What I Have Learned About Myself During the Pandemic Shutdown Through Communication With Family, Friends, Neighbors, & Strangers
Even though I love having many segments of alone time in any given day or week, I am also a social person—one who loves to engage with others on a regular basis. That inclination also doesn’t keep me from isolating myself when I have a project to complete or am working at my day job. Before the announcement of the Covid-19 virus attack in early March of 2020, I loved the structure of my life: working hard at a job I enjoy because of the expended brain activity required of me every workday, as well as the opportunity my position ordinarily gives me to interact with colleagues and clients and even my supervisors. And that part of my life was balanced by a very separate personal life filled with cultural activities such as attending theatre and music events, and travels near and very far, visiting with family and friends, and volunteering what extra time I could carve out of a day or week to partner with NFP agencies in my city to support, inspire, and find resources to address the needs of struggling, underserved segments of our population.
Then came the order to quarantine in our homes and succumb to restrictions re: where we were allowed to go, when, and for how long, and all accompanied by our soon-to-be an everyday companion: our face masks, followed by the access to newly approved vaccines to give us some hope of immunity and ultimate victory over the killer coronavirus. And not just any masks. The ones we would be wearing had to cover our mouths and noses and not be open on the sides due to the release into the air and onto other people who might by intent or accident, get very close to us. In other words, we had to keep not only our fears and other feelings about the horrific and sudden changes in our daily routines and lives in general, but more importantly, our BREATH to ourselves and under control.
Certainly, I am not the only one faced with this set of experiences, which is, by the way, constantly evolving based upon the status of infection rates and, most recently, the identification of a new variant of the virus named delta that began to rage throughout the country—not to mention the world. That discovery and the new virus’ rapid spread brought many communities in cities, villages, and states right back, it seems, to the start of the pandemic as hospitals across the nation began, again, filling up to capacity and beyond, front-line health care workers became further exhausted and exposed, and the death rates almost everywhere have been spiking upwards and dramatically.
So here we all are, struggling to find some form of ‘normalcy’ while knowing and maybe even understanding-but having trouble accepting-that it will be a long time before we are able to hug and otherwise embrace those family members, friends and colleagues whom we have been cautioned against touching or even standing close to while communicating. And this brings me to where I started this written journey of sharing my feelings: How have I (have you) been coping with these dramatic swings in the nature and degree of control that the CDC and local governing authorities, along with various medical authorities, have been exercising over our daily movement and our interactions with others to the extent that nothing is/seems normal, nor do we know when we will return to normal?
With the above as the background I have set, I am ready to share how I am managing to stay SANE, assuming I can tell if I AM sane, during this incredibly challenging time, and what new aspects of social interaction I have developed far beyond anything I was doing in my pre-COVID life. I will also share with you the amazing things others in my life, whether through work, my social communication with friends and family, or from reading and listening to developing news as we move from day to day, have brought into my life as I live it now.
FIRST, I have grown to LOVE being on/in/a part of Zoom or Zoom-type meetings which were originally, and now continuously, a substitution for in-person meetings and other kinds of gatherings in order to avoid the risk of infection from being in close physical proximity to others who may infect you or become infected by you. In such virtual communications, there seems to be a more serious focus by participants—myself included—on paying attention to what others are saying and how they are delivering their views, perspectives, questions and answers, and the expressions of their feeling-states. Perhaps participants feel less threatened when they are just one snapshot among many on the screen, or there is some degree of comfort from being safe in your own home or office and thus at a distance from your fellow ‘Zoomers’ even though we are all squeezed onto a fairly small screen and our video selves sometimes come and go. We are also free to take breaks from the program or meeting or conference, seemingly without disrupting the ongoing communications because others are there to continue the conversation without us. This new form of socializing has also resulted in long-lost friends reaching out to me and the reverse as we are realizing that being in touch with those we care/have cared deeply about over our lifetimes is extremely fulfilling, almost like finding a diamond in a sandbox. (As a warning, please note some recent research showing that frequent participation in Zoom or WebEx or similar format meetings may be taking an unexpected toll on us by contributing to ‘brain fatigue’ though it may be a long time before those findings can be scientifically confirmed. Please see the April 24, 2020 National Geographic report by Julia Sklar at www.NatGeo.com for an analysis of this potential impact, as well as an article from the Cleveland Clinic, which you can access at https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-all-those-zoom-and-google-meets-are-so-draining-and-what-to-actually-do-about-it/.
SECOND, I have found some means of relieving my stress. Certainly, there is always a favorite movie or TV series or a news channel I can watch which gives me a chance to escape from my thoughts and self-pity. But the best TONIC I can give myself, besides more frequent ‘check-ins’ with family and close friends, turns out to be talking to strangers, whether they are neighbors also taking long walks in the neighborhood during early evening hours, or random people in grocery stores or outdoor restaurants where opportunities to interact are available almost all the time if you keep your antennae up as to what those individuals in close proximity are doing and saying. And yes, that can seem intrusive, but I do try to make a quick assessment of the situation to determine if those particular people seem open to conversation.
I have learned that, in this time of isolation, almost everyone in a grocery or hardware or store is available for a quick chat while in the check-out line or strolling casually through the aisles searching for an item. Moreover, neighbors walking dogs like to talk, as do moms or dads or others pushing strollers. And in my neighborhood, rich with two elementary schools that boast outdoor facilities, I pass by students working there on art or other projects and engaged in sports activities, with teachers facilitating or overseeing those endeavors, and sometimes stop to observe. It is typical for some of the kids to come over to talk to me, or to show me something they have made for their project. I get a thrill from that outreach as I believe it comes from their similar need to engage with others in a time where contacts have been so significantly curtailed or even put on hold. By those brief encounters, both sides are able to fulfill what seems to be a common human need: interaction with fellow humans. I dread the loss of this means of interaction when winter comes.
THIRD, I have found it helpful to regularly remember that some people and their families have far greater responsibilities and associated stress than I do as an older adult whose children and grandchildren are all adults. When I consider that reality, I turn my attention to sympathies for them because of their burdens and the challenges they are facing, and often reach out to them to ask if there is anything I can do to help with chores or bring some joy into their lives. In those interactions, I have discovered that just my mere acknowledgment of their particular situations, especially where a parent or parents are home-schooling young children, including those with special needs, seems to open the floodgates for them to talk through those situations with me, and that appears to be a means for them to unload a bit of their stress.
As a result of such encounters, I have found ways to interact with these struggling parents in a way that benefits their families as well. When I learned that the children of a family member and of a few of my colleagues have specific interests in turtles, or penguins, or baby elephants, I shared with those families the links I regularly receive from the Shedd Aquarium that allow the viewer to witness how such wildlife behave in their natural or specially built habitats. Something that simple brought great joy to those children—and their overwhelmed parents too, and also, perhaps a bit selfishly, to me, because I figured out a good way to engage them.
FINALLY, I am committed to continuing the very kinds of outreach I described above, both because those contacts uplift me and thereby reduce my stress and help me sleep better, and because I know that what I shared brightened a moment, a day, even a week of their sheltered lives and gave them strength and hope that the future too will be brighter.
Perhaps you, the reader, are similarly or differently taking some steps to reach out to support and cheer up others in your life. If so, KEEP IT UP. If not, try a few kinds of outreach not only to test your comfort level, but to see what may transpire and how you can make a pleasant difference in how your friends and colleagues and fellow students and neighbors or cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles are facing our shared uncertain future. I bet they will warmly welcome your engaging with them and will add joy to your life as well.