*When I was eight years old, I witnessed a murder. Still in my cowboy pajamas that Sunday morning, November 24, 1963, I turned on the TV in our living room looking for “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
Instead, on the screen in real-time, I saw a stocky man wearing a dark suit and a light-colored fedora fire a black gun–it looked just like Dick Tracy’s!–into the stomach of a thin, handcuffed man in a dark sweater over a white shirt.
Fascinated, I remember feeling as if I’d just watched something I should not have seen. In any case, after that, it was clear to me that that morning, finding cartoons on any of Oklahoma City’s three channels was out of the question.
What I’d witnessed–the unintended live broadcast of Jack Ruby shooting alleged President John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald—served as the chilling epilogue to an emotional, action-packed weekend in American history. It began in Dallas two days earlier on Friday afternoon with the assassination of Kennedy, followed by the arrest of Oswald and the emergency swearing-in of vice-Present Lyndon Johnson as president aboard Air Force One. And that was just the weekend.
As a child, I distinctly remember the race riots of the early sixties. During the polio epidemic, I lined up with classmates in the nurse’s office at Carter G. Woodson Elementary to get the vaccine, which to our sheer delight, was administered via sugar cube.
I wept through the murders of the nation’s most iconic initials, JFK, MLK and RFK. I lost relatives in the Oklahoma City Bombing. And then there was 9/11.
My point: Much of the madness the nation and the world currently endures isn’t exactly new. Plenty of us can recall dramatic, frightening, heartrending events that each and every time felt like the end of the world.
Instead, it was simply something else to survive, persevere and come out on the other side of. We’ve always done this. We can do it again.
However, if you’re among those cheering the arrival of 2021 as if it were the calvary, stop now. The dastardly 2020 wasn’t a one-off. It boldly marked the onset of a period, an era.
Truth is, the next couple of years, in particular, are going to be, in a word, challenging. To get through what lies ahead, you—we–are going to have to do what humanity manages to do during every remarkably bleak moment in history. We rise up.
But there are some things you gotta do. Foremost: Adjust your frame of mind. An optimistic outlook is essential.
Focus on the positive. In turbulent times, optimism can be a difficult grasp. However, there are infinite reasons to be encouraged. Unless there is Internet in the hereafter, the fact that you’re reading this right now means you’re alive. Build on that.
Sometimes, when I need heartening, I’ll drop in on a middle-aged gentleman I’ve known for years now. When I ask him how he’s doing, there’s never this enervated, “Oh, I guess I’ll make it,” or any variation of that limping slogan, I could complain but nobody would listen. None of that. He’s brimming with upbeat avowals.
“If negativity is in your life,” he says as a matter of fact, “you can’t blame nobody but yourself, because negative thinking is a choice. Bad things happen to everybody, but they don’t have to consume us.”
It’s said that we have to meet people where they stand emotionally. I meet my friend literally where he lives, on the on-ramp of a Los Angeles freeway. This man–who, for bemused motorists could at any moment execute some slow-motion Michael Jackson moves–is homeless.
You gotta look after your physical self. Of course, you say. But bear in mind: we’re now living strategically. More than basic desire, staying healthy in the age of covid-19 has to be your high mission. During a TV interview, a doctor was asked how healthy people should take care of themselves today. His expert insights? “Don’t get sick.” That was it. He was serious.
Translation: Don’t do anything stupid that could send you to an already crowded emergency room. While chopping vegetables, don’t take off a finger. And whatever you do, don’t fall. Just don’t. That said, if you are in ill health, don’t be foolish–get yourself to a physician or the hospital.
Mask up. Happily. Follow the damn science. When your stomach digests food, that’s science. So is wearing a mask, social distancing and washing your hands often.
Meanwhile, America’s chief epidemic, systemic racism, seems to have gotten worse, but it really hasn’t. Subtle or blatant, hate is the same evil it’s always been. It’s just that every few years the ignorance swells, shamelessly and publicly, like a grotesque, abominable pimple.
How we burst that sucker today is how we’ve done it for generations: we transform our trauma, our pain and anger into an affirmative force. We keep in our hearts the divine truth that love conquers all. And we don’t take any mess. From nobody.
Even so, in this exigent era, having fun is imperative. Yes! Humans are nothing if not pliably resilient and stunningly resourceful, and you can have a good time in a pandemic. I’ve never laughed so hard as I have during calls with friends and family. Laughter means so much more now.
You can do things with people in person, just be smart about it. Science and common sense go together like a good rum and coca-cola. By the way, rum and coke—science, baby.
Finally: decide to make these trying times your footstool. Embrace this as the ultimate woodshed period. When all this is over or gets better, what’s going to be different about you? We all entered quarantine as caterpillars. Change your life and emerge as a beautiful, soaring butterfly.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]