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We’ve all changed
Reflections on how the pandemic has affected us.
Last week, I implored My Sweet Dumb Brain readers to reflect on the past two years of the pandemic and how this time has affected your routines, personalities, relationships, and worldviews. It was a tall order. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that I could come up with a coherent and tidy answer.
Amazingly, several of you were up for the challenge. You shared stories of changes, big and small—some not-so-great, but the majority positive. You were thoughtful and vulnerable. You echoed things that other readers shared. You made me feel a lot less alone and a lot less worried about the state of the world.
Maybe most of all, you reminded me how resilient we all are.
“I have been reflecting on this throughout these two years, and my answers have become more nuanced over time,” Liz said. “Ultimately, what I keep coming back to is the codependence of joy and sorrow.”
Liz explained that being aware of how joy and sorrow intertwine helps her to view all things as temporary. When she’s feeling joy, she thinks about how things could easily not be joyful, which reminds her not to take the moment for granted. When she’s mourning, it’s “because I have a vision of joy, as things as they could be or as they once were.”
Liz added, “I've taken to using a line from Kurt Vonnegut in those moments when I realize that things are, at this moment, just fine: ‘If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.’ I'm not sure I would have gotten to this place without having gone through these past two years.”
Many of you shared that you’re now more comfortable saying “no” to social obligations situations and being content with a smaller circle of friends. “During the lockdowns, I was sometimes secretly happy that I didn't have to go to social engagements,” Robyn said. “Now, I've learned that it's important for my well-being that I do things that bring me joy, not foreboding. If that means staying in, so be it.”
“During the pandemic, I’ve had a significant shift in the way I approach friendships and relationships in general. Quality over quantity,” Christine said. “I was grateful that the pandemic forced everything off my calendar, forced everything off my plate, and I appreciate the wisdom from people like you to be very intentional about what gets back on to my schedule and my plate. That is a huge silver lining from all this.”
“I have accepted that I have limited energy to give to others and am now more careful and deliberate about who I invest my energy in,” Sarah M. said. She added that, “the last two years gave me the time and space to be me in a way I wasn't able to previously.”
Melissa shared similar thoughts. “Having so much physical and mental time away from certain people in my life gave me the space and, in many ways, safety to challenge myself and start trusting myself,” she said.
“I am living a life that is true to my values, my beliefs, myself. I'm trusting myself to be the center, whereas before I mostly allowed fear of judgment from others to be the center,” she continued.
Melissa added that she’s “embracing the paradox of the human experience more than ever.”
With COVID, I can feel both grateful for the growth I've experienced and devastated for the losses of others. More and more, it seems the one thing I'm absolute about is that there are no absolutes. Life is gray, complicated, confusing, and beautiful. I'm getting better each day at living in the wobbly middle, knowing that my center will continue to hold.
Two years into the pandemic, Marisa also trusts herself more. Not long before the world went into lockdown, she ended a six-year relationship, which she said “was the best decision I made in my life.”
“I went very deep into myself, healed many old wounds, and spent a lot of time with my inner child,” Marisa said. She took a sabbatical from work, drove the length of California, and worked remotely from Portland, Oregon, for a longer-than-expected six months. Each one of these experiences, which Marisa all did solo, helped her to better rely on and connect with the person she is. “Truly, the past two years were when I came into my full self,” she wrote.
Bridget is also feeling grateful, especially in terms of how her relationship with her daughter has evolved. “She was an 8-year-old third grader when the pandemic started, and I was a typical working mom who spent five days a week in the office,” she shared. But after only a few weeks of being home at the beginning of the pandemic, Bridget began to fully appreciate the benefit of spending extra time together. From the conversations they had on their endless neighborhood walks, to confronting the suspected ADHD her daughter’s doctors had gone back and forth on for years, she and her daughter built a stronger relationship than ever before.
I will never go back to being that woman who was too tired from my daily dose of commuting time and work-induced social anxiety to connect with her daughter everyday. Now she's nearing the end of fifth grade, getting ready to ship off to middle school next year—a time when kids traditionally start pulling away from their parents. I know that will still happen to us; it's healthy for kids to test boundaries and discover themselves. But now I know her so much better than I did two years ago, and I can really trust in the person she's becoming.
Of course, not all changes during the pandemic were positive. There were plenty of events with little to no silver linings to be found. Katie, who moved several times over the past few years to find a safe space, said she’s feeling “more anxious and more sad.”
“I feel like I’ve lost two years of my life,” she added. Katie came out as a lesbian later in life, and feels heartbroken that the pandemic stole opportunities for her to meet someone romantically.
“Even as I can be grateful for the beautiful memories I made with family and friends who cared for me and took me in when I needed it, I’m also deeply sad about lost time.”
Misha reflected on a different kind of loss. A few months before COVID was declared a pandemic, her husband was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer at age 35. Doctors said that it’s unlikely he’ll live more than 10 years from his diagnosis.
“It's been heartbreaking to confront the loss of my imagined, long future life together,” she said. “I'm still hit sometimes by strong sadness that we likely won't grow old together and watch our almost 3-year-old daughter grow into a teenager and adult.”
The past two years, though, have forced Misha “to slow down and learn from this awful situation.” She and her husband moved closer to his family. She’s working fewer hours, going to therapy, journaling, and “learning how to take care of myself in a way I hadn't before so I don't burn out.” Best of all, Misha is “learning to keep healthier boundaries so we can heal, face this future loss, and move forward together.”
You all shared plenty of small, notable changes, too. “If there's one way in which COVID-19 has changed me, I'd say it has made me appreciate the ability to go outside the house and be in the sun,” said Val, who lives in Vietnam. “We experienced hard lockdown here in Ho Chi Minh City and literally couldn't leave the house for months. Once we could taste freedom again, I resolved never to take for granted the ability to simply step outside the door.”
Taylor, too, loves to get outside, especially as part of her workday routine. “After nearly two years working from home, I'm more aware of how my workday is broken up and the significance of taking breaks to move my body. I've learned just how rejuvenating a quick walk around the block can be in the middle of a busy day,” she said.
Taylor also appreciates the magic of an after-lunch LaCroix—a simple way to add something special to a work-from-home day. It’s a simple joy that I love, too!
I could also relate to Sean, who has given up on the idea of saving certain things for special occasions.
“With the fragility of life laid so bare, it seems presumptuous to hold back on some of the simple things that bring us joy in the day-to-day,” he said. “I light the expensive candles. I no longer hesitate to write that first note in a brand new notebook. And lately, I send a note to a loved one when I find myself thinking about them. Maybe even on fancy stationery I have stashed away.”
Finally, I loved this simple yet profound response from Sarah A.: “I think the way I have changed is that I have become a stripped down version of myself, and honestly, I’m pretty ok with that.”
Thanks to everyone who chimed in. Whether or not we always recognize it, the past two years have had a profound effect on all of us.
One of the things I love about these responses is how accepting and gentle they are. They’re full of self-compassion, love, and gratitude. Do we wish the past two years were different? Of course. But we have the capacity to blossom in even the most challenging situations. It’s inspiring to see.