I reviewed The Martian — both book and movie — back in 2014. It’s a good review, if I say so myself, and I hope you’ll read it. Just this week, my husband and I watched the movie again. I chose it in large part because it seems so apt to our current situation. It’s not an exact parallel, of course. The Martian contains no pandemic closing down life as we knew it, no global threat to the life and health of millions. Instead, it’s one solitary astronaut fighting for survival on a barren, hostile planet.
But it certainly speaks to surviving social isolation! Once his shipmates leave him for dead, Mark Watney is the only person on an entire planet. Alone and in the face of incredible odds, Watney rarely gives in to despair. It’s not that he doesn’t feel it. But each time, instead of letting the fear and despair overcome him, he turns his mind and will to problem-solving. Using science, ingenuity, and dogged determination, he figures out and accomplishes what has to be done each day to keep himself alive until rescue can arrive. Meanwhile, NASA and the entire world are focused on saving Watney and bringing him home.
Life in a pandemic is different — different from life before COVID-19, and different from Mark Watney’s story. But the themes are more similar than you might think. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need all the determination, endurance, and ingenuity of a Mark Watney, and all the cooperation and dedication of the fictional NASA and JPL scientists.*
We need to listen to our real-life scientists and experts. We must dedicate ourselves to saving as many lives as possible and easing the burden on healthcare workers. For most of us, that means cooperating with restrictions and guidelines, staying home, and taking whatever other steps are recommended to slow the spread of this virus so the healthcare system isn’t overwhelmed.
In the weeks and months ahead, we the stay-at-homes will have to be determined and show endurance, sticking to social/physical isolation even when it’s hard. (And it will be hard.) We will have to use our ingenuity to problem-solve everyday issues: figuring out how to cook with what’s in the pantry, how to work from home with the kids running around, how to make do when supplies run low, how to maintain relationships at a distance, how to do minor repairs or make what we need ourselves.
And we must also show the compassion, dedication, and self-sacrifice of the Hermes crew, who willingly extended their time in space for years in order to save their fellow crewman. Like them, we need to step up to help others: those who have lost their jobs and their livelihoods as well as our family, friends, and neighbors. If we’re still able, we can sacrifice financially to help our favorite small businesses, artists, and craftspeople stay afloat. We can find ways to reach out to help our friends and neighbors from a distance. We can donate supplies to local hospitals. No effort to help, no matter how small, is useless.
The Martian ends with success. As a result of his own, his Hermes teammates, and the scientific community’s efforts, Watney is rescued and returns safely to earth. And we can be successful in fighting this pandemic. Every life saved is a triumph. So is every case of COVID-19 that is prevented by our staying home. Of course, we will never know for certain just how many would have become sick and how many lives would have been lost if we had all done nothing, or which individuals lived who would otherwise have died. But that’s OK; those lives will have been saved whether or not we can count them.
We can be successful in our efforts to help those impacted in other ways, as well. Every small business that manages to survive, every artist or craftsperson who makes it through because of your help — each of those is a success. Every friend who is comforted by your call, every student you helped, every senior for whom you picked up medications when you made your own run — each of those is a success, too.
If we learn anything from Mark Watney, let it be this: Never give up. Our mutual success in fighting this pandemic depends on it.
* I’m not counting The Martian‘s fictional NASA head; he was a jerk.