Cycling once made me feel free unlike anything else. I loved the sensation of slicing through the air, flying past pedestrians and cars stalled in traffic. Where I live (in Melbourne’s inner north), the best way to get around is by bike.
One sunny Sunday in March last year, my partner and I set off to explore the city. As I approached an intersection near our home, I felt some fear, as I always did with cars nearby. Out of the corner of my eye I watched an SUV driving alongside me, worried it would turn suddenly and hit me across the side.
As I accelerated to avoid that danger, another car made an illegal turn ahead of me, blocking the bike path. I remember yelling, hearing the crunch of my body hitting the car – but after that there’s a gap.
“Blacking out” is a good name for it. We spend roughly eight hours each day in a state of semi-consciousness. However, as our half-remembered dreams remind us, the mind remains active while we’re asleep. This felt different, a forcible blank.
The next thing I knew, I was picking myself off the asphalt, rushing to drag myself out of an eight-lane thoroughfare before another wave of traffic arrived.
An unreliable mind
At first I thought my injuries were only musculoskeletal, but within a week my head started hurting – and it hasn’t stopped since. Although I was wearing a helmet, I’d suffered a mild traumatic brain injury. Whereas most people recover completely within weeks, some cases take longer to resolve. I am in that minority.
For a year my headache was piercing, a constant intrusion. Now it simply pervades, colouring everything. What’s worse, sustained concentration intensifies my headache and makes me feel woozy.
In the first few months, chatting with a friend would leave me exhausted after just a few minutes. Even now, as my brain tires, it becomes harder to find the right words.
I have learned how claustrophobic chronic pain can become, but for me this wasn’t the worst of it. Because writing and thinking are at the centre of my life, it broke my heart to find that my mind was unreliable. It’s not just that it was harder to connect with others – I felt alienated even from myself.
I have sometimes found it difficult to keep hope, cut off from the future I had imagined. However, in my loneliest moments I was sustained by the care of doctors, nurses, friends and neighbours.
This experience of unexpected connection has transformed me in ways I couldn’t predict. Before my accident I enjoyed the unconscious confidence of the chronically well. I knew that everyone’s health runs out eventually, but somehow that seemed like a problem for other people.
Now, I carry a constant reminder that disaster can come for any of us. As a result, I have a renewed conviction that everyone should have the support required for a flourishing life. This is important because we are all vulnerable, and we all rely on others. However, it is particularly urgent in the context of the ongoing pandemic.
According to the best estimates, the pandemic has killed 20 million people and left millions more with long-term respiratory, cardiac and neurological symptoms. Faced with figures like these, fatalism is an understandable response. After all, COVID is a global force that even the most conscientious individual can’t do much to change.
At the same time, COVID reminds us we aren’t just individuals – the ebb and flow of case numbers makes clear that our wellbeing is interconnected. Much as my recovery has shown we are all knit within networks of support, the pandemic is an opportunity to imagine a world in which no one is left behind.
As I have found, each individual is limited, but there is power in solidarity.
Love and marmalade
For most of my life, I was confident I would be able to address whatever challenges I’d face. After my accident, however, my capacities were suddenly altered, and so I found myself reliant on others.
The help I needed was, first of all, practical. Within moments of my collision, I had to get out of the road despite being in a state of extreme disorientation. For that I have to thank a stranger whose name I no longer remember.
In the following months, I received care from a number of specialists: physicians, physiotherapists, a speech pathologist, a neuropsychologist, an occupational therapist, and others. I’m much better off than I would have been without them, but at the same time I have seen the limits of medicine. There is no pill to magically make my symptoms disappear. Instead, my carers have taught me to manage while waiting for slow, unsteady improvements.
I am lucky to live in a society that promises broad access to medical care. Even so, due to my injury I found the logistics of my treatment overwhelming, and so my partner managed the details. Two weeks after my accident, however, she had an accident of her own. Just when my resources were lowest, I spent a week by her bed in hospital, waiting for surgery to reconstruct her shattered jaw.
With both of us stricken, the care we received from friends and neighbours was astonishing. Many people left soup on our doorstep, and those who lived too far away sent some instead. For months we rested in the knowledge that we didn’t need to worry about what was for dinner. During a time when we were overwhelmed by the weight of each day, this made life a little easier, but it also meant something more.
At my lowest moment, several months in, two parcels arrived on the same day. Both contained care package standards: herbal tea, biscuits, a mug, and so forth. (For variety, there was also one jar of a “gentleman’s relish” made from pulverised anchovies.)
As I opened the second box, I broke down and sobbed for several minutes.
In itself, the marmalade I held in my hand didn’t change my situation. However, the fact that someone had thought to send it to me cut through the fog and funk I was feeling. This was love, and it gave me a line to life.
Worlds bigger than my imagination
A year before my accident, I’d published my first book, Hope in a Secular Age. It was the culmination of two decades in higher education – first as a student, then as a scholar. I loved feeling the pulse of a quicksilver conversation, mustering the imagination to help it forward, but after my accident this was beyond me.
For most of a year I found myself unable to sustain the concentration required to contribute to my discipline. In fact, reading so much as a page would wreck me. Having lost the person I had worked to become, the life I hoped for seemed out of reach.
I write about hope because I believe it is difficult but indispensable. In my book, I reflect on the affinity between atheism and faith, reconsider the place of religion in politics, and trace the thread that connects medieval mysticism and postmodern theory. Most of all, however, I meditate on our capacity to persist even though the future is fragile.
We all have desires that are vulnerable to disappointment. It’s the reason the people we love and the causes we care about can break our hearts – whether because we don’t get what we want or (even worse) because we do, but it wasn’t what we expected.
In the book I argue that hope is what enables us to hold these desires even though we don’t know how things will turn out. To say “I hope” acknowledges that we aren’t sure whether what we want will come to pass, but hope doesn’t take this as a cause to quit. Instead, it endures without guarantees.
The challenges I’ve faced are small compared to what some people experience, but they have tested my capacity for endurance. I spent so much of my life trying to contribute to the world through my work, but suddenly I couldn’t work any more.
Because my aspirations seemed out of reach – for how long, I did not know – there were days when I found it difficult to imagine what my life was for.
I can now see that my symptoms were improving even then, but at the time any change was imperceptible. Without hope I was becalmed, untethered from the tug of the future.
But in retrospect, the hopes I had for my work were always too narrow, too tightly tied to systems of labour and reward. In contrast, that jar of marmalade carried the promise of breakfast but also a love that was offered freely, regardless of what I could offer in return.
An everyday gift reminded me that I am held within worlds that are bigger than my imagination.
Although hope is a capacity that each of us has, no one hopes alone. The care I received gave me the energy to reconsider what my life is for, and this expanded vision put solidarity at the centre. As I have found, even our very resilience is sustained by the support of others.
In Western societies, we often picture politics as a conglomeration of atoms, each independent in itself. On this view, we are autonomous from the outset; the question is when and how we come together for the purpose of cooperation. This focus on the individual has won important protections for sexual and racial minorities. However, my experience suggests that imagining each person as isolated distorts what human life is like.
Each of us was born unable to provide for ourselves, but someone fed us. As adults, we all rely on complex networks that enable us to access shelter, food, and everything else we require but can’t create on our own. For this reason, feminist theorists like Judith Butler conclude that we are linked in relations of interdependence.
Before my accident I imagined myself as fairly self-sufficient, but now I have seen how deeply I rely on the support of others. As I have described, in those moments when my hope ran dry, others renewed me. It is not simply that relationships enrich my life: interdependence is essential to who I am.
If this is true, we owe each other more than we often acknowledge. In a medical crisis, many people are disoriented by pain and fear, just as I was, but they don’t have the support I enjoyed. Not everyone lives in a community where people bring soup to their neighbours in need. Not everyone has a partner who can spend hours navigating the healthcare system. In many places, medical care is a privilege only the wealthy can afford.
My life would have been limited without the care I received, but this shouldn’t be a question of luck. This is the central lesson of my recovery: if everyone exists by virtue of their connection to others, we must work to ensure everyone has the support they need to flourish.
Imagining a more equal world
As it stands, in both the United States (my birthplace) and Australia (my home), the wealthy live longer, healthier lives than those who are poorer. This was true before the pandemic, but COVID has made these inequalities worse.
Australians living in poverty have been three times more likely to die from the coronavirus than the wealthy. In the US, Indigenous, Black, and Latino Americans are between one and a half times and twice as likely to die of COVID as white Americans. Recent research shows that disadvantaged groups are also more likely to be impacted by the ongoing burden of long COVID.
Although the available vaccines greatly reduce one’s chance of dying from COVID, it remains a significant danger. Over the past year, the high number of infections have made COVID a leading cause of death among the young as well as the old.
At the same time, even a mild or asymptomatic infection can have lasting consequences. The US Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five adults develop a new health problem following a COVID infection (such as heart disease, fatigue, or kidney failure), while a recent study sets the figure at 12.7%. Studies indicate that vaccination provides limited protection against long COVID, and it appears that the risks increase with each reinfection.
These risks continue to fall heaviest on those who were already disadvantaged. Those with less wealth have greater difficulty accessing health care, and they face greater exposure to the virus. In addition, these people are at particular risk because the rest of us depend on them.
While some of us are able to work from home during periods of high transmission, we require “essential workers” to staff our warehouses, factories and grocery stores. In many cases, they are compelled to risk infection by economic necessity: because many low-income workers don’t have access to paid sick leave, they are more likely to be exposed to a coworker who is contagious.
COVID has made existing inequalities worse, but it is also a reminder that we rely on the labour of communities we sometimes forget. For this reason, the pandemic is an invitation take seriously our interdependence by imagining a more equal world.
The global web of wellbeing
Here in Melbourne, the first year of the pandemic was hard. We spent months in lockdown, which is an experience I do not wish to relive. However, the very pressure of that period reminded us we were working together to flatten the curve, support the hospital system, and protect the vulnerable.
I believe we have the capacity to rediscover this sense of common purpose. As I have described, the workplace has been a key site of COVID transmission, and this has left vulnerable communities at particular risk. In response, many unions have argued that employers have a duty to keep their employees safe from COVID, and there is evidence that their work has reduced infection and morality rates.
In keeping with this vision of coordinated action, health experts have argued that, although vaccination is enormously important, more must be done. Crucially, rather than returning to the heavy-handed approach we saw early in the pandemic, these recommendations emphasise the need for effective supports.
Because studies have shown mask wearing in public reduces COVID transmission, experts argue governments should provide high-quality masks (as the state of Victoria has recently done). Since N95 masks (or equivalent) are far more protective than cloth or surgical masks, experts encourage governments to educate the public about their importance. We also need free home tests, income support for those who are unwell, and improved indoor air in public spaces through ventilation and filtration.
Implementing these measures at the state or national level would do a great deal to reduce the harms caused by COVID, but the web of wellbeing is global as well. Although only 12% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, wealthy countries have thrown out many millions of doses in recent months.
This harms people living in lower-income countries (who are twice as likely to die from the virus), but it also makes all of us unsafe. Since unchecked transmission enables new variants of the virus to emerge, it is in everyone’s interest to vaccinate the world.
Because COVID is so contagious, it requires a collective response. As we have seen, insisting upon personal responsibility in place of public health leads to high levels of transmission, death, and disability.
In this way, COVID underlines what I have learned from my slow recovery: because we are all connected, each of us will do best if we all have the support required to flourish.
Rupture and recovery
In my own life, I experience hope as a restlessness that won’t let me go.
For a year following my accident, it wasn’t clear whether and when I would be able to write again. There were times when I wished I could give up the hope to find the fluency that used to be mine, but the desire was lodged too deeply within me.
I don’t know how my recovery will progress from here, and I’m keenly aware of what I’ve already lost. Still, I am trying to embrace the idea that – along with this insistent headache – the experience has left me with something worth preserving.
I think the pandemic presents us all with a similar possibility. Like my injury, it is in no way a good thing. Compared with the challenges I have faced, the suffering caused by COVID is staggering. Still, as a rupture with the normal run of things, it invites us to radical imagination.
Before the pandemic, our world was unequal in many ways. COVID has made these inequalities worse, but it has also made things fragile. Since we have seen that things can change in a flash, we have the chance to work for a world animated by the power of solidarity.
David Newheiser, Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, Australian Catholic University