Pandemics Teach us that Normal is a Moving Target — and Maybe, that Lesson Can Set Us Free

We are all feeling the drastic changes that the recent pandemic has created in our lives. Some of us have lost our jobs, some of us are working from home with new responsibilities as teachers and caretakers while others are on the front lines as cashiers, Uber drivers, and health professionals whose jobs suddenly entail more risk than they could ever imagine. We are also living with new emotional challenges: limited access to social interactions, fear of getting sick, fear of getting someone else sick, the inability to protect and take care of our families which may be spread across the U.S. or globe, and the financial repercussion of lost jobs, health insurance, impending rent, retirement funds, etc. And those least fortunate are dealing with the direct consequences of the pandemic on their loved ones, people who have suffered and people who have died.

How could someone find fulfillment and purpose at a time like this? I think most of us can, but in order to do so, I think we have to release the paradigm that life is supposed to be lived under certain conditions. For those of us that can do that now during this painful and uncertain time, we will be able to experience a rare freedom the rest of our lives.

So what does that look like and how does one get there? I’ll use my personal story to try and communicate this experience. My “normal” life, which we will call life before the pandemic included the following routines: taking my health for granted, walking to the University of Chicago campus where I interacted with friends, colleagues and students, going to the grocery store every day to buy fresh produce/ food for cooking and baking, going to the gym to lift weights and build strength, walking to CorePower Yoga where I enjoyed being sweaty, warm, and connected to a Yogi community, going to plays, ballets, symphony performances — any place with entertainment and crowd that appreciated the arts, playing basketball and sports, hosting regular dinner parties wine-ing and dining my many friends who bring with them interesting ideas and the funniest stories, and traveling around the world.

This time right now I was supposed to be teaching in Barcelona for two months. At the end of this month, I had planned on traveling to Croatia with my best friend for my birthday and traveling around Europe on weekends until I made my way home back to Chicago to enjoy these simple but joyful routines in my life. Due to the pandemic, my teaching program was canceled and with it went away the generous stipend, housing, and pay that I had depended on to stay financially secure. All my favorite life routines would have to be put on hold as I joined millions of people in social distancing and self-quarantine.

My story is one of privilege and it’s important to first recognize that. Then from this vantage point I’ve realized that: if the above conditions are required to make me feel happy and fulfilled then I may be privileged, but I’m also very far from freedom.

So how does one cope in a world where your routines are no longer possible? When what makes you happy is interlocking with a host of activities you no longer have the privilege of experiencing? I’ve noticed lots of people trying to keep hold of their “normal” lives, facetime calls with friends, Corepower videos they can stream from their homes, work meetings that are now performed with zoom. I don’t think any of these activities are bad or not helpful for individuals, but I would urge us as a whole to not try to reclaim our “normal lives,” because they were never normal to begin with, nor were they as dependable as we remember.

In times of crisis and chaos, our routines can feel more important than ever: a source of stability, something to ground us, a way to control our lives. But I would argue, there lies the paradigm. While the day-to-day lives that most of us live are not as unpredictable as the ones we have inherited during this pandemic — these lives are subject to so many unpredictable circumstances, unmet expectations, and tragedies — we just do not see them as clearly as we do right now. But in the face of a pandemic, when these uncertainties are undeniable, I think we have an opportunity to fundamentally change how we approach the lives we live now and forever.

What has that meant for me personally? While I may have gone to a yoga class five times a week before this pandemic, I actually practice very little yoga now and I haven’t streamed any Core power videos (though it’s so generous of them to offer them for free online). My groceries, once a daily trip, has become an online experience shipped to my door every two weeks. I don’t watch musicals or performances on Netflix to relive those in-person experiences I used to have. Instead, I’ve tried to embrace my life under the new circumstances I’m presented with and for me that has meant creating new routines, new ways to feel purposeful, and time for grief — all actions that are more authentic to the life I am currently living.

I take long two-hour walks around my neighborhood 12 feet away from people at all times — these walks for me have made me curious about where I live as I note the homes, parks, places around me I rarely paid attention to in the past. The long walks have given me time to reflect, think, and enjoy movement at its most basic level. While I may be losing all the muscle and flexibility that I worked so hard to build in my previous life, I realize maybe those muscles don’t serve me in this one. I’ve also been practicing headstands every day — the daily challenge of looking at the world upside down mimics my feelings and that is therapeutic. Because I can’t go to the grocery store every day, I look forward to instead making the staples — those dependable meals, some that remind me of my mom’s cooking and others that remind me of how far I’ve come in my experimenting with cooking. I’ve also made time for grief — crying at how devastating the pandemic is, letting myself experience feelings of anger at our healthcare system and the many policies that have worsened these outcomes, coming to terms with the feeling of disappointment that has come with witnessing selfishness among Americans who can’t sacrifice for others. And at a moment when the world feels as if its collapsing, letting myself imagine how it could be rebuilt to be better.

How is this freeing? Well for me, letting go of my expectations for my life and not holding on to the many routines that I used to think made me who I am — is a transformative experience. The ability to recreate my days with new projects, activities, and perspectives is powerful. Finding joy, purpose, and curiosity in unlikely places is exciting. Not repressing feelings or trying to control my guilt, compassion, and empathy makes me feel present and connected not just to myself but to others.

Throughout our lifetimes we are going to experience many ups and downs, crises, chaos, and tragedies. I know, because in my short life I’ve already experienced much of this without a pandemic. And so, I think the goal should never be getting back to “normal,” because that is the act of chasing a moving target, and I’m not sure that goal serves us. In the face of the uncertainty, I hope most of us do not hit the pause button on our lives because they no longer reflect an ideal set of routines we remember with nostalgia. Instead, I hope we learn to embrace our circumstances leaving us open to new experiences while also allowing us to come to terms with the hardship, fear, and pain that many of us are facing. And I hope we discover and experience freedom — that we don’t try to anchor ourselves in precarious and turbulent waters, but instead let our sails take us to new places where we may be different people and that’s ok.

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