What Are We “Allowed” To Do During A Crisis?

The Senior Photo Challenge. It’s been making the rounds on social media, which is where we do most of our socializing right now. Enthusiasts say it supports the Class of 2020, which has missed out on rites of passage that, while not embraced or valued by all, tend to hold some significance regarding the passage of time and a loss of innocence. A senior photo encapsulates the theme of transition. It captures a young person before their world expands and changes forever. Critics of the Senior Photo Challenge respond by pointing out that technology has diluted the importance of photos in general; that many high school traditions have evolved; and that the act of posting memories of our younger selves  is nothing more than personal nostalgia or vanity. 

I know that the sixteen year-old you see in this photo, growing out her “Rachel” cut, wouldn’t have known which side of that debate to support. And the version of her that is writing this piece  24 years later isn’t quite sure, either. But, in the same way that you couldn’t keep that girl away from poor hair choices, you can’t keep her older self from trying to make sense of challenging times.

About 14 years ago, I received an email from a friend with whom I had had a falling out two years prior.  We had been very close, but we were also in our early 20’s and somehow a guy mattered more than our maturity. So I was surprised to hear from her. I opened the message and it was clear her account had been hacked and was sending spam links. I mentioned to one of my closest friends, Erin, who I’ve known since I was 15, that I was considering contacting the friend — just to make sure she knew the account was compromised. 

“I mean, I’d wanna know,” 26 year-old me insisted. 

“Sure, email her,” Erin replied. “But I would think that one of her other friends probably already let her know. Those hacked emails go out to a lot of people. So you probably don’t have to worry that she won’t find out. And, yknow…if you want to reach out for other reasons….there’s nothing wrong with that.”

I think I probably shot back something defensive. Because. Damn her! This is probably why she’s such an effective therapist. And one of my emergency contacts. And the first friend I text with good news and bad. And someone I admire tremendously. But in that moment, I was mad that she was so on point. Why couldn’t I just acknowledge that I wondered what this friend was up to, that maybe I got excited about the idea of being contacted and potentially reconnecting? Why did I have to pretend it was all about me making a kind, magnanimous gesture? Was I so unable to just express what I wanted, and so immature that I couldn’t swallow my pride and reach out without a lame excuse?

In NYC we’ve begun a nightly practice of clapping for first responders/essential workers every night at 7. It started as a one-time thing that has continued and is now part of our daily routine. It’s one of the few things we can all do together. 

Shortly after the first time we did the clap, I took a video and posted it on Facebook and Instagram. At one point, a friend of a friend, a healthcare professional, made a comment on the video, to the effect of, “Yeah, if they’re so grateful, why don’t they buy us some protective equipment?” 

I felt defensive. It seemed presumptuous for this person to assume that the clapping was in place of other methods of support. I also felt useless because I didn’t know any options for obtaining PPE. I ruminated on this dark response to my positive post. I complained about it to my husband and made a rude remark speculating about what this person’s bedside manner must be like. “They must be very angry and broken.”  I said, snidely. 

I was almost instantly embarrassed by my reaction. Why shouldn’t this person be angry and broken? This is someone who has watched other human beings die terrible deaths; someone who puts themself at risk every day; who misses their loved ones; who is physically and emotionally exhausted; and who exists within an overwhelmed system and a background chorus of arguments and ignorance. I am not owed gratitude for a gesture. Quite frankly, this person has good reason to tell me and every other Clapper to go to hell. 

I hate to rely so heavily on Facebook for examples of dialogue, but these days our forums for interaction are pretty limited, so bear with me. A few days ago, a friend posted about feeling attacked and judged for expressing her sadness about a vacation being missed due to Covid-19. She made the point that it’s okay for us all to grieve disappointments and missed opportunities. Her feeling was that judging reactions in a time of crisis and trauma isn’t particularly fair.

I’m sure we’ve all had a variation of this  conversation lately. Is it okay to be happy or mildly annoyed? Is it alright to vent about missing your favorite restaurant? What about laughing at a humorous video? If you cry because you miss your family, are you being disrespectful of those who’ve lost theirs?

I don’t believe there is one answer. I don’t think it’s insensitive to share frustrations or celebrations. But I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to react to others’ acts of “sharing positivity” with anger or resentment. I think that all we can do is understand our own motivations for what we put out into the world, and accept that we can’t expect others to be in the same emotional place that we occupy.

I often reference social work concepts in my writing, not just because I think they’re applicable to a lot of interpersonal dynamics, but also because I paid a lotta money and tolerated a lotta crap for that degree. I did a fair amount of groupwork and we relied a lot on a ground rule of “Step Up, Step Back.” In a group setting, it’s a reminder that if you find yourself talking a lot, or consistently utilizing the group’s time and energy, it might help to sit back and let others tell you their ideas. And if you’re not contributing much, or not genuinely listening, maybe it’s time to put something into the discourse- even if it’s just an acknowledgement that you hear and respect  another person’s experience.

It seems to me that the question of “can I” do this or feel that is less about permission or propriety than it is about understanding motivation- others’ and our own, and being open about it. Much like I had to face what was motivating me to contact that friend in 2006, it helps to be honest with ourselves about why we’re doing something and what we expect from others once we’ve done it. I could’ve not included my Senior Photo in this piece. But I did. Do I think it’s going to cheer up a high school senior who hasn’t seen their friends in almost two months and won’t get to experience events they’ve imagined for years? Unlikely. I shared it because I haven’t seen any of my own friends in over two months and I find myself struggling to envision normalcy. I remember the day this photo was taken, in October of 1996. My friend, Katy (who, at this moment is a nurse working on the front lines of a NYC hospital and caring for thousands of scared, sick people and whom I love and respect immensely) drove me to the photographer that day because I didn’t drive. Still don’t. It was a gorgeous fall day. I was starring in the fall play, and two months later I’d be accepted to the only college I had ever considered. I had everything I needed, an incredible family, and the greatest golden retriever who ever lived. The future looked promising. 

Today, in 2020, I’ll struggle to remember what day of the week it is. I’ll try not to think of the two plays that I was supposed to do that are on hold. I’ll clap at 7:00. I’ll text and Zoom and probably tell somebody off for making Covid weight gain jokes. I’ll appreciate that my husband has emerged as quite the cook during the past few weeks. I’ll wish it were an easier time. I’ll worry a lot about the future. And I guess I’ll cope by sharing the past. I’m not sure if that’s “stepping up” or “stepping back” but at least I know why I’m doing it. 

In a beautifully appropriate twist, I did end up reconnecting with the friend I mentioned earlier. It wasn’t until 2016, ten years after the hacked email. It happened because I found a disposable camera from 2004, with photos of us being young, ridiculous and happy. I reached out to her and she was thrilled to hear from me. We keep in touch. 
So maybe sometimes, photos can fix things!