As we enter the fourth semester of this pandemic, I remind myself of what I have learned over the virtual school year.
I filled the summer months of 2020 with home workout videos, self-taught French and countless batches of cookies — anything to keep my mind distracted. I didn’t allow myself to feel self-pity and, instead, admonished myself that I should be more grateful for what I had. I told myself that I was fine. Everything was fine because it had to be. Pretending it wasn’t would only unleash all the ugly emotions from the box that I wished to ignore. Nothing, not even a pandemic, was going to stop me from accomplishing everything on my checklist to pad my resume.
As the first virtual fall semester began, I instantly felt that I was falling behind. Over the summer, one friend had started a podcast, another had started a blog and another had started teaching English online to elementary students in China. I had to catch up.
Zoom meetings. Nature walks. Once-a-week Costco runs. Froot Loops for dinner. “Collared shirt on top and sweatpants on bottom”-type meetings on Zoom. Trying without success to buy disinfectant wipes. DIY haircuts. Calls on Zoom. Zoom calls. And video calls over Zoom. The physical distance between home and school had become a 4-by-5-foot, fluffy pink carpet that also served as my dining area in my apartment bedroom. I was staring at a screen for 16 to 18 hours a day. Going grocery shopping once a week — early in the morning to avoid crowds — was my new equivalent of “going out” on the weekends. I used to enjoy picking out bright floral dresses and flowy tops to wear each morning, but now I found little motivation to pick out something other than sweatpants and a T-shirt with holes in it. I couldn’t see it yet, but the pandemic had turned me into some sort of hollowed Sims character.
It was all getting to be too much. The world would unpause soon and I needed to be able to show something for all this extra time at home. I thought that I needed to keep pushing forward. Running running running, but towards what? Neglecting to take care of myself had saved me an hour or two here and there, but it was catching up with me. I felt anxious being away from my laptop for longer than 15 minutes. If I didn’t respond to someone’s email quickly enough, they would think poorly of me, wouldn’t they? They know that everyone is online more these days, and they will know that I have seen the email and will think I’m being lazy, right? I felt no excuse to be unavailable online 24/7.
I dreaded hearing alerts from my phone because they were usually reminders that I had a Zoom meeting starting in 15 minutes or emails reminding me of a task I had yet to complete. These emails usually started with something along the lines of “I understand that these are extremely trying times” but ended with a “reminder that in addition to completing the exam, make sure to turn in the supplemental essay to compensate for the fact that the exam is open-book and asynchronous.”
Just think happy thoughts. Good vibes only. Smile more. Still, slowly the feigned happiness began to fade to reveal the truth that I had tried so hard to shut away: I was drowning. I knew that it wasn’t just me; the entire world was getting the short end of the stick. But that didn’t make me feel better. I hated my situation but then hated myself for hating my situation when there were others who clearly had it so much worse. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel cheated. “We are thrilled to welcome you into a vibrant, lifelong academic community of scholars and alumni” on my admissions letter was what I had been striving towards for the last 8 years. Yet here I was, sitting less than a mile away from campus, feeling like I wasn’t a part of any community at all.
Each morning that I woke up without the motivation to get out of bed or even sit up took me closer to realizing that I could not continue like this. Even though I had been busy before this, I had never been this miserable. Perhaps I needed this pandemic. Could it be possible that I could use the pandemic to my advantage instead of putting all my energy towards repeatedly lying to myself that everything was absolutely fine? After many mornings of avoiding the gaze of my own reflection in the mirror — to avoid having to see the dark circles under my eyes and perpetual frown — I looked up and stared at myself. I knew what I needed to do.
It was like tending to an overgrown garden as I checked each item off a list: log out of email by 5 p.m., schedule time to relax, go for a walk outside in between Zoom calls and stop making excuses to stay up and not sleep. The “secret to happiness” couldn’t be found through simply doing yoga in the morning, journaling or setting aside time to read every day, but they were a start. The changes made me anxious at first. I felt like I was wasting precious time whenever I sat down to watch a movie or read a book, instead of checking my email for the fiftieth time that day. Yet, this same mentality was the clue to how desperately I needed to take time to rest. Gradually, for any one thing that felt out of my control — and caused me to stay awake all night anxious in bed — I found two more things that I did have control over. It felt like slowly letting all the tension out of my body from my neck to my shoulders to my lower back to my toes and falling back into a soft reclining armchair.
One evening, the Wi-Fi went out and I felt the tightness start to come over me like a rubber band being stretched out again. I stopped, leaned away from my computer screen and shut my eyes. Instead of letting the panic engulf me, I gently closed my laptop, made myself a cup of steaming tea and curled up with a book by the window, letting the moonlight shine on my face. I shrugged. What can you do about it? It felt like I was sprinting towards a finish line that wasn’t actually there and that these sudden realizations had hit me smack dab in the forehead. Having goals is part of leading a meaningful life, but as the pandemic has demonstrated, so is flexibility and being easy on yourself. Productivity does not lead to happiness. Productivity is a result of happiness.
As we enter the fourth semester of this pandemic, I do my best to remember — and encourage you to remind yourself — that being positive is healthy, but forcing myself to be positive all the time is not. When I feel low-spirited or gloomy about the current chaotic status of the world, I refer back to the list of activities that make me feel better, but also allow myself to continue feeling the way I do. Suppressing unhappy emotions can be like installing a ticking time bomb on your brain. Equally important, appreciating the simpler moments in life is everything. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but the best memories don’t have to be planned like a big Friday-night party or a jam-packed, two-week vacation.
My most cherished memories from this year come from the extra time spent with my family. When I was young, I remember that we went on a couple of camping trips in the summer. After the second or third outing, it became clear we all much preferred the indoors with air conditioning, heating and proper toilets to the unpredictable weather, mosquitos and hard-ground mattress. An alternative that we came up with is, when we get the chance, we drag a mattress to the family room, put sheets over the couches and pile it with enough pillows and blankets until there is barely any room left to sleep. This is our version of camping. Sometimes, we’d watch a movie (my mom will almost always fall asleep before the halfway mark and ask us how it ended the next morning.) Sometimes, we’d each read or do our own activities. Sometimes, we’d chatter away for hours about nothing in particular. Though we rarely had anything new or exciting news to share, given the long quarantine, my dad’s seemingly endless supply of dad jokes and movie quotes meant that we never ran out of things to laugh about.
There’s been so much tragedy and loss in the last year, and I try to hold that truth next to the fact it’s only because of the pandemic that I’ve stopped trying to hit double speed in a world on pause and allowed myself to take a little pause along with it instead. As we’re thrown back into the whirl of in-person classes, football games and tailgates, and other social events this year at full speed, I encourage you to take a breath and remind yourself that you don’t need an excuse to slow down. Society constantly pressures us to push forward, have a jam-packed schedule and have the next internship lined up, all while pretending like it is effortless. When we look around and see others in a perpetual state of stress, we pick up on that stress and start to feel like we should be stressed too. Life can be so much more enriching when we allow ourselves time to lounge around in the grass and gaze at the clouds with bubble tea.
MiC Columnist Victoria Tan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org