Commentary: A Lesson in Gratitude: COVID-19 Reminded Us Death Always Lurks

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A few weeks ago, a large yellow orb appeared in the sky and gave me a terrible fright. After delving into the deepest parts of my memory and figuring out what the warm, floating matter was, I did what anyone who lives under Mother Nature’s faucet should do when the temperature hits 60: I cranked up a Spotify playlist made specifically for days such as this.

Tucked appropriately in that playlist is a song by Sturgill Simpson. It so happened I was introduced to Sturgill near the beginning of the pandemic, and since health officials haven’t told us to cover our ears (yet), my favorite album of his, “A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth”, was on repeat any time I was home or driving. It was even my chosen bike music for a while (listening to music while you bike is an excellent way to keep from hearing yourself die if a car hits you).

Music has the unique ability to transport us through time and space. We’ve all experienced the phenomenon of hearing a song for the first time in a decade and feeling the memories and emotions linked to it overwhelm us. The link between music and memory is so powerful that it’s sometimes all that’s left for those with advanced cases of dementia. A beautiful portrayal of this you might recall comes at the end of Pixar’s “Coco” (if you can comprehend what’s going on through your sobbing).

Hearing Sturgill now transports my mind to a unique place of gratitude — a state of mind, sadly, I’m not as familiar with as I should be. When the pandemic first hit, there was immense uncertainty across all realms of life and my constant striving to slay the next dragon was put on hold; I was just grateful for each day that I still had a job. This sudden pause on the pressure to “rise and grind” that I’d put on myself for who knows how long turned the volume on the lingering anxiety I wasn’t even aware of way down and cranked my gratitude up.

Many I’ve spoken to have expressed the same sentiment. Gratitude is hard to come by and it takes clear intent and work to get to a point of practicing it every day. COVID-19 thrust many of us into a state of mind we’re unfamiliar with, but needed. The hard part will now be holding onto that sense of gratitude beyond the pandemic. The best (and maybe only) way to do that is to remind ourselves that COVID-19 isn’t the only thing that can “getcha.”

Danger always lurks.

COVID-19, and the various psychological and sociological threats that come with it, is only one killer. The other big ones are just more insidious like heart disease, which, along with cancer, have still killed more Americans since the start of the pandemic than COVID-19. But talk about boring — those lost their flare a long time ago. But what CNN anchor wants to discuss the perils of refined sugars when Anthony Fauci is on speed dial and Prince Harry is moving from a mansion on one side of the pond to a mansion on the other side of the pond?

I often wonder if the walls around us are too great for us to even know what they're protecting us from. But that certainly hasn’t stopped many people from contemptuously dismissing the unprecedentedly safe lives they’ve been born into and instead putting much of their energy into bitterly skulking about in a perpetual state of victimhood.

From a historical standpoint, we’re a whole lot safer than we used to be. I don’t know about you, but, generally, I don’t check over my shoulder for lurking sabertooth-toothed tigers when I’m picking blackberries in my backyard, and the only pillaging my village has been the victim of recently is Washington state’s gas tax. Life expectancy in the United States has doubled since the Civil War days.

I acknowledge the immediacy of COVID-19 and my goal here isn’t to compare eating Honey Buns (my personal weakness) with COVID-19. My point is that long before the pandemic, death and life have always been closer friends than we sometimes realize. We feel safe when we see them taking a walk or playing chess in the park together — those activities are peaceful and quiet and don’t interfere with our normal lives. But we’re angry and panicked when they suddenly hold a block party late into the night in our neighborhood or drunkenly yell at us while we’re walking back to our car after a dinner out — we cover our ears and just pray it’ll pass and everything can go back to normal.

Never forget the terrible block party that kept you up all night; don’t put the pandemic behind you. There are still, and will always be, killers of all shapes and sizes lurking and that will never change. Never. The memory of the pandemic can serve as a reminder to be grateful that someone or something is protecting us from many of our dangers, even to the point of us not knowing what they are and, unlike the majority of human history, our entire existence hasn’t been a pandemic of threats.

It takes a lot of bravery to be grateful in a dangerous world filled with cynical people. But as my guy Sturgill puts it, “open up your heart and you'll find love all around.”

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Jonathan Haukaas is the former editor-in-chief of The Reflector, a sister publication of The Chronicle.

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