Finding Yourself in a Time of Pandemic

A bit of personal reflection here on our collective experience during these strange times.

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As one of many searching for income as a freelancer or a new job during a time of Covid-19, I know that it’s a struggle to stay positive. No matter how many pieces of good advice you get from friends, colleagues, articles and webinars . . . the truth is, it’s scary and the future seems wrapped in cotton gauze–a little hard to see. In fact, I almost accidentally titled this “Finding Yourself in a Time of Panic” . . . or perhaps it was a near Freudian slip.

As I constantly tweak my resume, my LinkedIn profile, etc., and search the Web for ideas about key words, clients, freelancing, networking, and more, I find I am learning a lot about who I really am, what I actually have done, what I can do, what I want to do–and what I don’t want to do.

It’s been an enlightening experience in some ways (and just plain exhausting in others.) Sometimes in the middle of the night, I may have a brilliant epiphany. Then, in the cold light of day and to my pragmatic eye, it seems a bit overly optimistic. If, however, the memory of that crazy idea remains with me for 24 hours or more, I begin to take a closer look . . . .

One of the things that struck me the other night was this: I was thinking about the fact that at my last job, although I loved it and the people I worked with, I ended up never getting much sleep. I drove about 75 miles one way, an hour and half depending on traffic, every day, worked about 9 hours (and ate lunch at my desk) then came home (another 90 minute to 3 hour drive depending on weather) and took care of my ten cats, some of whom had special needs, until late into the night. Then had to get up ridiculously early to do it all in reverse. To heck with ever getting any fiction writing, art, or anything else I love done. The weekends were for cleaning, yard work, and trying to catch up on naps.

Recently, as I looked through hundreds of questionable job listings, I thought about the work described and how far away the workplaces were–and found myself thinking “I don’t want to end up getting three to four hours of sleep a night this time! I need a job where I can get a decent night’s sleep!”

It suddenly struck me that I was approaching this all wrong. Instead of looking at jobs and considering whether I would ever get any sleep, I needed to start with my criteria for my life–not the job–and find the job that fit the life I wanted to live. (What an incredibly radical concept!) This is actually a time when that’s possible, because the world no longer has a status quo that we are required to fit into. Things are in upheaval across society.

Looking at my work life in new ways also meant taking stock of many other things in my life and being willing to make changes. I notice lately as I scroll through posts on LinkedIn and Facebook, and read NPR and BBC online, that a lot of other people are doing much the same introspection. In fact, there’s a certain bizarre element of “mindfulness” going on in the midst of this pandemic thing.

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Mindfulness is being present in the moment, observing and experiencing what is happening, rather than spending time longing for the past or worrying about the future. It isn’t easy to do much of the time. Life requires that we plan ahead, and there’s a great value in evaluating the past. Plus, we normally associate mindfulness with “enjoying” what is happening at the moment. Since there’s a lot about the pandemic that many people are NOT enjoying, I can see where this is a problem. But only if you assume mindfulness is only about “enjoying” rather than experiencing and finding the value in a present moment.

There have been a lot of good things that have come to the fore during this collective experience. One is that we’re seeing nature through new eyes: some have more time to enjoy nature including the wildlife in their own backyard and their pets, some are more aware than ever of climate change (finally!) particularly given this year’s massive cold front and the suffering it has brought to places that just aren’t used to dealing with it, and some are discovering for the first time that nature is restorative, like Japanese “forest bathing.”

People are discovering that you really can work from home, avoid the commute, and still be productive–once you learn to adapt. It’s not impossible, it just was a bit difficult for people to change their work habits (and management style) at first. For introverts like me, it’s been pretty easy. We’ve also as a society learned to pay attention to all those “invisible” people we took for granted before–the nurses, the cashiers, the warehouse workers, and more–and how vulnerable a huge portion of the population is to the tenuous and low paying jobs that fuel huge sectors of our economy. We’re all beginning to realize how much family means to us and how much we rely on our true friends, and how technology really is miraculous. While it has been painful, there’s also something valuable in knowing that this generation, like generations before it, is discovering how to manage during times of great upheaval and uncertainty. It’s a time of deep learning as well as discomfort.

During the last few decades, we’ve become too complacent as a species, forgetting the struggles of earlier generations and living in a world where there is always a solution to everything, if you have enough money, time or resources. I remember that in the 60’s, 70s and 80s, life was a lot more uncertain. Cancer was a death sentence. Getting a fax sent was an undertaking. Email? Instant messaging? Send a document across the world in the blink of eye? Ha! We thought we were “modern” in those decades, but looking back from today’s advances in medicine, technology, globalization, we were living the stone age!

Our global, technological, amazing world today has made us feel very capable of defeating our problems, and allowing us to look back at past plagues like the Spanish Influenza, Polio and the Black Death/bubonic plague as something in the past, not now. Yet as an amateur medievalist, I feel a deep calm when I read about the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain, a time when God was very real, life was very tenuous, and divinity determined fate, without question. That was the best explanation life in those days could offer, and there was a certain cold comfort in that, somehow. But today, we don’t believe any of that.

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We think we are in charge of our lives, and that somebody, somewhere, is to blame when things go wrong. In reality, I suspect we’ve needed a kick in the seat of the pants to make us remember that nothing in this world is guaranteed, and that far larger forces than “us” are actually in charge.

But there are good things coming from this time as well. It’s been a time for closeness as well as isolation. A time to think and relax, as opposed to spending half our lives on the road in a car, bus, train or plane. a time to cook, learn how to teach our children ourselves, and discover whether we have the guts to do simple but uncomfortable things to protect each other like wear a mask properly, or if we are simply too self-absorbed to care. Every other generation that has gone through great crises has had to confront that tendency toward self-absorption as well.

I have to tell you, I have never believed this pandemic would end anytime soon, as in 2021. The variants are too likely, the likelihood of wiping out the virus too unlikely in the short run despite all the vaccines, and the desire to get back to “normal” too naïve. Normal is gone. Normal is usually gone faster than we realize. Everyday is a completely new, blank slate, and while we try to hold on to what was, time it is a-passing. You can’t go back, only forward. It’s time to stop trying to “stop time” and start reaching toward the future and recognizing the benefits of a changing world. There are many benefits . . . but only if we are wise enough to recognize them, accept them, and make the most of them. And that can happen only if we are prepared to grow and change ourselves.

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I heard a quote this week that has stuck with me. It’s from Marcel Proust:

“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

During this pandemic, I have had time to rethink my life, and decide what’s really important, and what I should be looking for in the future, rather than trying to recreate the past. It’s been a very intriguing journey, whether I wanted to take this trip of discovery or not. Mostly, it has forced me to look at my life, my work, my world with new eyes, which luckily, is something I have always believed was one of the most essential life-skills a human should have. It hasn’t been so much learning the process, as learning where to look.

I’ve also begun to think that perhaps this is not only a new chapter in my life, but also a new one for all of us–a moment of evolution in human history, not really all that different from the changes that occurred during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. We have so much more going for us today, but we probably are feeling much the same fear and disorientation that humans of those times felt as life changes irrevocably, forever–but in reality, for the better.

So, if you’re feeling a little off balance as I am, hang in there and learn to go with the flow. It’s the only thing that helps get through times like this. Focus on the moment, keep doing your work, and keep looking forward, not backward. I wish you peace during this collective voyage of discovery, and especially safety, but most of all, I wish for you the ability to see your world through new eyes that look at exciting opportunities, rather than lost comforts. Comforts will come again, but only if we are willing to see them in new forms and move forward toward them, rather than backward after a past that has already been transformed.

© Chanda K. Zimmerman, 2012-2022