MAPLEWOOD, N.J. — A simple walk is said to be good for you, especially now. Good for clearing your head. Nonsense.
Here is some of what I encountered during a weekday afternoon walk through this New Jersey suburb, along a route I’d taken hundreds of times before:
Posted warnings not to picnic in the park. Hoops removed from the basketball backboards. A looping broadcast at the deserted train station to “respect social distancing.” A “Do NOT Enter” sign outside a restaurant. A theater marquee announcing the title of the movie we are now living: “Closed Until Further Notice.”
It is having an extended run here in Maplewood, a town of 25,000 about 16 miles from Midtown Manhattan that so far has had 23 coronavirus-related deaths. The same movie may be playing in your community — or coming soon — and I’m not giving anything away by sharing the plot:
A nation struggles to find its moorings amid protracted uncertainty — about everything.
“We are living in a suspense film with no resolution,” said Deborah Carr, a sociology professor at Boston University. “And we’re seeing uncertainty everywhere. There’s no road map from the past. There’s never been this level of social upheaval. And there’s no clear endpoint.”
Right now, the movie projector seems jammed — overheated. Just consider a sampling of what we do not know, even in an age when almost anything can be learned with a few taps on a smartphone.
We do not know the exact source of the virus. We do not know when, or if, a vaccine will be developed. We do not know if we can be reinfected. We do not know when we will cheer again at a sold-out ballgame, sit elbow to elbow at the opera, belly up to a crowded bar, sway as one at a rock concert.
Perhaps most disconcerting of all: We do not know when this will end. No one is saying that our new normal will return to the old normal by Memorial Day or Labor Day or the harvest moon, creating a distressing open-ended dynamic that thwarts a central means of coping.
“Endings allow us to think about transition; to think about the next phase, the next era,” said Calvin Morrill, a professor of law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. The inability to discern an end, he said, reduces our sense of control — “our sense of agency.”
Dr. Joshua Gordon, a psychiatrist and the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said that knowing when a moment will end — even if that knowledge is not what is hoped for — helps people adjust.
“If someone told me, ‘Josh, six months from now you’ll be able to go to any of your favorite restaurants, and everything will be back to quote-unquote normal,’ then I can plan for that — six months,” Dr. Gordon said. “But there is no sense of that.”
Dr. Carr said she was still thinking about the traveling she was supposed to do in the fall, the lectures she was supposed to deliver. Is any of it going to happen?
“Most of us are pretty good problem solvers,” she said. “What we would normally do is make a plan and have a Plan B. But we can’t make any plans for the future, because all that we would normally rely on are in flux as well: schools, the airline industry, employment, investments.”
“We don’t know if they’ll even be there,” Dr. Carr added. “And even if the answer is yes, it’s not going to be the same.”
Tracey A. Revenson, a psychology professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, agreed. She said she had left her Manhattan apartment a couple of months ago to wait out the pandemic at her small house on eastern Long Island. But her suitcase is still out, by her bed.
“I wouldn’t put my suitcase away, because I had this image of a bell going off or a call giving the all-clear,” Dr. Revenson said. “It’s a ridiculous fantasy. But the suitcase remains.”
Mental health experts say this sense of being unmoored, which some will tolerate better than others, is exacerbated by the misinformation and mixed messages the public is receiving from its leaders in the federal government. Its scientists argue that returning too quickly to some semblance of our former ways will lead to unnecessary deaths, while President Trump maintains that curtailing everyday life harms both the economy and the American sense of self.
The headline-grabbing disagreements — between, say, Mr. Trump and the immunologist Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of his data-driven advisers — create confusion that is further muddled by the day’s divisive politics.
If people holding elevated positions in society “are giving us different information from one another, or if the information they give over time rapidly proves not to be true, then we can’t trust it as much,” Dr. Gordon said. “And it increases our uncertainty.”
Dr. Morrill cited the reassuring power of the “fireside chats” that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered in radio broadcasts during the Great Depression. There was more than enough uncertainty, Dr. Morrill said, but the public took comfort in Roosevelt’s message that “we are fighting this together.”
This, he said, stands in sharp contrast to how the country is battling the common threat of the coronavirus — which is to say, state by state. “For the most part, people have found a vacuum of this moral leadership,” Dr. Morrill said.
Dr. Revenson also said that the infectious nature of the virus had eliminated many of the ways we would naturally find solace in times of great stress: spending time with friends, going to a movie, receiving a hug. Instead, even a much-needed smile may be hidden behind a mask.
“Humans are social beings,” Dr. Revenson said. “We need to be with each other. We need to touch.”
What’s more, she said, the recommended ways to reduce coronavirus-related stress can actually underscore the uncertainty we’re trying to navigate. “Exercising in the middle of the afternoon, for example,” Dr. Revenson said. “But I don’t normally exercise in the middle of the afternoon.”
And I don’t normally take walks through Maplewood in the middle of a weekday afternoon. On the rare occasion that I do, I am not bombarded by Bizarro World images, like a backboard without a hoop, or a train without passengers, or a movie theater without movies.
Still, I took some comfort in what might be considered the second film of the double feature being trumpeted on the theater’s yellow marquee. The title?
“Stay Safe and Healthy.”
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