My lessons learned

This is a wrap-up of the 12 Things We Learned in 12 Months of the Pandemicseries. (You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.)

Thank you to all who contributed. I loved these posts. They received such positive feedback that I’ve decided to extend the series. Going forward, I’lll be posting a new lesson learned each month. If you want to contribute, send me a message.

When NYC went into lockdown in March, I knew that I was no longer going to be the same person I was pre-pandemic, and I needed to learn who I would become. The activities that had partially defined me before were no longer going to be a part of my life. There would be no powerlifting, playing cello in a large orchestra, rapping in a cypher. No more meeting tourists in crowded, poorly-ventilated bars, traveling around the world, being welcomed into the spaces and personal spaces of strangers. The pandemic kept the unknown strange, and it estranged us from ourselves. 

The gravity of the pandemic has never been far from mind. Living in NYC, the epicenter of the epidemic, with my 92-year-old grandmother has shaped my experience more than anything. For months, my family left the house only for dog walks. We wiped down our groceries. We stayed far away from my grandmother. I felt like a potential murderer 24/7. Only when she was vaccinated last month could we finally exhale a sigh of relief (still masked and distanced). We, my grandmother included, gave up a lot for safety’s sake. My brother (13) has not had a playdate in over a year.

The pandemic was marked with losses big and small. We lost the little things (the random run-ins, real-time lag-free conversations, hugs) and the big things, too: the life-constituting activities in which we partook and, most painfully, some of the people with whom we shared our lives. Like too many others, I had to learn about the death of a loved one during the pandemic—and how to grieve and be there for my family when there was nowhere else to go.

My pandemic learnings are ongoing, but some lessons are concrete. I realized how important my family, friends, and work are to me. Often I realized this precisely when I failed to prioritize what was important, when I put myself in subpar situations and experienced impatience and frustration.

What I struggled to figure out was how to use my time. The social acceptability of using Zoom and phone calls to supplant in-person interactions meant that my social roster grew from my handful of close friends at Princeton to my handfuls of close friends around the world. I could fill up my days with calls with them, some in need of support, but it came at the expense of family and downtime. I still struggle finding the right balance between making time for my friendships and making time for myself and my family.

No doubt my buying into the seductive myth that I should take it easy exacerbated some of my time management (life management?) issues. I went through periods of giving myself free passes, leaving stones unturned, vegging out on the couch—just because these are trying times and we all deserve a break. That’s true, but self-care can morph into self-pity, which can morph into misery and lack of productivity. I am guilty of abusing the “give yourself a break” mentality, to nobody’s benefit, and I regret that. 

The reality is that we have been living under these conditions for a year. That is more than enough time to adapt, but we are stubborn. As Machiavelli wrote:

…a man is not often found sufficiently circumspect to know how to accommodate himself to the change, both because he cannot deviate from what nature inclines him to do, and also because, having always prospered by acting in one way, he cannot be persuaded that it is well to leave it; and, therefore, the cautious man, when it is time to turn adventurous, does not know how to do it, hence he is ruined; but had he changed his conduct with the times fortune would not have changed.

“What Fortune Can Effect in Human Affairs and How to Withstand Her,” The Prince.

I’m beginning to accept reality and the fact that I need to change my conduct. As I wrote previously, I’m always a better person when I ask myself, how can I make the most out of this situation? 

Over these past 12 months, I keep coming back to this C. S. Lewis quote, so that’s where I’ll leave you today:

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Here’s to doing sensible and human things, to making the most out of what we’re given, to realizing “the prison, into which we doom / Ourselves, no prison is,” as Wordsworth put it.

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