Greying Hair, Greying Skin: The Pandemic Has Come to Teach Us Humility

I was 37 when COVID broke out, but that was quite a few wrinkles ago. All around the world, people are complaining about feeling they have gotten older during COVID. Is that, too, part of the coronavirus’ little scheme?

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Staring at us out from the screen were our parents.Aron Ehrlich
Staring at us out from the screen were our parents.Credit: Aron Ehrlich
Vita Kairys
Vita Kairys

On Saturday, we went out for a trip with the kids. Family unity. They scattered a few Petit-Beurres around some anthills, we lay down for five seconds on the grass to engineer ourselves a selfie. On the way back home in the car, I took a look at the pictures. It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything to Instagram, and I had the urge to show off my state of normalcy to the world. I skipped over the frames of anemones and children, waiting to spot that radiant couple. But what’s going on? What sort of sleight of hand has my Samsung Galaxy conjured up? Staring out from the screen were our parents, his father and my mother. Or rather, it would be more correct to say, his father and my father, hugging and smiling behind our shades. People who are beloved and cherished by us, our flesh is of their flesh, but still – not us. I looked around and took a long look at my partner sitting there behind the wheel. The photo spoke the truth: his profile had gone significantly grayer; he looked like the grandpa emoji. How had I not noticed it until now?

Stephen Colbert blames the coronavirus for everything.

When we hired a housekeeper for the first time, even before we had kids, we used to blame her, with ironic humor, of anything that had gotten lost or broken. The bracelet had gone missing? It was definitely the housekeeper. The screw that was somewhere in the bowl of odds and ends wasn’t there? It was that damn housekeeper; she can’t restrain herself. We would continue to accuse her of all sorts of stratagems even after she’d left our employ. “I can’t find my earbuds,” “Enough, Ivanka, stop it already!” (not her real name). It wasn’t out of cruelty or cold-heartedness – I have a lot of respect for any woman who was capable of entering our home and turning it into a place where you could think with any clarity – but rather out of my own sense of embarrassment. Why are we paying a strange woman to organize our belongings? What am I, an old matron?

In the past six months, maybe more, the magnet of blame for anything that has gone wrong is the pandemic – only without the ironic tone of voice. Lack of appetite, weakness, fatigue – that’s COVID. Lack of motivation, lack of meaning, the minutes that I waste in front of the mirror, stretching the skin over my cheekbones – that’s Long COVID. I was 37 when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, unless my memory is betraying me just like my body is. I am now 39 years old, but it’s the 39 of yesteryear, when life expectancy was 50.

A nice stratagem you’ve got going on here, COVID. First you did away with a lot of the old people, and now you are creating a new senior class.

It’s reasonable to assume that my spouse’s hair would go white in any event, and my own prototype is wearing out, but it is so much more pleasant to blame it on the same thing that is troubling all of humanity and hang it on COVID. According to the global media, it’s even true. An article that appeared last month in the scientific journal Nature stated that COVID has indeed accelerated the process of aging. Some of the people who have been infected have in fact drained their immune systems so much that they are less able to withstand the effects of aging. But they are not the only ones to be affected, because the tension, the loneliness and the lousy sleep have also harmed those who have not contracted the virus. All around the world, people are complaining of graying hair, graying skin, joint pains and a general feeling of fatigue, feeling that their bodies have gone weak and that they are running on empty. A nice stratagem you’ve got going on here, COVID. First you did away with a lot of the old people, and now you are creating a new senior class.

More popular websites have also related to the phenomenon in the past year. One article in the Wall Street Journal blamed the lockdowns; another article pinned it on working at home, which has robbed us of the few steps that we used to take on our way to the bus or out to the car, and in their place have bequeathed us hours of languid sitting at the kitchen table wearing a stained sweatshirt.

It’s not that the viruses have been so strong this year; it’s that we’ve gotten weaker.Credit: Master1305/Shutterstock.com

The Center for Disease Control in the U.S. reported last year that the expected life span in America had gone down by one and a half years, and according to a poll released last April, Americans were complaining of a 46 percent increase in pains and soreness. CNN tried to calm us: Perhaps it was only your “Zoom face.” It is well known that in video calls, the cruel lighting of the devices shows the faces but also their faults and flaws, exposing people to gravity which springs up from the depths and attacks them. No wonder, then, that interest in the question, “How to knit a balaklava,” that woolen hat that recalls the hijab, soared by 5,000 percent in the past year. It has nothing to do with politics or cultural appropriation. People simply do not want to be seen.

The sense of stress has been passing over all of humankind these past two years, like an intergalactic limbo rod, from east to west, forcing everyone to fold in on themselves. There are those who received from it a double or even triple booster shot, those who experienced trauma, those who lost family members, who were laid off in a humiliating manner, whose lives have been turned upside down. The others received it at lower dosages, but nevertheless this should not be taken lightly. Because as the hunched back or the sagging skin show us: Stress is a sly snake that slithers up from the deep recesses of the soul, moving in subterranean currents through the consciousness and creating cracks and fissures in the body from which it pokes out.

You’ve likely found yourself weighing the choices of your life, your work, the city in which you live, or if we choose to go further – the meaning of life, summoning more stress for yourself and with it the hypertension, the crooked neck, the flaky skin, the calcium deficiency and the other defects you have already begun to complain about to your friends. It’s not that the viruses have been so strong this year; it’s that we’ve gotten weaker.

Eternal winter

As if this wasn’t enough, winter has joined the effort to break us this year. Although in the past few days the sun has been benevolently shining on us, it cannot be trusted. Until a minute ago, it was freezing winter around here, the coldest one we’ve had since 2008, according to the meteorological service. On our WhatsApp group, a friend asked how we are dressing under these conditions, and everyone agreed that 2022 opened with a general sense of feeling encumbered and bogged down: “This year, I started putting wool on top of wool,” “I’ve got a thermal shirt on,” “Two layers, with a shell on top of them – the homeless look,” is how the social discussion signed off. Indeed, a few days later, the same friend was given a compliment by a homeless person.

When you are really 70 years old that lends you some perspective.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The same picture arises from the streets, from the coffee shops. Most people have given up. There was a time that Tel Aviv looked like a catwalk. Today, its residents look like something the cat dragged in. All right, winter is not a time to look your best, it’s the sabbatical season: it’s a mitzvah to put on weight, a mitzvah not to shave legs, to neglect your body, to let it rejuvenate beneath all those layers and to be re-sprung in the spring.

On the other hand, when a metaphoric winter has been going on for two years, and all of us have the shape of a down comforter, it can be downright depressing. The aspiration toward beauty (in its broad definition) and aesthetics signifies vitality, sexuality. Where is it all now? “I look like a cartoon character,” my partner said to me as he studied himself in the mirror. “I wear the same clothes all the time.”

When a metaphoric winter has been going on for two years, and all of us have the shape of a down comforter, it can be downright depressing.

One should also say something about the fact that the aging has become the greatest threat. “I do agree... that we have all aged. We’ve all gotten older during COVID in dramatic ways,” noted the psychologist and gerontologist Dr. Ken Dychtwald in an article on this subject in The New York Times. A lot of people in their 60s and older have continued to conduct an active routine even during the pandemic, he notes, and they haven’t let it dampen their spirits, because when you are really 70 years old, and not only claiming that you feel like you are, that lends you some perspective. “Older people are more inclined to feel gratitude for what they have experienced and what they have,” Dr. Dychtwald said. “Emotional intelligence rises as we age.”

I see it on the beach. The old men are the first ones to get into the water for their winter morning swim; the women are doing dance exercises on the sand. From here, retirement looks like a longed-for objective.

The bottom line is that we’ve managed to compensate ourselves for all the gifts that COVID has brought us. It closed down the skies? We’ve stepped up our use of deliveries and disposables; we’ve thrown a trillion antigen tests into the trash that will still be there even when our grandchildren have died. It has displaced us from the office cubicle, taught us a thing or two about our own priorities. Does anyone here even remember those days? But the idea that it has come to spring old age on us in an era of practical worship of youth, cultural infantilism and expressing oneself like a little child (all sins that I admit to having committed), already places it in a frame of poetic justice. It may be that this pandemic has nevertheless come to teach us something about humility.

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