An Emotional Framework for Understanding the End of the Pandemic

The late philosopher Richard Wollheim can teach many of us valuable lessons about how to face the fear of returning to outside life.

Images depicting a wide range of emotions
GETTY / ARSH RAZIUDDIN / THE ATLANTIC

My earliest memories are connected by a sense of fear without the threat of harm. I remember being frightened by news stories, dark basements, and even a painting by a family friend. I was an imaginative kid, and these memories are ones of invented dread: A tabloid photo of a burning building once shook me up for a week, though I had never even seen a fire. In part, these made-up fears were the result of a lucky, protected childhood. But to the late British philosopher Richard Wollheim, whose newly re-released memoir, Germs, centers on this type of recollection, they also pointed to an early longing for the wider adult, or—as Wollheim often calls it—“outside” world.

Wollheim grew up in a well-off, uncommunicative family. His mother, he writes, “did not like it if one person talked to another.” As a sheltered child, he saw life as consisting mainly of “routine,” sometimes interrupted by “terror,” which he welcomed, because it often led to wonder, pleasure, or love. For example, daily dog walks turned from routine to terror when the dog started running away, and then to pleasure, when the vanishing acts made the once-indifferent Wollheim finally fall “in love” with his poor pet. Later, as a bored preteen, Wollheim fought his phobia of heights to explore the “rock face” of his father’s library, whose high shelves were reachable only by standing on top of bar stools. The climbs were frightening at first, but the pleasure of finding his dad’s copy of the Kama Sutra overwhelmed his fear. Terror escorted him from routine to wonder.

Reading Germs, I found myself wishing Wollheim, who died in 2003, were alive to apply his framework to the coronavirus pandemic’s staggered end. Since March, those of us privileged enough to work remotely have lived in an inside world of routine. (Essential workers, of course, have had far different experiences.) Our routines differ greatly from Wollheim’s; even the luckiest among us must confront daily fear, precarity, or grief. Our terror is different, too: The fears in Germs are never existential, and always temporary. Still, his notion that “routine [can be] a kind of emotion” rings very true, and his progression from routine to wonder offers real, if small, hope. As vaccination slowly returns inessential workers to outside life, many will have a new host of fears to deal with—but, Wollheim suggests, those fears can be a pathway to joy.

Wollheim is not nostalgic for his childhood, which he calls a “postponed existence.” He refers to his household as “the regime under which I grew up.” Still, he extracts loveliness from his early life on every page. His descriptions are lush, sometimes lavish; Sheila Heti, in her introduction, praises the book’s “glittering sentences, surely some of the more beautiful surfaces in English prose.” This is a feat, given that in Wollheim’s family, shame and prissiness seem to have been dominant. His childhood routines nearly all center on cleaning, bodily concealment, or evading social shame. His father taught him that the male body, unless rigorously groomed and immaculately clothed, is not “tolerable to the world.” His mother cleaned obsessively, fighting with his nanny over whether germs come from inside or outside the home, which meant, for little Wollheim, that neither place felt safe. His assimilated Jewish relatives, meanwhile, claimed that “synagogues were places where one caught germs.”

No wonder, then, that to Wollheim, it seemed “as hard to be well as to be ill.” Sickness and dirtiness were shameful, but at least, while sick, he knew where he stood. While healthy, he had to be on constant guard. No person could be counted as lucky to have contracted COVID-19, but after 11 months of near-nonstop worrying that we could be asymptomatically infectious, many of us know how exhausting constant vigilance can be—and how enormous the temporary relief of a negative test result can feel.

For Wollheim, routine often overlapped with low-grade fear. (A familiar phenomenon, I think, to anyone who, like me, spent last spring frantically wiping down groceries and Cloroxing doorknobs.) He seems not to have experienced any drawn-out times of grief or distress in childhood; perhaps if he had, routine would have struck him as more of a haven, much as self-isolation, as difficult as it is, is currently a source of safety. Instead, routine became a trap that Wollheim used terror to escape. Sharp fright was a boundary that “once crossed, could never be uncrossed, for [the] passage left an indelible mark” of “knowledge” and “shamelessness.” Sex is an easy example here, and a useful one: Wollheim describes losing his virginity as “a frightened experience of the body,” but later found unfettered joy in sexual experimentation. His experience with toilet training, a process he describes with palpable happiness, was similar. He writes that, in adulthood, it is still “what I think of when I hear moral philosophers discuss responsibility.” Odd though this sentiment may be, reflecting on it can be clarifying. Before his toilet training, Wollheim—like any child—was not in charge of his own cleanliness. In his germ-fearing family, receiving that responsibility would have been terrifying, then liberating. For the first time, he had the power to make himself contamination-free.

It has been nearly a year since I treated myself as if I were uncontaminated. I work from home and wear a mask in the outside world, but the coronavirus is stealthy. To keep others safe, I do my best to behave constantly as if I were an asymptomatic carrier. For people managing obsessive-compulsive disorder, this stance can be especially challenging; for others, it poses moral issues, tests willpower, or generates new anxieties. In 2019, I moved from Washington, D.C., where my parents live, to Cincinnati, which is an eight-hour drive away. I want very badly to visit, but the thought of potentially infecting my parents—or anyone else—terrifies me. Once we are all vaccinated, my fear will not magically disappear. Still, visiting my parents will bring me tremendous joy. Wollheim helps me understand how natural it is to imagine that, even when it becomes safe, I may well have to break through a layer of fear to travel, show up to a party, or eat inside a restaurant. At some point, my COVID-19 anxieties will become boundaries I will need to cross—and will benefit from crossing.

It seems impossible for the pandemic’s slow end not to involve a wide array of fears. Some will be entirely scientific; others, financial, political, and broadly social. But certain lower-order fears—the private, idiosyncratic, and not-always-rational ones—will also linger. Some people will be newly afraid of public transit, or movie theaters, or salad bars. Some will be afraid to socialize, or afraid to be alone. After a year working from home with my boyfriend, I predict that I will be frightened of my new solitude when he returns to his office and I, who have no office, am still sitting at home. This is a Wollheim-style fear—one that points not to an existential threat, but a psychological border to cross. His promise is that, if I am able to treat my separation anxiety as such, it has the potential to turn, swiftly and wholly, into joy.