Our Brains Want the Story of the Pandemic to Be Something It Isn’t

After two years of living with the coronavirus, we’re suffering from “narrative fatigue.”

An illustration of a dotted line looping around a woman's head, with "A" at one end and "B" at the other
The Atlantic

If the pandemic were a movie, it wouldn’t make any sense. Even putting aside the suffering and monotony that would make up the film’s “action,” the narrative structure of COVID—defined by its false endings, exhausting duration, and inscrutable villain, a virus—would be unwatchable. The most generous thing that Monisha Pasupathi, a psychology professor at the University of Utah who studies life narratives, said to me about the pandemic’s cinematic potential was that, well, “there’s always that contingent of film historians” who have a taste for the avant-garde.

Two years of living with the coronavirus has been spirit-depleting for obvious reasons, but this weariness has been compounded by the fact that the pandemic has defied our attempts to snap it into a satisfying story framework. Mark Freeman, a psychology professor at the College of the Holy Cross, told me that he’s been thinking of this condition as “narrative fatigue”—“an exhaustion born not only out of the relentlessness of the pandemic but the relentlessness of the ever-changing narratives that have accompanied it.”

The coronavirus’s volatile arc has thwarted a basic human impulse to storify reality—instinctively, people tend to try to make sense of events in the world and in their lives by mapping them onto a narrative. If we struggle to do that, researchers who study the psychology of narratives told me, a number of unpleasant consequences might result: stress, anxiety, depression, a sense of fatalism, and, as one expert put it, “feeling kind of crummy.”

A particularly deflating stretch of the pandemic’s story came in 2021, after vaccines were made widely available. They initially seemed like the salvation that people fantasized they would be—President Joe Biden celebrated “independence” from the virus in a Fourth of July speech, and “hot vax summer” was something that people actually said. The Delta variant, of course, eviscerated that optimism and produced a feeling of narrative whiplash. Wasn’t the story supposed to be over, or at least at an intermission?

What has made the pandemic’s story even more exasperating is that Americans haven’t even been able to agree on its basic facts; many people have been falsely asserting that the pandemic is a hoax and that the vaccines are harmful. Americans’ divergent beliefs work against telling a collective story, according to Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. Other collective tragedies haven’t had this kind of dissonance. During World War II, a national narrative was easier to construct, he told me: “Nobody was arguing that it wasn’t happening.”

A story can be more psychologically satisfying when it has a diabolical antagonist to root against, yet the pandemic denied us that as well—the virus is not willful and has no motives. Instead, as Melanie Green, a communication professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, pointed out to me, many people have resorted to casting a different enemy themselves: Donald Trump, Anthony Fauci, the entire nation of China. Green also sees this vacuum of villainy as having contributed to pandemic conspiracy theories, which are basically just convenient stories about whom to be mad at.

Angus Fletcher, a professor of story science at Ohio State University, told me that a story line people crave, in part because Disney has cranked out so many iterations of it, is a battle between good and evil in which good triumphs and convinces evil to renounce its ways. Without a sentient enemy, Fletcher said, “we can’t do the normal thing that we do when, you know, someone from another political party does something we dislike, which is vilify them, and … our fight is to get them to recognize their evil and then give up.”

When you want reality to match a story line you’re accustomed to, but reality doesn’t comply, that’s stressful. McAdams told me that people, and perhaps Americans especially, have a strong desire for, even an expectation of, “redemptive” narratives—stories that go from bad to good. In sermons, commencement speeches, and national myths, people constantly hear tales of triumphing over adversity, but the pandemic’s story has withheld that positive resolution and refused to end, let alone end well. This narrative rupture helps explain why Delta’s emergence particularly stung—it punctured the happy ending that people have come to expect and that seemed for a moment to be within our grasp.

Although the pandemic as a whole has lacked a coherent narrative, people seem to have an easier time finding a place for it in the story of their own life. Pasupathi has been witnessing these private processes unfold in written reflections that she and her research collaborators have been collecting from hundreds of college students, starting in April 2020 and with periodic check-ins since then. “One of the nice things about the gap between stories and reality is that people are going to wrestle it down into something manageable over time,” she told me.

The result of this wrestling-down varies: Some students, Pasupathi said, such as one who discovered a passion for public health, wrote about how the pandemic unexpectedly steered them toward a more purposeful life; others described it as a catalyst—for instance, leading them to move in with a significant other sooner than expected. Other experts I spoke with said they’d expect that people might regard the pandemic as a pause, a reset, or perhaps just a temporary digression in the story of their life.

From the beginning, a narrative that many people latched on to was, as Fletcher described it to me, one of interruption. “What if you were watching a movie [at a theater] and someone got up in front of you and started having an argument with his partner on his cellphone? I think that’s really what’s happened—the virus is [that] guy,” he said. “I think we’re impatient and angry with it because it’s disrupting what we think is our real story.” Fletcher said that this idea—that we’ve been deprived of the life story we wanted to be living—stresses us out because it implies a loss of authorship over our personal narrative.

Meanwhile, Pasupathi has found in her research that students who treated the pandemic as an opportunity to grow—like that budding public-health scholar—tended to have lower levels of anxiety and depression as it unfolded. That lines up with previous research indicating that identifying more redemptive narrative arcs in your life is linked to being happier.

This doesn’t mean that the key to happiness is to immediately put a positive spin on terrible events. McAdams told me that cultivating an optimistic outlook can indeed improve people’s well-being, but that we should be cautious about the cultural pressure to land on a happy ending. Some events just aren’t redemptive material.

McAdams thinks that instead of grasping for a redemptive story to tell about the pandemic overall, we might be more at peace if we select a frame that’s humble and realistic. “I like this idea that we’re going to have to ‘learn to live with the virus.’ I think that’s right—it’s not like a war that’s going to end and we’re the victors,” he said. Instead, we can acknowledge “that there will always be adversity and that we need to be clear-eyed about that, and learn to manage adversity when it cannot be fully overcome.” Accepting that story, even if it’s bittersweet, beats holding out for a Hollywood ending that will never arrive.