As you read this, you are making history. That’s right — you are making history along with millions of other people around the globe who are sheltering in place to ensure that health professionals and essential workers are not endangered or overwhelmed. In short we are staying home to save someone’s life. In the absence of any vaccine or cure, we have to work together to get through this existential nightmare. Each day we must brace ourselves to endure the seemingly endless waves of fear, anxiety, frustration, depression, or uncertainty that wash over us. On good days, those waves are relatively low; but on bad days, the waves get so high that they drown you. And each day we must get up and renew our collective pledge: “Together we will get though this.” But it isn’t very easy. So how do we make sense of all the ceaseless “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?” How do we soldier on?
For a way out of this maw of misery, let us step back in time — specifically to June 12, 1942. We climb up the stairs to find a hidden attic apartment where a young girl, who just turned 13, has just received a special birthday gift: a red and white checkered diary. On that day, she opens it and writes her first entry: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” The girl’s name? Annelies Marie Frank, better known as Anne Frank.
78 years later, Anne Frank’s personal writings, published as The Diary of a Young Girl (commonly referred to as The Diary of Anne Frank; it has sold more than 35 million copies), transcend time and place to speak to us today, amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Her diary is both a testament to the endurance of the human spirit as well as a brilliant beacon that pierces the darkness to guide us to hope, encouragement, comfort, and courage. Indeed, one of the most significant contributions of Anne Frank’s diary is the enduring power of voice. Recall William Faulkner’s powerful and eloquent observation about the duty of the writer in his Nobel acceptance speech: “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking… I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” Amen, brother.
Another significant contribution of Anne Frank’s diary is the therapeutic value of writing a diary. Keeping a diary serves as a lens to reflect on and help understand what is happening all around us. Writing provides the welcomed opportunity to contemporaneously process all of one’s thoughts and feelings. Today, many mental health experts are suggesting that we all take a page from Anne Frank’s diary and start keeping a coronavirus diary or journal. Over the last few weeks, several articles with titles like “Why You Should Start a Coronavirus Diary” are being published as a way to help people deal with the negative impact of the coronavirus (eg, anxiety, depression, loneliness, severe illness, and death). Many people who are infected report that reading how other patients are coping with the coronavirus has a very positive healing effect.
In an interview with The New York Times, Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, explained, “It’s incredibly useful both for us personally and on a historical level to keep a daily record of what goes on around us during difficult times.” Herbert Braun, a professor of history at the University of Virginia adds, “We have to convince ourselves that we’re writing something that perhaps other people want or need to read… When we write these words, they don’t have to be great. They don’t have to be perfect.” The critical thing is that years from now, future generations will want to know what people went through. One archivist said it best: “Some of the best stories we get are from ordinary people who are experiencing something extraordinary.”
Another article by the Los Angeles Times titled “Coronavirus Diaries are Helping People Cope — They’re Also a Research Gold Mine” highlights how infected individuals who post COVID-19 diaries are helping many others who cannot see a doctor or obtain tests. The diaries help readers self-diagnose or confirm symptoms. The coronavirus diaries also help guide others through the illness so they know what to expect and learn what remedies to explore. Sean Young, an associate professor at UCLA who studies digital behavior noted that people turn to social media doing a health crisis: “When the government is inconsistent in their messaging, then that creates confusion, fear and chaos. People want to share their symptoms because they’re looking for a community. They’re looking to find out how other people have recovered with similar symptoms. It’s a good resource to hear from others if it makes us feel better, if it doesn’t make us feel more anxious.” The information gleaned from diaries is also a big help to researchers who are studying the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, while turning to coronavirus diaries can help reduce anxiety, the flip side is that diaries can also spread misinformation that can be dangerous — or even lethal. So readers need to do some research on what they read.
So how do you get started on writing a coronavirus diary? Simple — start writing about today. You can take the old school approach and write in a specially bound journal or a spiral-bound notebook. Or you can take the digital route and create a Google document, a Word document, or start a daily blog. Begin with questions like: what did I do today? What did you read about or learn in the news that caught your attention? How did that news make you feel? What reflections did that news evoke? What did you learn about a colleague, friend, or relative today? What were your thoughts or feelings about that news? What is the saddest thing that happened today? What made you happy today? What did you read, hear, or watch that inspired you to get through the day?
If you need inspiration, read some of the current coronavirus diaries online, or curl up with The Diary of Anne Frank. Who knows — one day students will be reading from your diary and understanding what it was really like to live through America’s deadliest pandemic and most crippling financial recession. And like Anne Frank’s diary it will inspire them to endure whatever hardships they might be facing.
Are you writing a coronavirus journal? How is it helping you to cope?
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Read related posts: The Power of Literature
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Great Literature Speaks
William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
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Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father
For further reading: Anne Frank: Her Life and Legacy by the editor of Life Magazine