Terms derived from Latin patior or passus—endure, suffer, feel—tell the story of 2020.
Patients. Infections from a deadly new virus overload hospitals and staff.
Impassioned. Demonstrators pour into streets to protest killings by police.
Impatient. Americans are ready to be done, but the pandemic rages on.
Compassion. Old people at highest risk lose the comfort of family visits.
Dispassionate. Impartial judges reject efforts to overturn election results.
Patience. Vaccine distribution begins to unroll, offering hope for 2021.
Our house abounds in windows. Some evenings we wander from room to room counting how many Christmas trees we can see. This photo shows four; the total often reaches ten or twelve. We are easily amused.
Simple pleasures are always a blessing, and even more when fancier pleasures go on furlough. This is not our year for family travel, raucous parties, or sing-along carols at Madison’s Overture Center. Instead, we watch the neighbor’s cat prowl out front. A wild turkey balances on the balcony railing to peck at the feeder out back. Calls of geese overhead break the silence.
To all who read this and all your near and dear, may this be a season of peace, health, love, laughter, and the possibility of joy in simple gifts.
Wisconsin countryside flashes past. Music on my car radio breaks for a public service announcement. “Wear your mask. Wash your hands.” It feels like the opening scene for a future film titled The Great Pandemic of 2020.
As I imagine it, the documentary flips through late-winter headlines to show growing apprehension about a virus from far away. It shows toilet-paper-laden grocery carts, empty shelves, checkout lines of masked shoppers six feet apart. The camera moves past closed restaurants to an armed horde at the Michigan state capitol toting Confederate flags.
Between hectic hospital scenes, we hear excerpts from interviews and speeches: a nurse exhausted, Fauci calm and factual, Trump saying the virus will vanish like a miracle. We see parents working from home, children studying in the kitchen. Spring and summer scenes fade into election season: packed MAGA rallies, Biden masked in an empty room, postal bins overflowing with ballots, socially distanced voters. A series of autumn headlines shows rising hospitalizations and deaths, with a dire warning not to gather for Thanksgiving. A turkey producer bemoans a glut of large turkeys and too few small ones to meet the demand.
Will the film end with the start of vaccinations, or will it recount twists and turns we can’t yet predict? What would you include if you were writing the script for The Great Pandemic of 2020?
Other people’s choices—their behaviors, politics, precautions or lack thereof—can astound me. My rhetorical question radiates disapproval. It drowns out the literal question, “What were they thinking?”
Judgment has its place, e.g. the courtroom or the voting booth. But without curiosity, cursory judgment clouds understanding. Even murder mystery novelists plant clues to motive as well as means and opportunity.
Thinking like a historian means exploring evidence for reasoning and context, not merely right and wrong. It means making room for nuance and complexity. To understand does not oblige us to condone. It can get us past stereotypes and assumptions. It may even help us discern what they were really thinking.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.