One of my students wrote something last week that got me thinking. She said that her family was actually doing much better than they had been before the pandemic; they have more time together to talk, and she and her mom have been making masks for hospitals – something that has drawn her closer to her mom and made them both feel like they are part of what she called “change” during the pandemic.
It was a reminder that perhaps something good could come of all of this. When a catastrophic event happens, in an attempt to make things more bearable we often look to do something life-affirming. It’s interesting how when a catastrophic event is brought on most of the world, more than a few of us are collectively doing some long-neglected self-reflection.
This brings to mind an article I read in April (along with more than 20 million others) called “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” which touches in part on the same concept — that something good should come from the shutdown caused by COVID-19. Writer Julio Vincent Gambuto calls it “the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause.”
Gambuto discusses how the treadmill we have all been on for decades has come to an abrupt stop and forced us to take a look at our lives. He encourages people to not just mindlessly return to business as usual after the pandemic ends, but to think critically about some of the new behaviors and thought patterns that we want to hold onto, those that “make our lives richer, our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.”
In an interview after the article went viral, Gambuto suggested people consider this question: What does your new normal look like?
For me, the answer is clear: I need to continue focusing on gratitude and I need to keep writing.
In her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett writes, “There can be something cruel about people who have had good fortune. They equate it with personal goodness.”
I am a person who has had more than a little good fortune. I have a wonderful family and an amazing group of friends, I have always been relatively healthy, and the list goes on. I don’t equate my good fortune with personal goodness, though. One of the things I have always liked least about myself is that I have always been a complainer when I have had no business complaining.
And so I’ve noticed that over the last ten weeks, something is happening naturally to me, for reasons I don’t yet fully understand but I think is occurring as I realize that while this pandemic is robbing so many of their economic security and threatening the health of essential workers daily, I have been spared. And I’m spending more time with gratefulness, a feeling which has been a stranger to me most of my life.
I am definitely a glass-half-empty person, I’m almost ashamed to say, especially given the abundance in my life (truth to tell, not only is the glass half empty, there’s usually a cigarette butt resting on the bottom). I’ve come to recognize that some of my negativity is connected to anxiety. My anxious brain churns over possible calamities. I am a professional catastrophizer. But all of my negativity cannot be chalked up to anxiety. Much of it is just because I have not been in the habit of appreciating the good as opposed to searching for, and dwelling on the bad.
Since we’ve been home, though, I find myself noticing things big and small that make me feel thankful.
One of the biggest things I’ve been grateful for is a shift in my interactions with my son. He’s a senior in high school this year, and although missing some of the cornerstone rites of passage – prom, graduation, etc. – has been a huge disappointment, many of the stresses of senior year have now dissipated with the move to virtual learning, especially because we live in an area where there is a lot of pressure and comparing oneself to others. We are both more relaxed and I feel as though I got back the kid that I used to know.
I have also been feeling grateful for the time I’ve had to get outside and explore. When the shutdown first began, being inside made me feel stir crazy, so most days, I spent at least an hour walking somewhere, some days even in the rain. That led to discovering new places and appreciating some of the sights I already knew.
I love parking at Gravelly Point right across from Reagan National Airport and walking along the Potomac; I also love exploring Roosevelt Island nearby. When the parking lots were closed for both of those places in early April, I went to Great Falls Park. When that got shut down, I started walking near Iwo Jima and around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I also discovered that there is a very pretty walking path near Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. The habit of getting out and being active almost every day (a pandemic-induced new habit) has been so good for me physically and mentally, and I know it would be good to continue.
In general, I hope that making a habit of appreciating all of the good in my life ends up being one of the legacies of this pandemic for me. Studies show that gratitude increases happiness. And it feels right for me.
The other thing I hope to keep in my life after the pandemic ends is writing regularly.
In March, in the days after I learned that school was closed for the remainder of the year, I realized that I would be in my house for at least five months before I went back to work. I noticed I was having sinking, anxious, depressed feelings about having entire days to fill for months on end. I knew I needed to do something to keep myself mentally occupied.
I had just finished an eight-week comedy writing class that I loved and had talked with my teacher about the possibility of writing a blog. I decided to give it a go, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what I would write about.
As the blog has evolved, several great things have come from it. Being in touch with friends and family far and wide has truly been a gift and has made me feel connected at a time when I would otherwise feel very isolated.
I have never written this much before, and find that I thoroughly enjoy the process. I set up a little writing cove in my room. I love it. I want to learn to be a better writer. I’m not sure exactly where this will lead or what form my writing will take, but I know that starting a blog has given me something enjoyable to do with my time and has kept me mentally occupied while giving me purpose.
Working towards becoming better at something I love has been healthy for me, and something I never approached with such fervor while on life’s treadmill. I want to continue this long after I return to a school building.
Years from now, I wonder how COVID-19 will have changed us. Arguably the biggest impact right now is psychological; I am guessing most people have experienced significant anxiety and/or depression. There has been such suffering, and knowing that everything could change overnight, possibly permanently, if a family member or friend became ill has been incredibly jarring. I just hope that something good can come of it for each person, whatever that looks like.