Lately I’ve been thinking about Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who hunkered down in the Luzon jungles long after his fellow soldiers had surrendered and World War Two had ended. Despite being repeatedly told the struggle was over, that it was safe to come out, he remained hidden away on Lubang Island for 29 long years afterward. Even as the 1940s rolled into the ‘50s, then the ‘60s and ‘70s, Onoda stayed in the jungle, locked in the bunker mindset. It was only after a Japanese emissary came to the Philippines in 1974 to track him down that Onoda was finally convinced Hirohito had surrendered; that, indeed, he could come out and return to normal.
I feel a little like Onoda, as Metro Manila continues it’s in-and-out community quarantine tango. I wonder if I would even recognize if the COVID-19 war were over. Would things miraculously look brighter, clearer? Happier? Cheerier? Would we be able to stroll into a mall without the muscle memory fear kicking in — reaching for our face mask, to make sure it’s properly covering the mouth and nose?
About three weeks back, during the brief window of lifting the ECQ, my wife and I decided to visit a mall because we needed medicines and snacks. We stopped in a food court that was as desolate as the one in Dawn of the Dead. Quite a few lost souls, wandering around with masks in place, eyes dead, as though stumbling around in a mall was simply something they remembered doing from the past. So they kept doing it.
We sat and listlessly ate a food court meal, face shields at our sides. The lighting was dim. The vibe was “prison mess hall.” It was like being in the non-Matrix part of The Matrix. There is simply no joy in returning to normal when you know, all around you, things are still not normal.
For Onoda, the difficult part was probably not even being in the jungles all those years; that was a reality he had become accustomed to. Foraging for food, stealing from local farms, sometimes killing villagers whom he thought were still “the enemy,” he stayed alive. Something inside told him to do so. The struggle continued.
It was probably returning to the modern world of 1974 that was the bigger jolt. Onoda couldn’t recognize the happy, consumerist world of modern Japan he’d returned to; there was no sense of serious struggle, no purpose. So he emigrated to Brazil in 1975, perhaps to return to the jungle he knew so well.
There was a happy ending for Onoda, though. He did make it back to Japan in 1984, according to The Guardian. There, he decided to open nature camps for kids, and died in his homeland at the ripe age of 91. He’d found “normal” again.
But what about us? Is there a coming back from COVID fear? Will we ever feel things are normal again?
It really will be a “new normal” in many ways, I believe. Things that have become common under lockdown — home delivery of food and items, holding meetings over Zoom — may become assimilated into our day-to-day, because it probably makes more sense in terms of time savings.
But I wonder about the simple things: walking around in public parks, sitting in a bar with friends, getting a haircut, going to a concert. When will it feel, in your gut, like it’s safe?
People have a habit of adjusting to anything. If churches are closed, they shift to online Sunday Mass. If their kids can’t graduate in a crowded amphitheater, they hold celebrations online. But that’s the nature of adjustment: it’s like snubbing your nose at adversity. It’s courage, or hope, or at least the belief that this, too, shall pass.
During WWII, one of the most popular songs was We’ll Meet Again. Sung by British chanteuse Vera Lynn, it was a message of optimism for the troops: “Don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again… some sunny day.” It bore within its refrain a belief that there was an endpoint of war, that we would eventually return to our loved ones and friends, our “normal” lives. But even that caveat in the refrain — “some sunny day” — recognizes the cloud of uncertainty that still lingers.
So when will our cloud of uncertainty lift? When a vaccine is found, and it works, and we’re immune?
And more importantly, getting to our core as human beings: when will celebration seem like an appropriate response to life?
When will we be able to believe in normal again?
I remember that, after 9/11, the thing that spread most in America was fear, not a virus: we Americans submitted to a lot of extra security measures, because the psychic trauma of deadly attacks on a city shifted our minds into battle mode. We’re kind of still there. And that was almost 20 years ago.
I guess I’m wondering: will the fear outlast the COVID, or vice versa?