Americans Reflect on How the Pandemic Has Changed Them

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The pandemic has reshaped our reality. To gain a better understanding of this transformation, Elizabeth Dias and Audra D. S. Burch, correspondents for the National desk, recently spoke with people across the country about their own experiences. They posted a callout to readers online, conducted interviews to hear from a range of voices and collected these accounts in the article “Who We Are Now.” Ms. Dias and Ms. Burch shared what they learned in their reporting and how they, themselves, have changed during this time. Read a lightly edited excerpt below.

How did this story come about?

ELIZABETH DIAS Over the past year, I have been reporting on the crisis of spirit that the pandemic has wrought. People everywhere have had to confront mortality and the deepest questions humans have about life, death and suffering. The editor of the National desk, Jia Lynn Yang, and I talk often about what it all means, and this story grew from one of those conversations into a collaboration with Audra and our photo editor Heather Casey. The theme of transformation is a deeply spiritual one, and we wanted to hear from people who are living differently now and could share those stories with us.

How did you work with photography for this story?

DIAS It was a collaboration from the very start. Art can give voice to moments in our lives when words fail. The images and words together offer a journey for readers to reflect on their own lives.

What were you looking for in your callout to readers?

AUDRA D. S. BURCH We tried to frame the questions in a way that would force people to ponder what this year has meant to them, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. I think even the exercise of responding to the callout was its own journey. Some people were clearly grappling with who they had become in a year’s time and, in coming out of the “darkness,” what they wanted for themselves. I can’t tell you how many people thanked us for exploring what the pandemic has conjured. Probably midway through reading the entries, I remember thinking, in some ways, this really feels like a public service.

What did you find most interesting about the responses?

DIAS So many people found the process of reflection enormously hard, or even impossible. It revealed to me just how difficult it is to face feelings, much less to change as a result of them, and how little collective language there is to help us talk about these deep issues. Realizing that helped me to think about how this story might help readers through that process.

BURCH I think I was most surprised by the bookends, the people willing to reveal their deepest thoughts and experiences on one end of the spectrum and the people who — even though they were participating — were clearly in a kind of private holding pattern and unwilling or unable to process the pandemic’s emotional or spiritual toll.

Were there certain themes that you heard again and again?

DIAS So many people were wrestling with home, wanting to return to the central core of who they are and where they are from. Over and over, people were re-evaluating their most important relationships, where they want to live, and how they want to be in the world.

What changes do you think we will see as a result of this time?

DIAS The most honest answer is, I don’t know. I hope we will be able to remember the shared humanity that this year has revealed, and help one another on that journey. But it is also true that the clarity that comes with intense suffering often clouds as time moves on — it is a reason we did this story, to name the transformation visible in this moment.

BURCH I think the great challenge is how long we can hang on to the clarity that such an event brought and how long the truths we discovered this year will shape our lives.

Was there anything you often thought about in the course of working on this story?

BURCH I thought about death. A lot. One of the people I interviewed for the story was Joelle Wright-Terry. She is a Covid survivor. Her husband died of Covid last April. Her story stayed with me. I thought often of what it must feel like to have your family crushed by this virus and the enduring trauma of loss.

DIAS I often thought about narratives of apocalypse and awakening in spiritual literature, and how woven they are with suffering. So often, beings had to die to be reborn, like the phoenix, the ancient bird that burst into flames and then rose from the ashes.

How have you, personally, changed during this time?

DIAS One of the most amazing things in doing all these interviews was hearing echoes of my feelings in the stories of so many other people, with so many different life experiences, from anger to loneliness to newfound strength. It helped me feel less alone, and to take heart.

BURCH The process of working on this story offered its own kind of comfort. I also saw myself in so many of the narratives shared, from feeling afraid to feeling helpless to feeling unmoored as we trudged through the pandemic month after month.