’t feel like being called to war. And the premise—that we’re all in this together—obscures vastly incommensurate losses. Workers who face potentially lethal danger to do essential jobs, students with spotty access to online learning, women and children sheltering in abusive homes, people with serious underlying health conditions who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus: these situations are all different from one another, and different from mine. We need a way to make sense of this time that allows us to keep perspective but also to register all our puny sorrows (borrowing the novelist Miriam Toews’s great phrase): missed proms and graduations, trips and births, tournaments and funerals. These losses may seem trivial compared to severe illness and death (what isn’t?), but they are not nothing.
“We are all in this together” fails as an interpretive key to homebound hours of binge-watching and virtual happy hours. Whatever I am in feels like something very different from what ICU patients are in. Some people are suffering and dying; others are trying to help those people or to keep society functioning. But most of us are just trying to keep ourselves and others safe and not get in the way of the first two groups. Since we still lack an overarching vision of what all this means, what is wanted now is empathy. We can try to mourn our neighbors’ losses, great and small, and later, perhaps, we can try to make some compensation for those losses. The very prospect is exhilarating. Just think of all the ways we might try to comfort one another, all the ways we might demonstrate a new generosity, once the stay-at-home orders have been lifted. That might be the time to light a bunch of candles.