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Madison Square Garden is shown after NCAA college basketball games in the men's Big East Conference tournament were cancelled due to concerns about the coronavirus, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in New York. The major conferences in college sports have all cancelled their basketball tournaments because of the new coronavirus, putting the celebrated NCAA Tournament in doubt. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Well, this isn't the birthday we imagined for you.

Mom and I? We had a few surprises up our sleeve. After all, this is a special year. You only turn this age once.

But now?

It's a stuck-at-home birthday party. You can cry if you want to. No family. No friends. Coronavirus and candles. Blow into your sleeve, please.

Yet hardships can be gifts, too.

COVID-19? It's teaching me many valuable things, especially this:

My capacity to be with prolonged discomfort and stress is very low. Very, very low.

Pre-virus, I was surrounded by instruments of pleasure and distraction. Tired? There's a drink for that. Bored? There's my phone for that. Anxious? There's a drug for that. Everywhere I went, American culture offered solace from my stress and escape from my pain.

Eat this, watch this, buy this.

We rarely allow ourselves to sit patiently with discomfort, anxiety or suffering.

Perhaps COVID-19 is hitting America so hard because we never thought it could. Or would. Or should.

Now, we're left holding an empty bag. We wonder: what will ease my pain?

Who said anything should?

Look around. Can you find one human who has not endured hard times? One family that has not suffered? Or nation?

Coronaviruses — and earthquakes, sinking economies, illness, death — are part of being human on this earth.

Have you ever looked at old photos? Your Depression-era great-grandparents. Or black students leading the sit-ins. Okies, migrant workers, Brits who survived air raids.

(These photos are not selfies. They're selfless-ies.)

Look closely. There's something in their eyes, in their faces. Resiliency. An irrepressible endurance. They know the depth required to outlast difficult things.

I'm not comparing a disappointing birthday to Dunkirk. Not romanticizing the Dust Bowl.

I am saying this: learn. Be a student of this.

Run to COVID-19, not from it.

There are many healthy refuges in these tough days: don't over-check news. Get outside. Garden. Pray and meditate. Books. Movies and card games. Laughter.

("I have noticed that during this coronavirus craziness, wineries are putting less wine in their bottles," one friend said. "A bottle that formerly lasted four nights now barely makes it past two.")

One mighty antidote to a worried mind? Action.

Loving action.

Run to this virus, not from it.

The social scientist Charles Fritz theorized that disasters can create a loving, communal bond; the way we respond to upheaval is often unifying, forming what he called a "community of sufferers."

"He found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves," writes journalist Sebastian Junger in his remarkable book "Tribe."

A community of sufferers is emerging in Chattanooga.

Families are helping other families, folks are sewing masks, schoolchildren are being fed. The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga raised some $650,000 that will profoundly help. (I heard of one family that had been sleeping in their car. Then, the virus hit. Mother lost her job. Car got repossessed. Family is now completely homeless.)

Hamilton County STEM teachers and Public Education Foundation leaders created an impromptu 3-D factory lab in order to manufacture respirators and face masks for first responders.

At Baylor School, Dr. Elizabeth Forrester and Dr. Dawn Richards could have endured the virus by staying home, watching movies with family. They didn't. Instead, they researched ways to create valid testing; now, Baylor can run dozens of tests every day, at light-speed the rate of the normal process. Seven days? Try four hours. Science saves lives.

"What a gift it is for all of us to have the wherewithal to make things better so it won't get worse," said Metropolitan Ministries' Becky Whelchel. Yes, the indefatigable folks at MetMin are at work, helping others.

Most of all? First responders, doctors and nurses. Before this virus, many were already overworked and underpaid. Now? Can we even imagine what it's like? They are our front lines.

(Speaking of front lines: would some elected official please step up and speak to our city regularly, routinely, honestly? "Every afternoon at 5," one friend suggested. Tell us how things are going. Tell us what to expect. Tell us something.)

"People are good," my nurse practioner said. "In times of distress, people do the right thing. We'll come out of this stronger in the end."

Knowing that is far better than those tickets to well, any gift we could buy.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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David Cook
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