I never wanted to watch The Walking Dead. I hate horror films and anything gratuitously gory and gross. But the show was premiering following Mad Men and my husband was determined to watch a new television show about zombies. His selling point? “You love dystopias and stories about apocalypses. This is your kind of thing.”
I reluctantly agreed. Three episodes in and I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of the stories of survival once the world fell victim to a virus that ravaged the global population. By the end of the first season it became clear that the real monsters weren’t the “walkers”; our favorite characters had to fight their fellow humans to make a new world out of what nature had handed them.
When our family got back into camping and gave into buying a camper, we suddenly started joking that our new camping hobby would be our key to surviving an apocalypse. We would pack up our family and extra propane and head wherever seemed safest. Of course, this was always hypothetical. While well-versed in all imagined forms of social collapse, we never really believed it was probable. My husband and I are pretty down to earth and we’ve been known to mock the prepper lifestyle. However, the last two months have left me feeling a little unhinged as we slowly lose control over everything that made up our lives pre-COVID. We are far from having to run away from society, but we also never imagined we would have spent weeks, and possibly months, on end with little to no human contact while waiting for declining spread of a disease that most of us knew nothing about until just a few months ago.
Because nothing prepared me for this.
I didn’t know that life would just suddenly stop. That one day I would be on spring break discussing the possibility of school being out and a few days later I would be sitting in a meeting discussing the probability that I wouldn’t see my students for the rest of the year.
I wasn’t prepared to be afraid of people, even people that I know and love, because I have no way of knowing whether or not they are infected and what that infection could do to me and my family. Now when I go to the store I constantly have Rick Grimes’s words in my head: “We’re all infected.”
I wasn’t prepared for weird shortages that would drive people mad. Toilet paper? Clorox wipes? Hand sanitizer? 1% milk? I had seen empty shelves in the build-up to both snow storms and hurricanes so I knew what it was like to show up at a store and struggle to find certain basic necessities. But none of us had any way of knowing, or even understanding, what it would be like to see the same shortages day after day and limitations on even the most basic of ingredients, like flour and frozen vegetables.
I wasn’t prepared for government officials to lie to me every. Single. Day.
I wasn’t prepared for people to be so suspicious of the mainstream that they would be willing to believe lies that endanger their lives and the lives of loved ones.
I wasn’t prepared to constantly question everything I was reading and seeing and how that was (or wasn’t) matching what I was seeing with my own eyes.
Years of reading books and watching movies and television shows about the world as we know it coming to an end didn’t prepare me for any of this. Fiction presented me with a grim future devoid of electricity, clean water, and democratic government, or people stealing from and killing fellow human beings in an effort to be the ones who survive, human survival trumping everything else. I didn’t know that we didn’t need extreme collapse to feel like the floor has dropped out from underneath us.
Like many I’m very uncomfortable with the world we are living in right now. It is a strange, fearful, isolated existence. But it has also been a hopeful, optimistic experience that we are muddling through together, apart. We use social media to connect with people across the globe and share our experiences, video calls to see friends and family, and new apps and technologies to manage everything from work to education. These are the positives that dystopian fiction didn’t prepare me for and it’s a reality I’ve been thankful for.
Dystopias warn us of a future that could happen if we were to leave our current situation (environmental, social, political) unchecked. Some conclude with a better future, others leave audiences with little hope. COVID-19 has taken our friends and neighbors, it has stolen jobs, and it has made us suspicious of the safety of friends we were hugging just a few month ago. But we also have a very real chance to build a better future when our new normal, and it will be a new normal, arrives.
People are being forced to do some deep soul searching when they look at their families, their careers, and their personal lives. As a society, we are being forced to look at the social, economic, and governmental weaknesses that most of us have been willing to overlook because they haven’t appeared to directly affect us until now. As with all disasters, we’ve seen both the best and the worst of humanity, but it’s the best in humanity that is getting us through and keeping us from slipping into the worst case scenario of our fictional nightmares.
We are broken people working with an imperfect world, but if we heed the warnings, we could exit this better off than we were before. We just have to be willing to face the monsters head on.