Black Sheep, Your Time is Coming to Shine

Black Sheep, Your Time is Coming to Shine

You’re not alone.  I feel it too. 

Everything – and I mean everything – just feels heavier right now.  We’re trudging into our 5th year of the Covid-19 pandemic.  We’ve lost access to almost every bit of the data we've depended upon to inform our decisions. We've watched as the kids in our lives got sick yet again within days of starting back to school last month. Many of us have spent the past several weeks calling pharmacies in hopes of finding an updated vaccine.  A lot of us are still waiting and praying it won’t be too much longer. We’ve already been warned that hospitals will be just as strained, if not worse, this winter due to the inevitable surge of respiratory viruses.  Meanwhile, many hospitals remain ‘mask optional’ at this time.

Most people couldn’t care less about any of that.  They’re back to normal and don’t want to hear anything about a virus that disrupted our lives in 2020, killing almost 7 million people worldwide and disabling countless millions more.

When you bring it up, you get ignored. Or openly mocked.  Or you’re told to seek professional help.  You might have even been called a freak.  Norms are defined by the majority in any community and we’re the outliers who don’t conform when it comes to Covid. We’re not normal. We’re not thinking or behaving or existing like most people.  We’re the proverbial black sheep of this pandemic.

We are the freaks.

This Ted Talk might just change the way you feel about being a freak. It’s funny and lighthearted, but hits you with a really profound message.  David Rendall, author of ‘The Freak Factor: Discovering Uniqueness by Flaunting Weakness’ asserts that our weaknesses are also our strengths. Whether we see them as the former or latter is all dependent on the situation.

I find it fascinating how diverse the Covid-conscious community is. We come from all walks of life from around the globe, representing a wide variety of religions, races and ethnicities, genders, age groups, health statuses…

But there’s something we all have in common. 

We’re all different from most everyone we know.  Like black sheep-different. Like we’ve never really fit in with ‘normal’ people and we’ve been hyperaware of it all our lives.

I can't help but notice how many of us are neurodivergent. We have a hard time conforming because our minds work differently than those of our peers. Many of us also have disabilities or physical limitations. Some were born with bodies that don’t align with their authentic selves. Others have studied, worked, and lived in places where they had a different skin color or grew up speaking a different language from everyone else. We’ve always stood out from the crowd because of things we couldn’t change or control.

I learned at an early age just how shitty it can be to not fit in.  As a child I had severe asthma. Allergy testing revealed that I was allergic to pretty much everything on planet earth, so I spent much of my childhood in and out of doctor’s offices, specialty clinics and hospitals. Years of immunotherapy shots, breathing treatments, and a daily medication regimen of numerous pills, sprays and inhalers made it possible for me to leave the house and attend school.

One of the first things I learned in Kindergarten is that I was different. My peers didn’t have the same struggles I did.  They didn’t have puffy faces and bloated bodies from all the steroids.  They could play during recess without having to stop and use a rescue inhaler. They had the strength to climb on the jungle gym and swing from the monkey bars.  When I tried that shit, I ended up on the ground with broken bones.

As if my health issues weren’t isolating enough, I also discovered early on that my brain was a bit different too. I entered Kindergarten reading at a 2nd grade level.  (When you've spent much of your childhood up until that point sitting in clinic waiting rooms that are full of books, you pick up reading faster than your peers do.) By 1st grade I was writing stories and reading them to my class. For a long time, my parents and teachers thought I was just a really smart kid.

My 2nd grade year was different. Things were changing. I’d get in trouble for drawing and doodling on my papers, even though I was a straight A student. I hated sitting still. I couldn’t sit still. My mind was moving at a different speed than everyone else’s and it compelled me to do weird shit that made people uncomfortable. While all the other kids in my class could sit and listen attentively, I'd be tapping my feet on the floor and twirling my finger around strands of my hair till chunks of it would fall out and leave me with bald spots.  I had a relentless need to draw, write, build, create. My teachers didn’t know what to do with me.  They tried sending me to gifted class, which isolated me from my peers and made me even more of a weirdo. I hated it so much that year after year, I would beg my parents to pull me out of the program. They would, much to the dismay of my teachers, who I suspect referred me into the program just to get a break twice a week from me and my bullshit.

“It must be the steroids,” they would say. “Such a shame, that one is so smart, but just not right.”

One day a person showed up at my elementary school with a parrot.  They walked the huge, colorful bird from classroom to classroom, where it wowed students and teachers alike with its talking and whistling and doing tricks on command.  I was so excited when the parrot and its handler appeared at our classroom door.  We all were.

But then my teacher rushed the door and stopped them from entering.  “Sorry,” she apologized. “I have a student with allergies and asthma so we can’t have any animals in here.”

Every child in that classroom let out a primal, angry cry of disappointment.  Some literally broke into tears. The kid behind me kicked the back of my chair as hard as he could.

“I hate you!” he yelled at me.

I realized something in that moment.  Not only did it suck to be different; it could get me hurt.

So I stopped trying to fit in.  I gave up on the hope of belonging. I decided to become my own best friend since no one else wanted that job.  Throughout my school years, I kept my distance from my peers. I found quiet places to sit by myself during recess and breaks. I fell to the back of the line on the way to the cafeteria each day.  I ate lunch with my nose buried in a book or doodling on a piece of notebook paper.  I did all those things that soothed my restless mind and stayed far enough away from everyone else that no one felt threatened by my differences.  It served me well. I survived childhood and made it through much of my adult years by embracing my place as a black sheep who didn’t belong with the rest of the herd. It was a lonely path at times, and there were plenty of people along the way reminding me how abnormal and weird it was for me to be such a loner.

All my life, I saw it as weakness.

Then came Covid-19.

I knew I had to avoid it all costs. The virus would worsen my existing lung disease at best, or kill me at worst.  I committed myself to limiting my risk as much as possible, staying on top of the news, and getting vaccinated as soon as I could. I remember how, in the early days of the pandemic, it wasn’t so hard to stay cautious.  I remember how much solidarity there was as many of us settled into virtual work and school.  We connected with friends and family over FaceTime and Zoom and dropped off Thanksgiving dinner and holiday gifts on porches. We all wore masks when we had to venture out in public, and the few who refused to mask were the assholes back then.  We were doing what our leaders had told us to do.  We were conforming to the behavior of our peers.  It was normal.

I remember the joy we all felt with the first vaccine rollout, and how we had high hopes that getting our shots would allow us to dodge the deadly virus and get back to our pre-pandemic lives. Then came the collective letdown, the sigh of disappointment heard around the world when we learned that even though our vaccines could spare us from severe acute illness, they weren't so good at preventing infections. In spite of that news, most people were done with being cautious.  They wanted pre-2020 normal back.  Our leaders wanted the pre-2020 economy back. So when those with authority shrugged their shoulders, took off their masks, and said “fuck it, it’s time to get back to normal,” most people gladly accepted that message as the end of the pandemic. Getting back to normal was the new normal.

Those of us who knew better chose to continue following evidence-based measures for avoiding infection. The virus was no less of a danger.  It hadn’t changed.  We weren’t about to change either.  In making the choice to stay the course until a true end of viral transmission was in sight, we departed from normal.  It was nothing new for us.

We’re black sheep. 

 At first, people were sympathetic and understanding when we refused to abandon precautions.  When we declined invitations to in-person events and gatherings, they offered us virtual options. Even though they wouldn’t mask anymore, they accepted us when we masked in public.  When their tolerance ran out, they still recognized many of us were hesitant to return to normal because of health issues.  Healthcare settings remained sacred places where precautions were still required.

Then all of that changed too.  But we, the black sheep, didn’t.  We adapted.  We started building community with fellow Covid-conscious people online.  We created networks to share information and resources.  We pushed back on our leaders every time they took steps to dismantle the systems and mitigations that had kept us safe. We refused the premature return to normal because we knew the consequences would be disastrous.

We knew it was getting dangerous to be different so we distanced ourselves from the herd.

And now the herd is doing everything it can to force us to join them in pre-2020 normal. Why can’t they just let us black sheep be? Why would they punish and shun us for continuing to take the same measures that kept all of us safe just a few years ago?

By now, you’re probably heard about normalcy bias, which drives human beings to minimize threats, underestimate the potential for harm, and underprepare for disaster.  The familiar meme of the smiling dog who insists everything is fine while his house burns down around him – that’s normalcy bias at work. Most people are so prone to normalcy bias they will cling to normal even when they can see that things clearly aren’t normal.  Being part of the majority that dismisses threats and warnings makes individuals feel like they’re right.  There’s safety in numbers, so they stick with the herd. That’s what around 70% of people do in a crisis, research shows.  (Jessica Wildfire does an amazing job of explaining this phenomenon in her post It’s Not Cool to Overreact.)

Sometimes normalcy bias is so strong, people feel the need to actively defend normal. Rather than protecting themselves from threats, they protect normal from threats.

We black sheep are a threat to normal.

We’re not the only threat.  The world has changed and no matter how hard people try to block it out, deep down, there's a growing awareness that something isn’t right. We all know someone who has a lingering cough since getting Covid again several months ago. Their primary doctor wants them to see a cardiologist about the weird arrhythmia they’ve been having, but the soonest they can get an appointment is 4 months down the road. They’re having a tough time remembering things.  Their kids have never struggled before in school, but they are now.  Mistakes are being made regularly and things are falling through the cracks at work.  They’ve been to an obscene number of funerals over this past year.  Their car insurance premiums have doubled, because wrecks in their zip code have doubled according to the insurance guy. When they hop on a plane to take a vacation from all the stress of normal life, their fellow passengers are passing out or shitting in their seats.  

There is evidence all over the headlines that affirms that these not-so-normal things are happening at a population level:

o   Increased medical errors due to staffing shortages

o   What is cardiac arrest and why it happens to young athletes

o   The FAA is investigating more alarming airplane disasters

o   Why are emergency departments closing?

o   National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) early estimates show record increase in fatalities worldwide

o   U.S. crime is still dramatically higher than before the pandemic

o   New data shows long Covid is keeping as many as 4 million out of work

o   ACT reports record low scores as admissions landscape shifts

We're headed into the 5th year of this pandemic. And while many try to blame staying at home for much of 2020, or vaccines, or even masks for causing these problems, there are mountains of damning evidence which show the SARS-Cov-2 virus is to blame.  It's still running rampant, still mutating, still getting better and better at escaping immunity and causing infections. What will the world look like in another four years?  Or half that time… or even in a year?  We won’t be any closer to pre-2020 normal.  We’ll be miles away from it, headed in the wrong direction.

This isn’t sustainable.

The herd knows it in their gut.  They really, really don’t want to believe it. They don’t want to let go of normal. They’re pissed off that normal isn’t so normal anymore. But they can’t lash out at headlines.  They can’t lash out at their coworkers for making mistakes when they know they’re making them too. They can’t lash out at the cardiology practice that can’t work them in for another 4 months, or their favorite restaurants that are closed more often than not due to staff shortages, or the people who are passing out and vomiting and shitting their pants in public.

They don’t know it yet, but they’re grieving the death of normal.  Denial is the first stage of grief.  They’ve been there for a long, long time. 

Now they’re getting angry.

Someone has to pay for all this.  And you, black sheep, are the easiest target.  

They’ve mounted a wall around their pre-2020 normal world and they’re fiercely defending it. When they see you in a mask, the fortress they’ve worked so hard to build starts to crumble.  You remind them that they used to wear masks and take precautions too.  You remind them that things haven’t been the same since they stopped.  You remind them of the scientific articles and studies you’ve forwarded.  The screenshots you’ve sent of dashboards showing data trending in the wrong direction. The quotes from infectious disease experts as they sound alarms and call for the return of protective measures.  If you and all those studies and data and expert opinions are right, then that means they’re wrong.   

They can’t be wrong.  The stakes are too high.  There are life or death implications. If you would just jump that fucking wall and join them, it would really put their minds at ease. Since you won’t do it voluntarily, they’re trying their hardest to force you.  They’re finding it’s not as easy as they thought it would be. Black sheep won’t budge. We just don't.

We are nothing, if not consistent.

Do you know why sheep farmers have always considered black sheep to be less valuable? They’ve been stigmatized because their wool can’t be dyed. It holds its natural color, no matter how much one might try to alter it. You can’t change the color of the wool. You can’t change the sheep. 

It’s a fitting parallel for the Covid-conscious community.  We are some stubborn motherfuckers. We look to facts and logic to drive our decisions and behavior, not emotion. Not peer pressure.  Not the allure of normal. We are comfortable with being non-conformists when the truth is this clear. Until there is evidence that shows that Covid is no longer the threat is now, we don’t change our approach.

I sometimes think about the day in school when I became the asshole who kept the whole class from being able to visit with the parrot.  I think about that kid who kicked the back of my chair and told me he hated me.  There are three things I wish I could tell him.

First, fuck you. You knew it wasn’t my fault that I had health issues.  You were unnecessarily cruel to me and that experience stuck with me. It changed who I am.

Second, I forgive you. I understand now that you were a little kid with big emotions, and like most human beings, you were wired for normalcy.  You had a low tolerance for any and everything outside of normal. I was a threat to normal and you were defending it. I get it now. 

Lastly, thank you. You helped me find my place as a black sheep, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.  I like who I am.  I’ve come to see the things that keep me from fitting in with everyone else are also the things that make me special.  I’ve found community among other black sheep throughout my life.  They’ve become friends and family to me. There’s even a wonderful black sheep spouse and some amazing black sheep kids and some misfit black sheep mutts in my life and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Every single one of us is worth protecting from a virus that could upend our lives.

I am so fucking proud to be a black sheep.

You should be too. 

We’re different from the 70% of the people in the world who cling to normal in a crisis.  We wouldn’t have the capacity to be this way, had we not been training for it all our lives.

Throughout history, any time human beings have faced a crisis, 70% have reacted by clinging to normalcy. Predictably, consistently, it's the other 30% who have done right thing.  The NOT normal thing.  Not just for themselves, but for the collective.  Those black sheep are largely the reason why people survive crises. They're why the human race is not yet extinct.

Think about what that means.

There *is* a new normal.  We black sheep have been living in it since 2020.  Here in this normal, we protect ourselves and each other.  We believe in science. We care about each other.  There’s no ‘you do you’ here, because we know that human beings can’t exist in isolation. Like it or not, we need each other, so even if we don’t agree with you, we’re going to do whatever we can to keep you safe.  We’ll give you respirators if you can't afford to buy them.  We’ll help you find a dentist who masks and runs air purifiers in their treatment rooms.  We’ll show you what an amazing time you can have outdoors where it’s safer to gather and you’re not expected to dump every dime you make back into restaurants and bars and entertainment venues to keep the economy healthy.

We’re fighters here.  If a doctor dismisses your lingering Covid symptoms as anxiety, there’s an amazing Long Covid community that can guide you on how to advocate for yourself and know which tests and treatments to ask for to get symptom relief.  If your kid’s school refuses to protect them from Covid, there are air quality experts who can arm you with tools and resources to campaign for clean air solutions. We don't always win, but we never stop trying. We don't give up.

In this new normal, we’re at war with a virus, not with each other.

The normal that 70% of people are clinging to has a limited shelf life. More pandemics will happen in our lifetime.  There will be devastating wars. We’ll see natural disasters increase as the earth melts away beneath our feet.

The wall that the rest of our herd built around pre-2020 normal is breaking down. We can already see it in the most recent Gallup Survey from September 2023 on Americans' beliefs related to Covid. More people believe the pandemic is getting worse than when surveyed a few months prior.  More are worried about getting infected by the virus.  Fewer people believe the pandemic is over.  Fewer believe life is back to normal.

It may not feel like it right now, but things are changing. People are starting to look out through the cracks in the wall guarding the normal they're trying so hard to protect. They're looking to see if the grass is greener where the black sheep are.  Some are already taking steps in that direction.  More will join them in time, if a new crisis or a series of catastrophic events doesn’t shove people en masse outside the wall first. It won’t be an easy transition.  They’ll need a lot of help and guidance.

They’ll be looking for you, black sheep.

Only this time it will be different.

This time you’ll be the shepherd.

I want to leave you with this beautiful ballad by Rachael Yamagata titled 'Black Sheep.' This is a tribute to everyone who has ever walked a long and lonely road as an outsider. I'd be an asshole if I didn't warn you that you should probably grab a tissue first. Give it a listen. You'll be glad you did.

Black sheep, your time is coming to shine.


You can support my work by signing up for a membership to The Guiness Pig Diaries or buying me a coffee.

In good humor and solidarity,

Guiness Pig