People are weaned from Hollywood endings and at the moment are dealing with a messy one

There will be a day – maybe even a day in the next few months – that Americans will wake up …

There will be a day – maybe even a day in the next few months – that Americans will wake up, emerge from their homes, throw away their masks, and resume their lives. On this day, the 2020-21 major coronavirus pandemic is over.

Ridiculous, right? A completion that one can only wish for, but which is highly unlikely.

Here’s the problem with anticipating the end of the pandemic: no one is sure what that end will look like, or when it will happen – or even if we know when we see it.

Will it be when most of the country is vaccinated? When all schools come back for sure? When the hospitals COVID beds are empty? When American stadiums are full for a summer baseball game? When will Disneyland reopen? When wearing a mask seems strange again?

“I don’t know I see a certain ending,” says Erica Rhodes, a Los Angeles comedian who has found unique ways to step through the pandemic. “I don’t foresee a moment when I say, ‘Oh, everything is exactly as it was.'”

The kind of finish the coronavirus has in store for tired Americans has no definite end. This is a difficult pill for a nation that has trained long – in some cases literally – to await well-defined and often optimistic conclusions for convoluted sagas.

“Finding light in the dark is a very American thing,” President Joe Biden said this month. “Indeed,” he said, “it is perhaps the most American thing we do.”

The problem is that the actual world often does not conform. Sure, movies can be as free as “Independence Day,” when a ragged group of Americans led by Will Smith defeat the invading enemy. True life? More like the conclusion of “The Sopranos”, when everything goes black, forever unsolved, when Journey sings that “the film never ends, it goes on and on and on and on”.

The clarity of the ends

The American brand of the end – borrowed from classic Greek storytelling that has been industrially fortified over four generations by Hollywood and Madison Avenue – looks something like this: A story ends with a certain resolution, usually after some action, good heroism, or great Exploits. temporal character development and usually at a specific, recognizable point in time.

Are we moving towards it with the pandemic? Almost certainly not. And the gradual nature of things devours the works because it isn’t over until it is over, and even then it might not be over.

“Since we don’t have that clarity, we’re not used to it,” says Phil Johnston, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director who worked on Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia.

“I suppose everyone made their own version of this ‘movie’,” he says, offering his own: “I was able to see a series of transitions over a long period of time. A man leaves his house. He takes off his mask. He’s sitting in a restaurant, and then it’s time, those long Mondays, and this guy sits down and realizes, “Oh, that’s life. Life is back to normal.”

All sorts of meaningful things that people today endure have no definite endings. Climate change. The “war on terror”. Persistent racism and sexism and homophobia. These stories are fading, but since they are not viewed as specific “events” they are often viewed differently.

Something like the pandemic, despite its lengthy nature, falls straight into the public and media bucket of an “event,” and that brings with it certain expectations. Among them is a discreet ending.

“We have this human tendency to structure our life events into action points. It helps us create a world that is more interpretable and predictable, ”says Kaitlin Fitzgerald, a PhD student at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, who studies the role emotions play in the consumption of stories.

“But as we know in the real world, restoration is not a linear process and there is no well-defined ending,” she says. “These popular media narratives show that they happen in a matter of minutes. That affects our expectations of how things should end. And when those expectations don’t match reality, it’s difficult. “

Elaine Paravati Harrigan, Fitzgerald’s research partner and assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College, broke into the same attitudes last year when she taught her Psychology In A Pandemic course.

“Without any blueprint, we just live life. And that can be confusing and overwhelming, ”she says. “If I can think that there is an arch, a blueprint that will help me understand my journey, it will help me find meaning in my everyday life.”


Children have been a particular focus of this type of attention over the past year as adults in their lives help them achieve a positive end to the pandemic without giving false hope.

“I think it’s going to be a real challenge for the adults to figure out this endgame piece. And it will be a challenge not to raise attitudes among children, ”said Chuck Herring, director of diversity, justice, and inclusion for the South Fayette School District near Pittsburgh.

“People always talk about when it ends, when it gets back to normal. I tell them it won’t go back to normal. At least not in the way many people think, ”says Herring.

However, the concept of an end exists for a reason: people need markers in their lives to show that they have experienced things, that they are transitioning from one phase to another, that what they endure somehow makes sense.

For this reason, Jennifer Talarico, who studies how people remember personally experienced events, suggests that even if there is no actual moment in which it will end, it is still important to find a way to mark the pandemic .

“I am thinking of VE Day or VJ Day. This is clearly not the end of the war; it took longer than that. But we have big community celebrations these days, ”said Talarico, professor of psychology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

“We build relationships based on what we have in common, although your story and mine are unique and may not have been shared at the time. Sharing history becomes the way we know each other, ”she says. “So,” Where did you go for Memorial Day or Pandemicpalooza or whatever? “Telling this story for younger generations years later can be a shared moment.”

In the end, managing pandemic expectations is, so to speak, an exercise in postponing, coping with everyday life without losing sight of the big things that could get better. Memory of the lost. Anchor yourself in the details without losing the larger plot. Make sense. Much, one could say, like a film.

We will then leave you with two quotes uttered by two very different writers half a century apart.

The first is from the little narrator of “When the Pandemic Ends”, a children’s book by Iesha Mason from 2020: “I will be so happy when we are over this crisis,” she says.

The second comes from science fiction writer Frank Herbert: “There is no real ending,” he said. “It’s just where you stop the story.”

Which for the purposes of our story is about endings right here. Even if the story of the pandemic continues.


Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation at The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at

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