Perspectives: We Write Our Own History

Journalist Niki Kapsambelis writes that despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, there’s also a strange sense of opportunity at hand.
Intermission Jun20


When you think about 2020, what’s the visual metaphor that pops into your mind?

Maybe it’s a dumpster fire. Or a screenshot of someone vaping on a three-hour-long Zoom meeting. Or a beer glass filled with foam.

Any way you look at it, 2020 has been a memorable year — and primarily for all the wrong reasons. Our lives were suddenly and unceremoniously tipped upside down by a microscopic virus, and it was left up to us to recalibrate and search for equilibrium.

The collateral damage was felt in ways we haven’t begun to fully process. The cascade, for many, has been overwhelming. We lost too many people we loved. We observed life’s most significant milestones from a distance, through a screen. Some of us lost our livelihoods; others, the institutions that sustain us. We celebrated, and grieved, in isolation. We were reminded so often that we were living in “unprecedented times” that it became a cliché, the punch line to an unfunny joke.

It’s understandable that we might want to forget 2020 altogether, or at least acknowledge it in some edited version only — say, Jan. 1 to 20, when the first COVID-19 patient was diagnosed in the U.S. Everything else could just exist in the rearview mirror.

But as tempting as that thought may sound, to forget the Pittsburgh of the pandemic is to deny the history we are experiencing in the moment. Just as history has a role to play in the development of our region’s physical future, so, too, does it have its place in the development of our region’s psyche.

We are a people who understand what it means to turn adversity into a catalyst for rebirth. Without pollution, there is no Rachel Carson. Without polio, there is no Jonas Salk. Without the collapse of the steel industry, there is no gap to fill with eds and meds.

No transformation happens in a vacuum. Along the way, there are fractures, casualties, tragedies. By acknowledging and even studying them, we learn, and we figure out how we want to shape our path forward.

Because we are still in the midst of the transformation, we don’t know yet where it will take us. The uncertainty, I’m convinced, is the worst part of the pandemic: Nobody knows where we’ll land when it’s over. Who will survive? What industries will close forever? Will more of us be working from home permanently? Will our children ever regain the ground they lost in school?

Yet there’s also a strange sense of opportunity at hand. When you’re in the middle of rewriting history, it’s easy to forget that you still hold the pen. While so many things are beyond our control, how we respond to our circumstances, and to each other, is very much still in play.

Years from now, when future generations visit the 2020 exhibit at the Heinz History Center, what will they see? Maybe a (by now antiquated) respirator, or an artfully displayed series of masks; possibly photos of places that no longer exist, or campaign signs from the election.

But perhaps they’ll also see a throwback to the world we thought we’d left behind. Tic-tac-toe boards chalked on driveways, inviting the newly invigorated walkers of the neighborhood to play. Windows displaying messages of hope, or humor. Signs thanking health care workers, delivery drivers and teachers for their pandemic service. Evidence of food drives for neighbors in need. Photographs of cleaner air and rivers, and streets free of rush-hour traffic.

We may never look back on 2020 with nostalgia. But if we think now about how we might want our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to learn about what we are enduring, we may find a way, and a reason, to shape our path forward in a way they can draw from when they, too, find themselves in unprecedented times.

Niki Kapsambelis is a journalist and the 2019 winner of the Carnegie Science Center Award for communication. She is a science writer for Magee-Womens Research Institute and the author of “The Inheritance: A Family on the Front Lines of the Battle Against Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Categories: Collier’s Weekly