It never occurred to me that I might experience a global pandemic as a relief.
It’s even odd now to think back to last Monday, when I was so worked up about completing my taxes, transferring my driver’s license, and a few other life-administrative tasks that I called my mom on the phone. “I’m literally not worried about anything you’re telling me,” she said in her loving, matter-of-fact way. “None of this is a big deal. Go relax.” At the time, I wanted to believe her, but I couldn’t fully let my worries go.
Now that we’ve made it to where we are—schools like the one I work at aren’t going back to classes for weeks, the World Health Organization has declared a global pandemic, and the stock markets are roiling to a degree that threatens even my very tiny fund, my feelings are complicated. It’s a mixture of confusion, fear, and the free-fall of not really being able to anticipate my future for, well, the foreseeable future. But what’s surprised me most is a lingering feeling of relief. In some small way, I feel like I can—finally—relax.
It appears something may have been wrong with my perspective.
Suddenly, I feel so free of things that were weighing tremendously on my mind. The federal tax deadline has been extended for those who need it. No one could possibly expect me to go to a germy DMV. My laundry can wait until my apartment complex is less opposed to indoor gatherings. It would be better to wait on booking my non-urgent doctor’s appointment. I’m avoiding the gym, and for some reason I’ve been far more faithful to my online workouts than I was to the gym.
Don’t get me wrong—there are new worries, and many more for other people than there are for me. Concerns and precautions for those who are immunocompromised are a new and saddening thing that we all need to wrestle with these days. For many people, there are significant concerns about employment and finances. But, at the same time, something has shifted.
In my privileged position, there is something luxurious about sitting alone in my house all day, not needing to run errands, canceling travel, and taking the online graphic-design class that I never before found the time for. I’m hatching plans to work on my French and improve my flexibility, finally start brushing my cat regularly, bake lots of cookies. I’ll miss hanging out with my friends in person, of course, but what astonishes me is the degree to which some indescribable guilt has lifted—the guilt of all the things I should probably accomplish, but for the moment, I simply can’t. I have just one question: why did it take a pandemic for me to let this guilt go? What blew these mundane tasks so out of proportion? As a friend of mine put it just the other day, “If no one will die if we don’t push this paper around, why are we doing it in the first place?”
There are only consequences
Back when COVID-19 was nothing but a side note in the news, I picked up a book from the library: Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. Vanderkam, who has written for Verily, frequently makes the claim that we have more time than we give ourselves credit for: to be honest, I doubted it, but I hoped she was right.
As I read, the way that she thought about time began slowly but surely to revolutionize my days. Vanderkam’s essential insight is that everyone has the same 168 hours in a week: time to work, play, and pursue passions. Some people accomplish more than others, but that’s not because they have any more time: it’s because they’re making intentional choices about the time they have. In her TED talk, Vanderkam made a point that really sank in for me: “Time is a choice. And granted, there may be horrible consequences for making different choices, I will give you that. But we are smart people, and certainly over the long run, we have the power to fill our lives with the things that deserve to be there.”
After completing Vanderkam’s 168-hour time log, I had to face the fact that I was spending only about 4.5 hours a week—two percent!—of my time on the chores, errands, and worries that were consuming so much of my mental energy. That’s right—for all the stress induced by forgetting to make doctors’ appointments, trying to keep my house clean, and worrying about the car, I was spending less than two percent of my time on it. And, even more surprising, nothing was falling apart. I made it through that week without any major problems. The IRS didn’t come out to get me. No one rescinded my driver’s license. The Towel Police didn’t come to my door to check the cleanliness of my household linens.
It’s not a priority
What this time of staying indoors (though you don’t have to!) is teaching me is a concrete lesson in Laura Vanderkam’s principles. Vanderkam was trying to tell me that I didn’t need to worry so much about these things that were stressing me out—the many bureaucratic realities of modern life—and COVID-19 is driving the lesson home. My laundry is fine. My taxes are fine. My health is fine. What is more, a crisis like this helps me realize what’s really important. Letting myself let go of these worries is actually improving my life.
Another one of Vanderkam’s sayings is, “We don’t build the lives we want by saving time. We build the lives we want, and then time saves itself.” Instead of saying “I don’t have time to do x, y, or z,” she urges us to say, “I don’t do x, y, or z because it’s not a priority.” As she points out, she does have time to dust her blinds—if you offered her $100,000 to dust her blinds, she’d get to it pretty quickly. She doesn’t dust her blinds because she doesn’t want to do it. And she’s completely comfortable with that.
As a type-A person, I was the student who never missed a deadline, the group leader who planned the meetings, the friend who never failed to show. These things were make-or-break, ride-or-die—by clinging to everything with a superhuman strength, I accomplished my dreams through grade school, college, and a graduate degree. But as I grow into my adult life, I realize that this mindset has become damaging. I have somehow stored bureaucratic tasks like going to the DMV or paying my taxes in the mental category of “you are a failure if you don’t do these things as soon as humanly possible” (not a good category to have!). I still don’t do them as urgently as my mind tells me I should—but I let the guilt buzz around in my mind, polluting my other 163.5 hours. And it’s almost laughable, because the consequences to not doing many of these things immediately are rarely dire.
As I looked over my time log, a pretty beautiful life presented itself. I spent much more time socializing than I had realized, which I appreciate now more than ever, having moved to this town to be nearer friends. My log chronicled how I would come home from dinner or a singing night and journal until I went to bed. I spent long swathes of time reading my beloved library books. I squeezed in workouts over my lunch breaks. I started most mornings with quiet prayer time. I took a weekend road trip with a friend.
What was edging out these mundane tasks is a life that I really do love. When I first looked at my time log, I was disappointed. I was hoping that I’d find extra time to alleviate the guilt that seemed to plague my days. But now, in this time of crisis, I’m realizing that what I really need to do is just let the guilt go. This time is giving us all perspective, and it’s driving home for me what my mom already told me: that all the things I was worrying about really aren’t important.
Sure, lots of things still could be done, and at some point they do need to happen. But what if I just blocked out four hours a week and made my trips to the DMV and doctor’s office phone calls? What if I truly let go of my guilt in the way that I’m being forced to because of quarantines? What if I focused on filling my days to bursting with the things I love—reading, learning, spending time with friends—and chose to let go mentally of the administrative tasks that all-too-often overshadow my days? As Vanderkam points out, there might be unpleasant consequences to some time choices, but that doesn’t mean those consequences can force you to spend your time in a way you don’t want to.
When COVID-19 lifts, I’ll have to take a hard look at my finances. I’ll probably have to rebook a couple of doctor’s appointments. I’ll clean all my sheets. But I’m hoping that by that time I’ll have learned not to let those small worries bleed into the rest of my days.
As part of the book, Vanderkam recommends making a “List of 100 Dreams”: one hundred things you’d like to accomplish in life. It’s a great way to really get in touch with what you want, something that I was desperately in need of. As I looked over my list, I was surprised by how often the same general thoughts were written out: “Not run under a consistent degree of stress.” “Be secure and comfortable in my own skin.” “Not always feel guilty about not doing enough work.” Even, “Not always feel guilty about not being enough, generally.”
As I think about what I’ll do when we are all out of quarantine, I realize that “not always feel guilty about not being enough” will never make it onto my to-do list, but it might be one of the most important things I accomplish. I’m hoping that, with the help of this enforced break, I’ll start letting go of my guilt. My life is not my to-do list. My life is so much more.
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