In early America, storytelling accompanied suffering. That legacy can help us today.
One of my favorite college professors not only taught me about Constitutional law but bequeathed an interpretive tool I carry through life. Guiding a review session before the final exam, he told a story about taking his son to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. In my teacher’s report, the boy loved the movie, sat on the edge of his seat wide-eyed, and exclaimed at the end, “Wow, Dad, that was a great movie!” In the car on the way home, the boy leaned over and said, “Wow, Dad, that was a great movie! Can you tell me, Dad—what was that mainly about?”
To be sure, it is not only historians who claim the job of telling what things were mainly about. The question echoes for all of us. We often cannot know what “that” is about, or even what “that” is when we are in the midst of it. Some things about Covid-19, for instance, cannot be said until the thing is over.
It is not altogether over, but at least in many parts of the United States, the most terrible days of contagion and lockdown are past. We badly want not to have to think about this any longer.
But thinking about it more can be helpful, as I realized when reading about Protestants’ responses to sickness at a very different period in U.S. history. Philippa Koch’s new book, The Course of God’s Providence: Religion, Health, and the Body in Early America, traces belief in providence, specifically as it pertains to sickness. Contrary to the usual assumption, Koch writes, eighteenth-century folk did not just drop their belief in God’s direction of events and take up a mechanistic view of the body in response to the new, enlightened learning. Providence-affirming Protestants encouraged the sick to do things in the face of illness, not sit passively about. One key response to sickness was to write about it in a way that Koch names “retrospection.” Eighteenth-century Americans “placed urgent importance on the act of writing as a means to interpret, comprehend, and communicate their pain.” Retrospection was “an activity that occurred most straightforwardly in narrative, and narratives became a common and expected way of responding to sickness and suffering.” Narrating sickness encouraged individuals to place their experience within a larger context, strengthening community through efforts to “find a narrative and to locate a greater meaning.”
Koch’s discussion of narrative is especially relevant to our moment. Retrospection may be key to building back better.
So, some reflection. A few months into the pandemic, experts identified loss of taste and smell as a sign of Covid-19 infection. Anosmia is the term for loss of smell. Parosmia is a distorted sense of smell and ageusia is loss of taste. Many experienced these. By now scientists have posited a few theories to explain why the novel coronavirus caused loss of these senses. Disturbed smell and taste may be evidence of the body’s efforts to support olfactory neurons and rewire connections. Amazing thing, the body.
I had Covid early and without documentation. In late March 2020 I felt a little winter-sick. Suddenly my food had no taste and my daughter told me that was a Covid symptom. My doctor did not recognize the telltale sign and said he had no tests to offer anyway. After a few days I felt better but still could not taste. This lasted an awful month. Not being able to taste disconnected desire from fulfillment. It was hard—though a small problem, I know, much less grave than others’ experiences during the pandemic. I never did the burnt-orange trick popular on YouTube, but I did practice with daily sniffs of strong odors, cinnamon, ammonia, horseradish, tuna, coffee, and lemon. Gradually nose and tongue returned to proper functioning.
Sort of. For a few months smell and taste were restored. Then taste and smell changed again, not going dead but becoming unreliable. Some things tasted as they should, but most things reeked. Fruits and vegetables tasted spoiled, as though glazed with rot. Wine was putrefaction. Occasionally I caught whiffs of “phantom” smells, something sour or pickled drifting from the corner of a room. I didn’t know if something was wrong or if I was wrong. Was I deluded—the stink not there at all—or did my heightened sensitivity reveal what unaffected noses did not notice?
Lost taste disoriented me. It was not just that I could not trust the evidence of my senses. I knew they were wrong. I knew that other people could actually register a more accurate perception of reality than I could. By inference, I knew many co-sufferers also had their own unique distortions of reality. I couldn’t verify with my senses the evidence of someone else’s nose or tongue but instead had to trust it was as they said. And maybe we all were wrong together. My Covid bout belied the sometimes-popular premise that only those with personal experience are qualified to speak about a phenomenon. By definition, parosmia leads to individualized misperception, the experience of knowing oneself to be unqualified to judge one’s own situation. Extending the analogy, I had first-hand experience of Covid—and so am qualified to retrospect!—but mine is entirely unlike that of people who suffered acutely.
The Covid symptoms I experienced might do some service in behalf of retrospection. Writing to interpret sickness should yield more than a private hunch that this was divine discipline for my intemperate appetite. Anosmia-ageusia presented a lens for watching the disease for its duration. The enduring symptoms built a perspective both more and less self-referential. I was the measure of the Covid I knew, a disease for me, not lethal but of lasting harm. Because I got sick early, precautionary measures that became standard did not spare me. Because I got sick without realizing when, I know I probably infected other people. When I followed the rules to distance, mask, and sanitize through the next year, I was not in the main worried about safeguarding my own health but, rather, obeying in behalf of public health.
My own experience did make some proclamations in behalf of public health ring tinny—like “belief in science.” Of course I believed in science. My leeriness came not from doubting science but from wanting scientists to know what they seemed to not know and to do what they could not. Interpretive humility on the part of experts might have been potent. Saying “we wish we understood Covid-19 better but we don’t yet,” could have accompanied pronouncements on handwashing and mask-wearing and distancing and tracing. Experts might have explained that these practices seem like the best available way to fight a disease we don’t know enough about to fight differently or better. Saying this might have encouraged Covid skeptics, people remote from outbreaks or with mild symptoms, to consent to public health measures rather than use the evidence of their senses to resist preventative measures and vaccines. Indeed, medical spokespersons might have turned the very fact of contrary personal evidence—”Covid doesn’t look so bad to me!”—toward support of public health measures on the grounds that the disease is insidious, whether showing up as a wolf in sheep’s clothing or just as a wolf.
That saying popular in early lockdowns, “We’re all in this together,” fell short. Unity is not built by decree, but it may come from retrospecting together. We may yet understand what “that” was mainly about.
Agnes R. Howard teaches in Christ College, the honors college at Valparaiso University, and is author of Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us about Being Human.