In late May, I took an eight-day road trip. It seemed like everyone else up and down the East Coast had busted out of Dodge, too. With COVID-19 infections down and vaccinations up, the dam had burst on the past year’s pent-up frustrations. Some folks were rushing to restore normalcy. Others were still daintily dipping their toes into the outside world again, fearful of their next move.
These are natural reactions to the aftermath of disaster. But I have learned the hard way that neither one protects from future calamity or provides a framework for starting over.
My ex-husband and I spent 20 years building the American Dream – two kids, thriving careers, growing retirement accounts, and that coveted Brooklyn brownstone. Then it imploded. He had an affair and served me with divorce papers. We spent years in court. The market crashed. I couldn’t find a good job.
At first, I tried to mirror pre-divorce life as closely as possible. I was so afraid of change that instead of replacing the cracked urn on the stoop that first winter, I simply tied rope around it. I got the house and paid the mortgage through a patchwork of temporary jobs, child support, and rental income.
But my husband never came home. The kids grew up. My youth slipped away. House and health misfortunes cropped up. When I could no longer afford the mortgage, I put my house up for sale. No amount of clinging to the past had kept me safe from change or challenges. Nor had it cured the pain of betrayal.
I spent a year decluttering and shedding most of my possessions. The evidence of a lifetime passed through my fingers and, with it, the emotional weight of the objects and dreams I’d clung to for comfort. My fierce attachment had caused my pain, and surrendering my grip purged it. I felt lighter than I had in years.
Alone and in my 50s, I was finally free of the fear that had dragged me down. So I moved south, where I had no job, no home, no friends, and no plan, and started over with the new knowledge that uncertainty was all I could truly count on (besides God, that is).
COVID-19 taught the same thing. For the wise, it dispelled the illusion that we have control over much of anything besides our mind and our choices.
Of course, most of us resisted. Our nationwide chant – “This can’t be happening!” – was about the only thing on which most Americans agreed. I sang the tune from time to time myself.
But this explains many people’s rushed attempt to re-establish life as it was pre-COVID. After all, it’s an American habit to push away the slightest discomfort with busyness, consumerism, and the pursuit of happiness. Unhappy with spouses or jobs, we find another. Anxious, we pop pills and shop. Exhausted, we schedule curative spa days.
But bosses and spouses still annoy us, vacations never last long enough, and iPhones become obsolete. Vaccinations may be prudent, but they’re not a permanent cure-all. And no matter how hard we try, we’ll never science our way past death or future pandemics or natural disasters – or having a spouse leave. Worrying won’t change that either.
Experts say COVID-19 took a serious toll on our mental health. In roughly two decades leading up to the pandemic, the U.S. suicide rate grew by 33 percent, with suicide the 10th leading cause of death. Medical professionals believe these outcomes may be far worse after the pandemic and its economic lockdowns, along with other psychological fallout such as anxiety, depression, sleeping disorders, and substance abuse.
Why is this? Compassion and mental health treatment aside, it seems Americans have become coddlers instead of resilience-builders. Doesn’t our propensity for life as usual create a false sense of security that leaves us perpetually vulnerable?
On this side of COVID-19, then, are you confused about what moves to make? So was I. Old habits die hard. On weekends when my children were with my ex, I was depressed and lonely. So I over-scheduled myself to fill the time.
Eventually, I broke out of my rut and decided to do the opposite of my natural inclination. I left blank spaces in my life, which allowed people and opportunities – and surprises – to walk in unannounced. And I grew to love time alone.
In fact, now’s the perfect time to carve out alone time. It seems counter-intuitive given the past year of inactivity. But how many of us spent the time reassessing our lives? Wasn’t most of it devoted to kvetching and adjusting to the new normal forced by COVID-19 restrictions?
I’m headed for a long silent retreat soon, because focused contemplation of the past year is the best way to formulate a clear-headed plan for post-pandemic life. Maybe there’s something you’ve always wanted to do and now you understand how short life is.
Maybe COVID-19 taught you that commuting long distances for work isn’t necessary or desirable. Maybe the strictures of lockdowns revealed your true heart’s desire to raise your children yourself, rather than heeding society’s insistence that it’s a woman’s duty to place work above family.
Like me, maybe it’s time to change your reference points entirely, move, and start over. I still love the bustle of the New York City I left, but one of the great pleasures of my life right now is listening to the birds in my backyard.
By all means, celebrate. Hug, wed, flip burgers in the backyard. Life is meant to be enjoyed, and enduring the last year is an accomplishment. With calendars empty for a year, the natural tendency is to fill them back up. But we don’t have to cave to our appetites.
Have less, do less, and spend less. The more I gave away, the happier I felt. At midlife, I discovered the courage to embark on a writing career and build a life in a city where I knew no one.
The year I sold my house, my youngest daughter was a senior in high school. Stressed at times over graduation and college applications, she was also about to leave the only home she’d ever really known. Due to her workload, she’d missed a few volunteer appointments at a clinic where she read to preschool children from disadvantaged families. “Go back tomorrow,” I told her.
“But how could I spare the time?” she worried. She took my advice anyway and returned home the following evening happier than she’d been in weeks. She’d gotten out of her own head by helping someone else and had reoriented her perspective. Likewise, when I first moved to Savannah, I threw myself into volunteer work, and it helped me find my way.
COVID-19 shrank our world and gave us a reset button. What a gift. Why not use it to build a life filled with more joy, flexibility, and resilience?