I started and restarted this essay a dozen different ways. Each time, I thought I found the appropriate angle and tone, only later to toss it out. I wrote about being scared, but that seemed too depressing. I mused on silver linings, but that seemed too optimistic. I dabbled with a topic that had nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic, and while I very much look forward to doing that soon, that approach didn’t feel right either.
I tried and tried, but couldn’t hit the right note. I couldn’t settle on one subject because my thoughts and emotions, like my essay ideas, have been all over the place lately. Sometimes I feel scared. Sometimes I feel hopeful. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself. Sometimes I feel terribly guilty for feeling sorry for myself, when so many others have it much worse. Sometimes I feel restless, or grateful, or drained. Sometimes I feel all these things at once, and can’t find the words to explain it.
This pandemic is a shared experience, but we are all experiencing it in wildly different ways. Some of us are bored, while others are terrified. Many of us are taking this situation seriously, a few still aren’t. And most of us, I suspect, are cycling through a wide range of emotions and thoughts day after day. It’s exhausting.
By most accounts, we will be in this surreal world of social distancing, self-isolation, quarantining, and grim news for quite a while—the next month, at least. Many scientists predict it will be longer than that. And while that fact alone is alarming, I’ve been trying to appreciate any moments of calm that I can. I know that, in the long run, I will need all the serenity I can get.
Lately, I’ve been finding calm in a surprising place: The lack of choice.
As someone who has the privilege of working from home, my three major choices each day are to leave the house for a walk, to spend time in my yard, or to stay inside. If I go for a walk, I do a few laps around my neighborhood or take a longer route to the nearby Tampa Bay waterfront. If I’m spending time outside, I’m either doing yard work or sitting on my patio, enjoying the fruits of those labors. And if I stay inside—which I do the majority of the time—I’m deciding to work, relax, or sleep. Day after day, I have a limited choice of places to go and rooms to spend time in.
And sometimes, when I’ve found a bit of that elusive calm? I really enjoy it.
There’s a scientific explanation for the sense of comfort I’m finding in this strange time. Studies find that having too many choices drains our energy and causes anxiety. When presented with a bevy of options, people tend to doubt themselves and, sometimes, avoid making a choice at all. As The New York Times explains, “Research shows that an excess of choices often leads us to be less, not more, satisfied once we actually decide. There’s often that nagging feeling we could have done better.”
That nagging feeling often follows me around. I’ve long been the type of person who suffers from the fear of missing out. I’m also someone who gets overwhelmed by choice—the simple question of what to eat for dinner can dumbfound me. But right now, with limited choices and options, I’m getting a blissful break from those feelings.
In my fleeting moments of calm, I find myself thoroughly enjoying the limited options I’m faced with, rather than worrying about whether I’m making the “right” choice. I can relax with a movie at home without wondering if I’m missing out on something more interesting; I know that the best option is staying put. Billy and I aren’t currently eating takeout, so our food choices are also limited; we can settle on beans and rice, knowing that it’s one of the precious few choices in our pantry. I can wear the same comfortable clothes instead of debating whether I’m fashionable enough. I’ve been able to appreciate my home in a way that I haven’t since Jamie died. I’m finding the magic in the mundane.
To be clear, this period is incredibly difficult. I miss hugging my friends. The thought of not seeing my family in person for months upsets me greatly. I have an ongoing list of worries and find it hard to quiet my brain enough in order to get uninterrupted sleep. I feel unsettled by how quickly we wound up in this situation, and scared about how long it might last. I fear for everyone who will suffer. I’ve been fortunate enough not to know anyone personally who’s died from COVID complications, but I know friends who do, and my heart is breaking for them.
And still. I’m trying to find calm amid all of that. I’m trying to appreciate the current lack of choice in my life, instead of railing against it. Because I have to. Finding something to appreciate about this moment is keeping me sane.
This weekend, I found a bit of serenity as I was listening to a podcast while pressure washing my patio. It was a temporary calm—moments later, my mind was once again racing with worries—but it was nice. During that episode, I heard a quote from author Sylvia Boorstein that’s stuck with me:
May I meet this moment fully. May I meet it as a friend.
It’s hard to accept this moment and embrace it with an open heart and mind. But this is our reality. I’m choosing to focus on the luxuries I do have versus fixating on the freedoms I’m lacking. Instead of fighting this situation, I’m trying my best to acknowledge and appreciate it for what it is. Sacrificing our normal ways of life and staying home is ultimately an act of community—a way to keep us all safe. That’s not to say it’s easy. There are plenty—plenty!—of moments when I feel scared, exhausted, overwhelmed, and sad. But there are also a few priceless moments of calm.
I’m hugely grateful for those moments, and doing my best to find more.
p.s. Have you appreciated the lack of options in your life lately? Or are you counting down the days until you have endless choices ahead of you? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Tell me about how you’re faring with limited options. You can reply to this message, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll share your replies in Thursday’s subscriber-only newsletter.
You’re the best.
There are a number of new readers here, and several new paying subscribers, and I am so freaking appreciative of all of you! Thank you for making a tough time a little brighter. I hope I’m doing the same for you.
I’m still offering My Sweet Dumb Brain at 50% off a yearly or monthly subscription, and will continue to do so as long as this pandemic continues. I am, however, returning Thursday’s newsletters back to subscriber-only status. So if you’d like to continue receiving two newsletters a week and hearing from fellow Sweet Dumb Brain readers, you’ll have to subscribe!
Tuesday essays will always be available to everyone. And whether you’re a paying subscriber or not, I want to thank you for being here. This newsletter has been such a refuge for me, and it’d be a lot less rewarding if I was sending it out to the void! Thank you.
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, whose lack of options meant she had time to tackle some long-standing home projects. Repaint mailbox numbers? Check!