Making The Most of This*

*Even when I don’t really want to

I have a flair for the dramatic, but I’m not being dramatic when I say that 2019 was the toughest year of my life. From serious health complications to multiple moves (internationally and nationally), struggling through my masters, and the complete rethinking of my career path, it was not a great year to be Al. The first couple months of 2020 seemed to have an upward trend which slumped fast. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that I need to be making the most of this, this being COVID-19 and its repercussions.

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk to middle and high school women about my journey as a recovering perfectionist. I asked them one question, “What matters?”. Like I was at that age, they were preoccupied with things like “getting into college”, “the ACT”, and “good grades”.

But they also mentioned “friends”, “family”, “relationships”, and “self-esteem”. During the session, we talked mental health, perfectionism, social media, and some of the other absolute joys of being a teen girl. “What matters?” became less of a question about grades or other metrics of success, and more about our identities. Afterwards, girls came up to tell me that they needed to hear that kind of thinking from someone else. But it’s not only teenage girls dealing with these kinds of worries.

On Friday, I attended a Zoom meeting for The Startup Circles on how to “Reignite Your Social Fabric”.

It was interesting to see how the things that adults who were highly successful in their own careers as entrepreneurs and inventors were struggling with the same things high schoolers were struggling with. Namely, they felt vulnerable and simultaneously liberated by the collective experience of living through a crisis situation. People (justifiably) worried about their job stability. Others were concerned with their ability to perform or complete deadlines.

It would be a lie if I said I wasn’t worried about job prospects in the wake of this crisis. It’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about. I’m not exactly excited to see what that will look like when my current position ends. And maybe that’s why I felt so crappy this week.

Whether we are 13 or 30, when the metrics we use to define ourselves are brought into play, we forget some of our other answers to “What matters?”. We all may vocalize that our relationships matter to us, but we’ve all missed important moments to toil over work. Our actions and our words communicate different things to those important to us. We don’t have to answer “What matters?” when our actions make it clear.

What happens next is unknown.

Some metrics estimate the current “lockdown” situation could last until July or August. Others say that if we don’t implement a 5-week lockdown, we could be looking at this stretching into next year. Admittedly less reputable sources are counting on warmer temperatures to kick COVID-19 down a notch.

In the face of the unknown, it is really, really easy to sit down and give up. Whether that means eating a giant bag of popcorn in the same clothes you’ve been in for 48 hours or doing your work half-assedly to pass the time until you go to bed, it’s easy to become numb when we lack certainty.

So what do we know?

I talked a little in my last blog post about managing the anxiety of the unknown. A valuable exercise is listing not only our own “knowns” but finding solace in some collective “knowns”.

This will fundamentally change the way we interact with each other.

At work, we are realizing that it’s possible to maintain productivity while working flexible hours/remotely. This comes as excellent news to parents who want to work from home, or disabled/chronically ill individuals who may now be included in environments that were previously inaccessible.

In our personal lives, this will bring about change as well. I remarked to one of my breakout groups in The Startup Circles that I’d actually been checking in more often on friends who live far away. I utilized some of my own slightly satirical suggestions for virtual dates. Over text, I had deep conversations with friends with whom my interactions are usually limited to the occasional meme or rant.

This is going to be hard.

It already has been hard. People are getting laid off, the economy is plunging and our collective mental health is suffering due to mounting anxiety and being stuck on our own.

I asked on my Instagram yesterday what people were disappointed about as a result of COVID-19. Replies ranged from cancelled graduations and weddings to being stuck in unpleasant home situations.

Although complaining in the midst of a pandemic is a little reminiscent of the “Kim, there’s people that are dying” meme, it’s okay to be disappointed about these things. Having a vacation cancelled sucks. Not being able to walk across the stage when you’re the first in your family to graduate college sucks. But feeling guilty about it isn’t productive. If you intend on making the most of anything, dwelling on the belief that your feelings aren’t valid isn’t the way to do it.

There will be costs beyond the economic ones.

Sorry in advance for the doomsday bit, but the toll that this pandemic will take on the world isn’t certain. However, we have already lost (at time of publication on Mar. 22) almost 15,000 people to COVID-19. Many more, including those who are working day and night to help, are at risk. We can hope for the best possible outcomes. We can trust scientists and healthcare workers to slow the progress, but a lot of this is on us. Whether we decide to interact with our friends or go to work will have a significant impact.

So I’ve decided to start making the most of this.

For me, although it’s taken a while to get there, the answer to “What matters?” doesn’t lie in my success. My health, my relationships, and my passions matter. This isn’t to say that a steady income and success in work/school isn’t important, but it doesn’t need to be all-consuming. There are positive ripple effects that could occur as a result of this terrible situation, and aid us in making the most of a tough time.

This could bring about policy changes.

I wish it didn’t require a pandemic to get policy to cover basic needs. However, COVID-19 hitting the US could result in longer-term paid sick leave policies or increased pressure to implement universal coverage.

We may get more creative with our personal connections.

I’ve seen some really excellent strategies to make the most of a bad situation. I spent the day having “spring break” with my sister by lying out in the snow in swimsuits and eating an inordinate amount of junk food. She had to come home from studying abroad in London and I wanted to make this experience slightly better for her.

Spring break in the backyard.

Another brilliant friend of mine is hosting a virtual birthday party. We are going to put on real clothes (!) and make ourselves drinks. I wouldn’t have been able to go to her birthday party if not for this virtual soirée.

We may become more self-reflective.

I’ve spent SO much time self-reflecting and I think a lot of others have too. With more free time and (forced-ish) solitude, we sit around with our own thoughts. I realized numbing my anxieties with Netflix was a bad idea (who knew?) and have been channeling my free-time into activities that bring me fulfillment.

I started this blog! I have been writing more for just general thought-processing purposes! My creative outlets have flourished! I picked up my violin again! These things make me happy. And while it took an international crisis for me to realize that, these habits will stick around. If I can still feel generally happy in this environment, I won’t be moping about when things have returned to “normal”.

Please don’t take this to mean that I don’t think this is a tough time.

Rather than focus on the negatives, I want to focus on what I can do to better society as well as my own life. Making the most of this means realizing that this is a tough time, but we are in it together.

To finish this post, I’ve compiled some things we can do to help out.

  • Find an organization to donate to with Charity Navigator.
  • Contribute to protecting healthcare workers by utilizing the hashtag #GetMePPE and call your elected officials to encourage a federal solution.
  • Stay the f**k home! Really, don’t do anything that isn’t essential. Continuing to organize small gatherings of friends doesn’t count as social distancing. Find new ways to connect with your people that won’t threaten anyone’s health.