Finding Different Joys
We're living in "unprecedented times." How often have we heard that phrase recently? Or perhaps its close cousin "difficult times." Both have started to feel pretty meaningless, a pretty platitude that glosses over the truth:
None of us signed up for this.
We could maybe deal with the inconveniences, even the new ones that crop up every day. We could cope with the fear for our livelihoods or for the health of our friends and family and ourselves. We could handle the disappointments, the substitutions, the changes in plan. We could probably even come to terms with the kind of tragedies that more than a hundred thousand families are facing now, having lost loved ones to this pandemic. But we're not being asked to deal with any of these. We need to deal with all of them. At the same time. And moreover, without knowing when we can stop dealing with them and get back to normal.
That's the biggest thing I've seen personally, in all the arguments and frustrations and confrontations: a deep, primal desire for normalcy, to get back to a world where we understand the rules, where the daily inconveniences and disappointments and tragedies are the kinds we expect. Of course, there are lots of aspects of "normal" that are detrimental to us as individuals and as a society, but even knowing that, we all crave solid ground to stand on. And that's the one thing we absolutely can't have right now.
So we're learning how to cope. In my admittedly limited observations, there seem to be three major coping methods for these "unprecedented times." The first, and likely the most maladaptive for all concerned, is to deny that things are different. That sounds like people are just sticking their heads in the sand, but it's probably not even a conscious choice. Denial is a knee-jerk coping reaction, and we all do it sometimes. But in this case, it makes for even more frustration when things deviate from that expected norm. Every "wear a mask" and "sorry, we're closed" sign becomes a personal insult to the way the world should be.
The second coping technique is to put everything on hold and wait for normal. For a long time, I fell into this category. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had just closed on a new house. I was moving in when the Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order was announced. Everything was in limbo, and it seemed like that was where it should stay. Wait and see what happens. Don't make any decisions, don't make any plans. Just wait. In the short term, this works fine, but months later, when I found I was still living out of boxes because I didn't want to start settling in, I realized that the waiting game had gone too far.
And that's what brought me to the third coping mechanism. I think of it as finding different joys.
It's a little bit mindfulness, a little bit intentionality, and a little bit necessity. Basically, I try to take a situation that is frustrating or troublesome and try to find a way to make it enjoyable. For example, I was hoping to hold a housewarming party for friends and family once I had moved in. Well, that would be downright irresponsible of me right now. So I tried to think of what would be enjoyable. A Zoom session with friend and family felt like too much of a consolation prize. In fact, I quickly realized that was the biggest issue with my thinking.
I kept trying to find quarantine-friendly equivalents, but all of them paled in comparison to the original, and felt disappointing. The trick was to find something different. I couldn't invite all my friends and family over at once, but I could invite one couple over to cook dinner in my new backyard. I could meet with my family for a socially distanced day at the beach. I could plan for a bigger garden party next year, after I've finally put in all my new flowerbeds and can show off my hard work. I am still disappointed that I my plans didn't work out, but I found other joys. They're not lesser, only different.
I'm not sharing this as a prescriptive guide for surviving pandemic stress. Everyone is different, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution for grief—which is what we're all experiencing, whether due to bereavement, or just the loss of the life that we had expected to be living right now. It's real, and it's hard, and if my experience and coping method helps, that's great. I hope it does help. And if it doesn't, or if you want advice from someone who doesn't lurk in the back room of a bookstore writing emails for a living, here are some further resources to check out.