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The pandemic has changed our reality. To better understand this transformation, Elizabeth Dias and Audra D. S. Burch, the National Desk correspondent, recently spoke to people across the country about her own experiences. They made a call to readers online, conducted interviews to hear from a number of voices, and collected these reports in the Who We Are Now article. Ms. Dias and Ms. Burch shared what they have learned in their reporting and how they have changed during this time. Read a slightly edited excerpt below.
How did this story come about?
ELIZABETH DIAS Last year, I reported on the mental crisis that sparked the pandemic. People everywhere have faced mortality and the deepest questions people have about life, death and suffering. National Desk Editor Jia Lynn Yang and I talk a lot about what it all means, and this story grew from one of those conversations to a collaboration with Audra and our photo editor, Heather Casey. The subject of transformation is deeply spiritual and we wanted to hear from people who are now living differently and can share these stories with us.
How did you work with photography for this story?
DIAS It was a collaboration from the start. Art can give a voice to moments in our lives when words fail. The pictures and words together offer readers a journey to reflect on their own lives.
What did you look for in your appeal to readers?
AUDRA D. S. BURCH We tried to phrase the questions in such a way that people are forced to think in obvious and not-so-obvious ways about what this year means to them. I think even the exercise of responding to the callout was a journey in its own right. Some people clearly struggled with who they had become in a year and when they got out of the "darkness" what they wanted for themselves. I can't tell you how many people thanked us for investigating what caused the pandemic. Probably in the middle of reading the entries, I remember thinking, in a way, this really felt like a public service.
What did you find most interesting about the answers?
DIAS So many people found the reflection process enormously difficult or even impossible. It showed me how difficult it is to face, let alone change, feelings, and how little collective language there is to talk about these deep issues. Realizing this, I was able to think about how this story could help readers in this process.
BURCH I think I was most surprised by the bookends, the people willing to reveal their deepest thoughts and experiences on one end of the spectrum, and the people who – despite attending – were clearly in some sort of private hold pattern and unwilling or unable to come to terms with the emotional or spiritual toll of the pandemic.
Were there certain topics that you kept hearing?
DIAS So many people struggled with their homeland and wanted to get back to the core of who they are and where they come from. Time and again, people reassessed their most important relationships, where they want to live and how they want to be in the world.
What changes do you think we will see as a result of this time?
DIAS The most honest answer is: I don't know. I hope we can remember the common humanity revealed this year and help each other on this journey. But it is also true that the clarity that comes with intense suffering often tarnishes over time – it is one reason we made this story to name the transformation that is visible at this moment.
BURCH I think the big challenge is how long we can hold on to the clarity that such an event brought and how long the truths we discovered this year will shape our lives.
Was there anything that you thought of a lot while working on this story?
BURCH I thought of death. Much. One of the people I interviewed for the story was Joelle Wright-Terry. She is a Covid survivor. Her husband died of Covid last April. Your story stayed with me. I have thought many times about how it must feel when your family is knocked down by this virus and the ongoing trauma of loss.
DIAS I have thought many times about narratives of the apocalypse and awakening in spiritual literature and how closely they are intertwined with suffering. So often beings had to die to be reborn, like the phoenix, the old bird that went up in flames and then rose from the ashes.
How have you changed personally during this time?
DIAS One of the most amazing things about all of these interviews was hearing echoes of my feelings in the stories of so many other people with so many different life experiences, from anger to loneliness to newfound strength. It helped me feel less alone and took courage.
BURCH The process of working on this story had its own convenience. I also saw myself in so many of the stories told, from fear to helplessness to feeling unsettled as we trudged through the pandemic month after month.