In periods of societal uncertainty, individuals must turn to rationalism and self-control rather than relying on external factors.

It has been about 15 days since the reality of COVID-19 settled into the streets of Ann Arbor. Classes were canceled, Greek life was extinguished and students began packing their bags — our education was bookended not by a reflection of accomplishments but by an elusive and highly contagious virus. The strangeness of social distancing creates tension between boredom and intensity. In the blink of an eye, the traditional formats, expectations and responsibilities of our education have shifted. The proverbial rug of syllabi and deadlines has been yanked from beneath us, which feels even more jarring because of the United States national government’s delayed reaction (besides the immediate response in regards to personal stocks) to the virus.

Student life as we know it is on hold, with no clear timeline as to when we will shift back to normal. Sadly, what we know as normal will never be reclaimed after the pandemic has slowed.

It is clear the world is under a stage of significant transition, where every critical decision will have an immense impact for years to come. My family and I decided that it would be best for me to come home to our cottage in West Michigan, and while my lake view and the wildlife surrounding the area is calming, I feel the intrinsic motor of motivation grinding to a halt. Personally, as classes have become Pass/No Record Covid and my additional responsibilities shift online, it is difficult to not be swept up in the discourse pertaining to COVID-19. We have all the time in the world with no definitive end in sight, but our lives have been dictated by deadlines and sociality for our entire collegiate careers, so the pressure of progress and achievement still hovers in our personal quarantines. This being said, all societal expectations and sociological surges are becoming less important in our personal lives compared to the massive shifts in health care, policy and politics.

Right now, life seems to be controlled primarily by external factors. We rely on the politicians we have elected, the health care systems currently in place and late-stage capitalism to handle this pandemic. With each additional restriction, the underlying fear and unrest increases. The narrative of the situation is driven by the lack of certainty. Toilet-paper hoarders, xenophobic antagonists and inept politicians are weaving a story of mistrust and confusion. While the focus is being forced upon individual behavior, individuals have low visible agency in defeating COVID-19. Overhead, uncontrollable forces like political reactions, economic recession and elusive germs are made even more terrifying by the current reactions of individuals driven by fear. As of now, the rise of COVID-19 is defined by chaos and uncertainty. 

Perception creates reality. When the media is driven by entertainment, stories tend to be driven by salaciousness, spinning the subconscious fear into a hurricane of terror. It is critical that we go beyond the requirements of social distancing and handwashing frequently and look inward for stability to progress past this season of irresolution. This could look like staying rooted in your religion and leaning on faith, exploring personality tests to find your strengths and weaknesses to better yourself or scheduling online therapy to heal wounds buried deep in your mind. Introspection and personal responsibility are the only solutions — once we become completely honest with ourselves and hold ourselves to a higher standard, the erratic external factors that currently grip us will become subordinate to our inner locus of control. Transitioning from looking outward for direction to looking inward can be awkward, but self-actualization will create a foundation of stability no politician or policy can destroy.

In the future, there will be many versions of this story. Politicians like current President Donald Trump and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer may be labeled as the driving forces for either healing or fracture. While it is crucial to keep our representatives and legislators in check by keeping up to date on their actions (and voting them out of office if they fail to properly serve their constituents), taking back personal agency allows you to become the protagonist in this narrative. Collectively, we must take personal accountability for the media we produce and consume, the policies we do and do not understand and the actions of ourselves and those close to us. Fueling the flames of misinformation, doubt and hatred toward others will create a much deeper fissure in the U.S. in cases, deaths, market damage and democratic backsliding. If not, the ripe current of fear will sweep us under for decades to come.

Elizabeth Cook can be reached at elizcook@umich.edu.

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