Sensemaking in the time of a Pandemic


Image by Lerkrat Tangsri from Pixabay

These are my thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic. I write and share this with the hope that it’ll help elucidate the situation and make sense of the world right now.

When I first tuned in to the buzz of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself overwhelmed by the number of raw facts: the number of people diagnosed with the disease; the number of people dying from it; the number of people losing their jobs on account of it; and the countless updates on each of these stats.

I needed to make sense of these numbers. Is five thousand people infected bad? I don’t know. How many people get the flu? How many die from cancer?

As I later grokked the reason there’s such a panoply of facts is because the exponential spread of the disease means the numbers change very quickly. Further, we aren’t very good at intuiting exponential growth[1]. The feeling of being dazed is somehow made worse by the news being disseminated and consumed in a way that lacks nuance.

One thing I observed was that it’s human nature to want the world to be favorable to us and to that end we seek to control it. But when we can’t control it, we engage in behaviors which superficially feels like control but ultimately affords us no real control and is actually quite destructive to our psyche. Overconsumption of information is an example of such a maladaptive behavior. The antidote is the golden mean between being aloof and a state of drowning in information. Hoarding is another.

Yet despite this explosion of facts, holistically, I had a very poor grasp of th[a]e situation. What I mean is, I go about the world, explicitly or implicitly assuming a model of the world. All facts and events must fit somewhere within this internal representation of the world. However, the facts in this situation didn't fit any existing model. This is why my initial response was that of dismissal (because the events didn’t fit into my model). But once enough “anomalous” facts appeared, and it was obvious my model was deeply broken, of abject confusion.

In this confusion, I realized what I needed was a new model for the world. This is where Rao’s beautifully written essay and the notion therein of epic times helps illuminate the situation (

We are Living in Epic Times

We are living in a decidedly different time. This is obvious given that there is a global pandemic and this is changing individual and societal dynamics. But it’s not merely that different things are happening, i.e. there is different stuff in the metaphoric river of happening. Rather, there is a change in how those different things are happening. The river has gone topsy turvy and left the river bed altogether.

Normal everyday existence has a certain rhythm to it. The felt experience lacks specificity. The past looks and feels like the future. The Tuesday that just passed often feels very similar to the Tuesday three weeks ago. There is a certain timelessness to how the universe unfolds arounds us. We don’t really experience the passage of time, except when explicitly reflecting on it, e.g. looking at old photos.

But sometimes this symmetry between the past and the future is broken, and the present resembles neither. This time is arhythmic. This time is epic. Epic times represent a symbolic crossing of a point of no return. Why? Because, the very structure that sustains the rhythm has been undone. Once normalcy is so spectacularly broken, there is no going back. The world is now in a free fall of sorts. The world will converge to a new normal but when and what the new normal will be is unknown.

During normal times, most of us inhabit a timeless realm of recurring narratives. Normal time lacks specificity. Epic time lacks escapability. There is no rhythm or narrative for us to retreat into. There is only this moment- and this moment is unlike anything we’ve ever seen (unlike the generic Tuesday). All we can do is very vividly manifest and respond to this moment (which may incidentally require us to stay put, e.g. in the current pandemic).

During epic times, trying to escape into the timeless realm is severely punished, if at all possible. Arjuna can’t just stand in the middle of Kurukshetra, and ponder the morality of the war - or he’ll be dead. (Literary) epics can contain deep morals. However, these lessons are only apparent from the perspective of a broader narrative; constructed by and for those outside the epic. From the perspective of the characters in the epic, the only relevant question, in a very concrete sense is, “what to do next?”. There is much metaphysics and morality to be learned from the Bhagavad Gita. But, for those of us looking to it for guidance during an epic time, the takeaway is this: the only way forward is through.

Maneuvering the Epic

To figure out what to do next, I have to figure out where I am now. I have a sense of where I am now. But the earth beneath is still shifting. Epic times present the twin problem of (re)formulating the map, while navigating a newly forming terrain.

The friction from the transition has stopped many recurring narratives and processes. Most of these were superficial, but some seemed non-negotiable only a few days ago. Society is a lot simpler now. But this simplicity brings a lot of suffering. For example, India’s rollout of the lockdown left many in a precarious situation. Migrant workers work highly commoditized jobs such as labor and housework. Many of these jobs were terminated because of the lockdown. Most migrants have enough food and money to survive for a few days. When the lockdown went into effect, many of them started embarking on a journey hundreds of kilometers to their villages (later the government asked the migrants to stay put and provided food and accommodations).

This is a very different experience of the epic from what I’m living. I am not experiencing any existential threats. I’m at home back home with my parents- close to my sister and my fiance. I’m able to work from home. There are minor annoyances with my daily groove- but an itch on a gnat’s ass compared to the experience of the migrant workers.

Though the perspective grounds me, I still feel anxious. I want to understand this anxiety and not merely have it disappear. I reflect on changes happening now. Many of these break my model of the world and this causes suffering. In light of these gaps, I work towards an understanding that integrates what is being experienced now and that which holds true from the previous worldview.

Forming Meaning

Epictetus once noted that “people are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them”. Thus, how we frame a situation determines how much we suffer. One way forward is by reframing the situation in a more positive light.

I am optimistic, but some of the eventualities of this pandemic are quite horrific. The thought of my own death and the death of those around me gives me much anxiety. I imagine, because of its evolutionary benefits, death anxiety would be quite common (at least subconsciously). I further posit (perhaps it’s common sense) that heavy thoughts, like that of death, when not placed before the conscious mind, dwell in the subconscious and operate in mysterious and perhaps undesirable ways. Drawing it into the conscious makes it amenable to affirmative meaning formation. Further, ignoring the certainties of life, creates an incomplete model of the world and leads to misaligned decisions.

Yet to make sense of life (and death), in light of its many absurdities is not trivial. And yet it is imperative we engage in this arduous meaning making process. The task of birthing meaning from nothing is difficult and we must use all the tools in our toolbox: intuitions, beliefs, emotions, and reason. Where we will end up will be different, because we will assume different claims about the world, and use very different machineries to arrive at different conclusions. But that doesn’t matter- the point is psychological grounding and not metaphysical certainty.

My attempt to find meaning, against my best efforts, takes me into metaphysics. Restricting myself to assuming only the physical world works as long as I’m talking about facets of the world in a value-free way. But as soon as I talk about things being better or worse, the logic breaks out of the material world. Maybe it’s possible to navigate the conundrum without entering metaphysics, but I can’t do it now. I see two options. First, accept a highly ordered world where you have to find your preordained purpose. Second, accept an absurd world and make your own meaning and values. Here, I realize the scary possibility of not being able to make sense of the world.

Mirroring this abject nihilism, one sees the near universality of living through struggles and heroic efforts to overcome them. We are united by the sun that shines over our head and the timeless nature of our struggles. Thus there is much to be learned from the timeless wisdom of sages like the Buddha, Seneca, and Nietzsche.

Ultimately, I accept the proposition, that the universe is void of objective meaning. Within this view of the world, ironically, lies the path to a meaningful life. That it is finite- means the time for action, the time for being is now. That it is absurd means I am free to construct my own meaning. Had it been infinite, I would have done nothing for the first infinite years of it. Had there been a prescribed meaning, I would have been shackled by it. Between two great silences, a flash was heard. To get lost in the impermanence of that flash, or even more nebulously, the question of why that happened, would be a waste of valuable time.

The absurdity that arises from trying to form meaning in a meaningless universe, is echoed in other dualities like: I will die, and yet this moment exists. When one reflects on such dualities and the paradox of one perspective being uplifting and the other demoralizing, one starts seeing a foam of constructed meaning between reality and our understanding of it. Almost always, we don’t see this foam, but it’s always there. An event happens and you observe it bare for a moment, and before you know it, your mind has already formed a narrative around it.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. You want to quickly distinguish threatening and non-threatening events. This understanding of life-affirming is good and life-threatening is bad forms a rudimentary value/meaning system. Things start getting out of place, when instead of threat to life being the basis for good and bad, we (the mind and the society), use proxies like status. Status, atleast, in our early evolution must have been a good proxy for survivability and thus good. Over time, however, as society becomes more complex, our grounds for good and bad become ever more arbitrary. When we grant this arbitrariness an objectivity, we cause ourselves much suffering. Because, this largely happens subconsciously, we never question the fungibility of the meaning of events. But when this finally dawns on us, we have a very powerful tool to conceptualize and navigate life.

We see this construction process manifestly in our culture, traditions, social norms, and personal ambitions. There’s no deep objectivity to any of these. But even something like death viewed from an altered lens, lacks the finality that our intuition claims it does. Either you accept some version of the afterlife, and death is merely the transition from this world to the next. Or the web of atomic and dependent causes that made your body function, continues after your death.

It’s important to note that it’s not enough to intellectually accept this construction process. One has to deeply engage with it and actively create meaning. It’s also important to note, that unlike the interpretations, the raw events do have a certain objectivity to them.

Epic periods may be far and few. But epic moments- moments of inherent uncertainty which require intense presence- are quite common. Our struggle through this time, and the meaning we imbue it will help us make sense of this period, and life in general.

I hope things turn out as well as they can. I hope everyone comes out of this healthy as they can. I hope that we cherish each moment and always find something to smile about. I hope we look at each moment with an openness that sees past all narratives. I hope that despite its imperfections we can appreciate how beautiful this moment is.

[1] They’re a story where an artisan creates a beautiful chessboard (or perhaps the first chessboard) for the king. For his creation, the artisan requests one grain of wheat be placed on the first square, and two on the second, and thus double the previous number on the next one. The king thinks this is a meagre ask, and grants it, only to realize the astronomical number of grains on the last square. (