In the space of a couple of weeks the world as most of us knew it has been dramatically altered, at least for the time being, by the coronavirus. We’re working from home (or at least trying to). We’re worried about loved ones we’re separated from and whom in many cases we dare not even try to see. We’re worried about food and toilet paper. Even the late night television programs have been affected. Like countless other parents, Jimmy Fallon, who’s being forced to do his monologue from home, is clearly losing patience with his kids.

In other words, our “assumptive world” is under attack.

Coined in 1992 by psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, the term sounds more than a little academic. And yet at the same time it also sounds a lot like what it means. 

Simply put, the phrase “assumptive world” refers to a set of assumptions that many, if not most, of us hold about ourselves and our world. According to Janoff-Bulman, these assumptions, which inform our ability to function on a day-to-day basis, tell us that the world is, for the most part, benevolent as well as meaningful (or, in other words, that it’s a relatively safe and healthy place to be.)

Janoff-Bulman maintains that this set of assumptions also includes a generalized belief that we as individuals have intrinsic worth, i.e. something worthy to contribute. The implication is that in the absence of these assumptions—which we more or less take for granted—many of us are likely to become anxious and paralyzed, perhaps even too paralyzed to do anything. 

According to Janoff-Bulman, when a traumatic event occurs it can shatter these basic assumptions. For example, our world can be—and often is—turned upside down as a result of a loved one’s death. Similarly, one can argue that the world has been radically changed, and yes, perhaps even shattered, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought with it its own unique brand of grief.