The Parts of Us That Will Die with COVID-19

Casting off
Casting off Illustration by Lightspring/Shutterstock

Casting off
Illustration by Lightspring/Shutterstock

If you’re searching and finding silver linings when it comes to COVID-19 and the inconvenient changes it’s caused society, you probably haven’t had someone close to you die from it. You’re exploring the bright side from a place of privilege. I hope it stays that way for all of us.

But when has realizing our privilege ever stopped us from using it? The truth is we shouldn’t stop trying to figure out what good could come from this bad situation, just because we’re not on the side of the suffering scale many New Yorkers find themselves.

I actually like that motivational figures are asking the shiny question, “What version of you will emerge from this?” from the podium of privilege. It holds as much weight as wondering if we’ll ever go to another concert or ball game again. We shouldn’t overlook the internal shifts that can be made in this moment. What changes about us may be undervalued when this is all said and done, because the events and experiences we miss so much rush back to our reality.

But we’re not there yet.

Quarantine causes self-reflection, so what have members of humanity realized about themselves? I’ll be more specific: If we have the fortune of getting out of this alive, which parts of us will die with the Coronavirus?

The Death of Career

Something started happening inside of me last year that I suppressed, but it reared its head in quarantine. Call it a Jerry Maguire moment: I grew a conscience. A client, who paid me handsomely to create community programs to help their corporation aid black and brown communities, asked whether they were “getting credit for the work.” Not in the sense of media coverage. We gave them tons of that. But in the sense of it being a driver for sales. And if their “corporate social responsibility” didn’t compel customers to buy, should we do it at all?

And I realized, at the core of me, I didn’t care if it drove sales for them or not, because it was the wrong question – at least within my value system that understands low-income black and brown customers have carried this massive company since inception. They can disagree with me all they want, but they owe investment in those communities, whether it sold more product or not.

“My” is an important word in this story because “my” is the mirror staring us in the face that we often choose not to look at when making decisions about our lives and what we choose to stress over professionally.

I’m staring at mine in quarantine and what needs to die inside of me is the marketer, which has been my profession and identity for a long time. The storyteller, the community organizer need to emerge and take front and center in my life, because that’s the only thing I truly care about: Telling stories about my community and helping it. I don’t know what that looks like for my marketing business or me just yet, but I know I’ll be living my truth, regardless of what the outside world looks like.

I hope that the thought of something outside of our door that kills two to three out of every 100 of us compels us to pursue our true love with reckless abandonment.

The Death of Trauma

Of course, not everyone has the privilege of being their own boss and making these decisions from one day to the next. Julieta, who wants to remain anonymous for reasons that will reveal themselves, is a single mom in her early 30s and lives in Houston.

Julieta got really sick with symptoms from the coronavirus a week ago, couldn’t get a test (because America), and had to isolate herself from her kids. In the middle of trying to recover, she got a call from her boss who told her the majority of the company had been let go. Her pay would be reduced. There were no assurances on her job being there two weeks from now. To top it off, she needed to conduct sales calls, which she has no experience in, but would be measured by.

I told her she was privileged just to have a job.

A few days later, still really sick, her boss hung up on her face when he heard her voice was still coarse from all the coughing, disappointed that she couldn’t make call-downs. She’d never felt more disposable and has been on edge since that hang-up.

“Business is business; I understand that,” Julieta confessed. “But where is the compassion? I was sick and afraid of dying and where is my company, where are my co-workers, where are my friends?” Julieta asked. “I had this moment of realization, that despite all the things and people I had prioritized, I was alone and no one was going to save me.”

The kind of treatment her employer displayed isn’t new for her – or him. Her father was highly-abusive physically and emotionally. Some of the men in her life have lived up to that. That’s contributed to Julieta not giving herself credit for climbing out of hell, getting a college education, establishing a career and purchasing a brand new home for her boys late last year.

Virtual therapy sessions and pursuing her real-estate license in quarantine is her drawing the line.

“I’m letting my old self die,” she said. “I’m going to shed skin and leave it alone. I’ll emerge from this more selfish, but not in a destructive way. The self-depreciation and self-destructiveness; I’m not going to do that to myself anymore. Becoming a different person doesn’t mean I won’t grieve for what happened to me. It means you won’t be the kind of person you were and choose to be more proud of yourself.”

If we have the misfortune of knowing what abuse looks like, I hope that in the stillness of quarantine, we have the fortune of recognizing it in our workplace. Furthermore, I hope we have Julieta’s courage of taking the steps to walk away from it.

click to enlarge CJ Johnson - PHOTO BY MARIANNA JAMADI
CJ Johnson
Photo by Marianna Jamadi

The Death of Ego

CJ Johnson is a 36-year-old single dad. He lives in Los Angeles. It’s hard to box CJ, but what I see is a remarkable influencer who brings products and experiences to life on social media for large companies. They pay him for his stamp of approval and to strategize their marketing. He writes for GQ magazine, gives keynote speeches on grand stages and takes his daughter everywhere. He’s an ambassador of cool.

And his entire life program, which was centered around the ability to get on a plane, came to a screeching halt when COVID-19 hit. You see, for CJ, like the editorial calendar that plans out his Instagram posts, he plans his life with precision and control. Before the pandemic, CJ was planning out 2020: Where he’d go, where he was speaking, who he’d see, when it would all happen.

“All the planning I was doing for myself was absolutely destroyed,” he said. “No traveling. No speaking. As a marketer or influencer, when [corporations] are strapped for cash and stop producing, what is there to market? Marketing is the first thing cut.”

CJ told me this was a “red pill, blue pill” moment for humanity. You’ll remember in the movie The Matrix, Neo is presented a red pill representative of an uncertain future, free of enslavement in a machine generated dream world, or a blue pill signifying the return to a beautiful prison of confined comfort inside a simulated reality. (If the parallel to current times don’t give you chills…)

“At the end of the day, things are not going back to where they were before,” he told me. “We must come to the realization that we will experience a new normal. People are going to choose the red pill or the blue pill and in either case there will be good and bad consequences, but regardless which you pick, you’re going to be faced with the reality of truth.”

I asked him, “So if you take the red pill, I imagine the need for control is dying inside of you, right?”

“I’d go one level deeper,” he responded. “My ego is dying.”

If ego is defined as a person’s self-esteem or self-importance, then people in CJ’s line of work, who have thousands of followers, have tons of it. But the world’s been turned upside down where giant basketball players were never smaller and once-invisible janitors and grocery cart pushers are heroes saving our lives. We’ve gone from a world of “How popular can you become?” to “How selfless can you be?”

“How beneficial is it to put together a typical social media post when people are dying all over the globe?” he asked. “How can I be upset at not getting a text from someone I expect to hear from when people are depressed all over the world? How can I be mad that I can’t plan a trip to Bali when people’s businesses and livelihoods have been shut down and may never come back? These realities strip me of my ego. The ego has to die.”

click to enlarge Maritza Huerta - PHOTO BY ANDY RAMIREZ
Maritza Huerta
Photo by Andy Ramirez

The Death of Self-Doubt

Clear across the country in Washington, DC, Maritza Huerta, the 33-year-old co-founder of public relations and event planning agency, The Twins PR, finds herself in an unexpected position. Her business isn’t dying because of the pandemic; it’s beginning to thrive. That’s because she’s not fighting change; she’s helping her clients bridge it, taking in-person events and making them virtual.

That solves a big problem for nonprofits or event companies who need to find a way to prevent corporations from pulling sponsorships from their galas and award shows due to COVID-19 repercussions.

“When something like this happens, it evens the playing field; everybody is fighting for survival,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is the best opportunity to shoot my shot,’ to go for that big idea, to think outside the box, to challenge our clients to do the same, because they don’t have a choice but to change.”

“We came up with a great solution that is in high demand, and that’s when self-doubt presented itself,” she added. Meaning, in quarantine, she began to wonder if she could really deliver.

That high demand solution of making events virtual was stumbled upon by Maritza through an act of selflessness. Using new software, she organized a virtual panel of think tanks, nonprofits and government agencies to point Latino-owned businesses to the tools and resources to survive in this disrupted marketplace. If this was any other kind of crisis, she may have organized an event to do the very same thing at a physical venue. She went into unchartered waters and made it happen.

After, client prospects wanted to know if she could do the same thing for them. That’s when things got real for Maritza.

“I think it’s embedded in our culture to doubt ourselves thinking somebody out there can do this better and faster,” she admitted. “We are all at the starting line together and it’s like, ‘who is not going to be afraid to take off full force and who is going to wait around, map it out, and get left behind?’”

“If I present a new solution and it doesn’t work out, I have a lot on the line,” she added.

A few days later, I texted Maritza to see whether one of her big clients had responded to her proposal. They hadn’t. I texted back asking her if self-doubt still persisted in her mind. She responded that she wasn’t “harping on it.”

“I’m a big believer in doing the right thing and the rest will work itself out,” she texted back with more self-assurance than when I spoke to her days prior. “Mom always said, ‘What’s meant for me will be.’”

Exactly 16 minutes later, she sent me another text: “Client just emailed us. Wants to schedule a follow up call this week.”

The privilege of a silver lining.

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Contributor Rolando Rodriguez is the co-founder of Trill Multicultural.