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Coronavirus Is Our Reminder to Breathe

Doing what matters to us — as humans, not just bodies — has never been more vital

Shannon Mehner
Mar 14 · 8 min read
A photo of orange-lit clouds in a blue sky.
A photo of orange-lit clouds in a blue sky.
Photo: Aristocrats-hat/Flickr

When I try to figure out what I can compare this coronavirus experience to, my mind draws a blank.

My mom’s terminal melanoma diagnosis? 9/11? The housing market crash of 2008? SARS? But the tragedy doesn’t just belong to me, or just the United States, or even just an hour or a day or a few months. It hasn’t fully happened — yet. We cannot grieve and try to rebuild. We cannot point to one moment in time and say, That was awful, we’ll never be the same. It is happening, it is unfolding, it is not quite here but already here but nothing has happened to me really but some things have happened and I spent a lot of money at the grocery store and my kids’ schools are closed and should we go to that birthday party this weekend and what about that summer trip we have planned?

Never in my 34 years have I felt the world’s collective nervous system this wired. The air feels like it is vibrating around me.

I watched hours of mind-numbing reality TV to bring me down after I came home from Costco, the epicenter of panic. The panic is real. The aisles are empty. The virus is spreading. The pandemic is official. This is not a drill.

Our nanny’s husband was exposed. My sister’s deskmate at work was exposed. My stepbrother is quarantined after being exposed in the hospital where he works. But no one I know has it. No one I know can tell me what it feels like, what it looks like, what to expect, whether it will make its way to my community, to my family, to me. There is a lot of waiting, shopping, buying toilet paper (but why!?), reading article after article after article, learning what social distancing is and what the mortality rate is in each country, worrying about loved ones and not knowing when I’ll see them again because they live in other states. My families’ hands are chapped and peeling from so much handwashing. The jumbo hand sanitizer is halfway gone from the past month. No confirmed cases in our community, that we know of. Yet.

I have energy pulsing through me, and I have no idea what to do with it. Squeeze my children, cook freezer meals, send text message after text message to friends and family and fellow moms and co-workers and college roommates. Hopeful texts, panicked texts, this is like the flu, right? texts, how much water did you buy? texts, look at how crazy people are in Costco! texts, while I stand in line with double the amount of groceries I normally buy trying to act like I’m not one of them.

If I were an infectious disease expert, I would be working around the clock to find the vaccine, to stop the spread. I could be useful. But I’m not. I have very little to offer in this crisis. So I’m stuck with endless adrenaline and nowhere to go, not if I’m trying to help flatten the curve (I am! I am! Let’s flatten the hell out of that thing.)

What can I do? kept me up last night. I will follow all of the recommendations to keep our communities safe. I will social distance, I will hand-wash for 20 full seconds, I will avoid crowded places (except Costco, yesterday).

But I wish I had answers. I wish I knew how much water, how much laundry detergent, how many canned goods, how much you need to feel ready in a global pandemic. Instead, I walk up and down the aisles at Target wondering what I need, what our community needs, what the world needs. Is Mother Earth trying to tell us we can’t sustain life like this? How do we make it through this intact — as humans, as civilizations? How do we make sure the elderly and immunocompromised are protected, how do we make sure people with mental health issues are not totally isolated, how do we keep our kids learning and growing and evolving and fed, how do we keep jobs intact and people’s retirement protected? How do we help the people living from paycheck to paycheck when paychecks don’t exist? How do we keep doctors from burning out, from being destroyed by deciding who gets the ventilators? What will civilization look like next year? The year after? Will humanity be forever changed? There are so many questions scrolling through my brain. I could list them forever.

The uncertainty has permeated everything and everyone. We took so many things for granted: the NBA, Disneyland, being able to cough in public, being able to sit with friends at brunch without being acutely aware of how close you are.

While I was at Target today, shopping for backups just in case, I realized in all of my worthlessness, there was something. A tiny thing, but tiny is all I have right now. I could be human. I could be human. This felt like a revelation, something I’d forgotten in the past weeks as coronavirus became all-consuming.

Something coronavirus has shown us all is that breathing is a beautiful, beautiful gift.

We are not just cells waiting to be attacked; we are not just non-immunized targets for COVID-19. We need more than sacks of flour and dry beans to live, to live for real. All of us panicked Target shoppers were looking so grim, so unsure, so depressed at the complete lack of hand sanitizer. So I breathed — like, really breathedfor the first time in a week. And I smiled, as much for myself as anyone else. I smiled at every person who walked by, even from six feet away. When I was finished, I asked the checkout person how she was doing.

“Feeling weird,” she said.

“I know the feeling,” I responded, and I wanted to touch her but I did not. Instead, I nodded, and we connected and I felt normal for the first time all day. And it snowballed, all of this. Because when I went outside I felt the rain on my face and it felt nice. I touched my toddler’s cheek as I put her in her car seat. I grabbed my phone and checked in on the people I know who are struggling — which is, to be honest, everyone I know right now.

And then I breathed again—and I paid attention to how it felt in my chest—because something coronavirus has shown us all is that breathing is a beautiful, beautiful gift.

At home, I sat down. I did what feels right to me in times of crisis and not crisis and panic and not panic. I did what makes me feel most human. I started writing.

If you are reading this, this is what I want you to take away. This is what I need to say. This is awful. This is scary. This is unprecedented. I am grateful for infectious disease specialists, scientists, doctors, nurses, toilet paper makers, my husband for buying a giant thing of hand sanitizer last year when it was widely available (and Purell for false advertising because it said all-natural on it even though, thank goodness, it was mostly alcohol), school administrators working to keep school going remotely, community emergency responders, people who take this seriously. It is serious, and I am scared.

We can take this energy and stress and let it rot us from the inside out, or we can let it gently remind us that life is fragile, and that it’s more important than ever to do the things that make us feel most alive.

And if buying Tide and Clorox wipes and oatmeal is what you need to do, I will not stop you. I am one of you. But what is making me feel better right now, better than the Costco-sized pallet of canned beans I bought, is remembering that I am human, you are human, we are all human. And we are at our best when we are doing the things that remind us of how great that can be.

We can take this energy and stress and let it rot us from the inside out, or we can let it gently remind us that life is fragile, and that it’s more important than ever to do the things that make us feel most alive. We can channel this energy into caring for the ones we love, painting, sewing, playing the piano, writing that novel you’ve been putting off because life, sending text messages to friends we haven’t talked to in years to remind them that we’re here! And thinking about them, and also about that night in college when we wore matching onesies to a party. We can sing out a window in Italy to remind neighbors, and the internet, we are all still here, in our houses, feeling the same things. As I type this, my seven-year-old is shooting hoops in the backyard, oblivious to anything but the feel of the sun. He’s doing the thing he loves most, in the way that is possible for now. It is achingly beautiful.

We can read all the news about coronavirus, but we can also read The History of Love and To Kill a Mockingbird and The Outsiders because those books remind me of the great joy and ache of being human — and I need to remind myself of that feeling as much as possible right now. We can get back into that meditation practice we gave up last year, take a bath, sit outside and feel grateful for trees. We can bake some muffins and hug our partners and dance (!) because research shows that at the end of their lives, people regret not dancing more.

Yes, humanity comes with mortality, which feels deeply uncomfortable. But the only control the average human has over chaos is finding meaning, making a life out of what’s in front of us. As Viktor Frankl, the master of meaning-making, said: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

I am not advocating that privileged people who stand to lose less than others stick their head in the sand. But in the absence of somewhere to put all of this panicked energy, I propose transferring it into extra generosity and care for the other humans in our lives, and the beautiful, fierce, strong human within each of us. If you, like me, are feeling that anxiety beast that says MORE FOOD MORE SUPPLIES MORE TOILET PAPER, feed the beast if you need. But for me, that beast has proved insatiable. So I’m going to take deep, precious breaths. And I’m going to focus on feeding my soul.


The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. To stay informed, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department for updates. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.