'We still see silver linings'

With the world turned upside down, a young writer explains why he and his peers are focusing on the bigger picture.

Photograph by Jackie Russo, National Geographic
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Jordan Salama poses for a portrait in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. A freelance journalist, he is using this time to take a road trip with his brother, camping in national parks along the way.
Photograph by Jackie Russo, National Geographic

'We still see silver linings'

With the world turned upside down, a young writer explains why he and his peers are focusing on the bigger picture.

I’ll never forget where I was in early March, right before the world came crashing down. It feels, at the same time, like it was a hundred years ago and just last week.

I was in a remote corner of Patagonia, on an international postgraduate fellowship, living off-the-grid with an Argentine gaucho named Pereira. The virus seemed a concerning but still-distant concept, far away from where I was. I relished the idea of not seeing another human being besides Pereira for two days. There was something about escaping the crowded hustle of everyday life, of living minimally in the stead of a traditional shepherd, that was appealing; at night, I fell asleep to the sound of penguins yelping in a nearby cove.

Little did I know that such isolation would be the mandate of the world in the days and months that followed.

By the time I got back to my hometown of Pelham, just outside New York City, everything had changed. The state’s first National Guard “containment zone” went up in New Rochelle just a few blocks from my front door. My dad, foreseeing an onslaught of cases at Elmhurst Hospital—the public hospital in Queens where he is an infectious-disease doctor—decided it would be safer for us to stay apart for a while. Exactly one week after my stay with Pereira, on a Friday at 11pm, I drove to New Jersey to help evacuate my younger brothers from their college campus. We left my dad behind at home and, with my mother and grandmother, we fled.

It was a short but extraordinary span of time, one that has come to define so much of life during these past few months. In my essay for the November issue of National Geographic magazine, I write about how the virus has exacerbated so many of the challenges already facing my young generation—challenges for which there’s no end in sight—and how that has led many of us to use what little strength we have left to advocate forcefully for change. (Without ceremony, new college grads step into an uncertain workforce.)

It is tempting to focus on all of the tragedy of this time: the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, the ecosystems wrecked because of pandemic-induced negligence, the lives and futures thrown into shambles around the world. It would be easy to think about that, and only that. But I have spoken with many people about their experiences over the past half-year, and no matter how dire their situations—no matter if they have lost grandparents or seen steady jobs evaporate, no matter if their families have been thrown into financial uncertainty or if they are struggling with mental illness—they still tend, incredibly, to focus on the good instead of the bad. (COVID-19 and climate change will inform how Generation Z navigates the world as adults.)

That’s the key, I think: appreciating the silver linings while never losing sight of the plight of the world and of those in less-fortunate positions. Friends have expressed how happy they are to be back home, spending time with parents and siblings who were once a distance away. They’re glad to have rediscovered a passion for books; to have taken up yoga and ballet, or kayaking and long-distance running.

Because my father’s line of work heightens the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, my family has remained more isolated than most. But we still see silver linings.

Early in the pandemic, I started exchanging handwritten letters with friends near and far— a pastime that has blossomed into a wonderful collection of correspondence, in some cases with people with whom I might not now otherwise be in touch at all. For a time in April, when my cousin and her toddler children were quarantined with us, we had four generations of relatives—from great-grandmother to great-grandchildren—living together under one roof. And now, as I write these words, I am in a tent beneath the autumn stars on a hillside in the American West; my brother and I have been driving cross-country since earlier this month, camping and hiking all along the way.

The West reminds me of Patagonia in its vast, solitary landscapes abutting spectacular mountain peaks, and I cannot help but think back to my pre-virus mindset with the gaucho Pereira. I was struck then by the realization that out of solitude, however challenging and lonely it may be, can come a greater appreciation for the little things, and perhaps even other changes in perspective.

Now that isolation has been forced upon us, that realization seems crucial. As the pandemic stretches on, we’ll need to frame things in this appreciative way to make the most of the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s that kind of positive energy that has kept me going—kept us going—as the world has turned upside-down.