Twenty years ago, I hiked the Inca Trail in the Peruvian Andes. In one memorable segment, our group passed through four micro-climates. As we set camp that night, we marveled at the richness of experiencing four completely different ecologies in a single day. I’ve never forgotten it.
That trek is an appropriate metaphor for the past three weeks, and likely, for the foreseeable future. Each day, I feel like I’m hiking through at least four emotional microclimates, some lovely and some insufferable. I think we all do. I’m learning through this whiplash that I have a default emotional state, which I now recognize as optimism spiced with an above-average dose of anxiety and a strong bias toward action. I miss that state.
To wit – less than two weeks ago, my 4th and 6th grade daughters were home on Day 1 of closure from school. We swung into gear — cleaning out old toys and dolls so every inch of our not-huge house would accommodate our new work and learn-from-home life. We made this work fun with laughing and music and visits down memory lane. We created a huge pile on our porch and allowed a socially-distant responsible 24 hours for 1-800-gotjunk to come haul it all away. We felt anxious about the new normal, sure, but optimism that we could enjoy the break from routine. We focused on action. If we can’t control the virus, at least we can control our clutter. Right?
But over the past week I have lost my footing. I wander through different emotional states with intensity and often little warning. My new microclimates are these:
Fear. No one knows how bad this will get, and in the absence of that certainty, we can spiral to worst-case scenarios. Last week, we heard both that Wuhan had no new cases, but also that Italy’s death toll had exceeded China’s. And New York is now officially a pandemic epicenter. How long will we live this new normal? How many people will die? How can we protect each other? Will we find a cure? Will we overwhelm our hospitals as we infect our frontline healthcare workers? We just don’t know, and it’s terrifying. I find myself endlessly scrolling news sites and social media for good news, but when I find it, I don’t believe it. I’ve had to start limiting my online hours to manage this emotional state.
Anger. We are the world’s largest economy, yet, our country is facing a shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare providers and critical care equipment in hospitals and clinics. Many are suggesting that the CDC’s rollback on guidelines for appropriate protection is simply the result of equipment shortages. We are failing our frontline workers. I lack words for how mad I feel, and for the powerlessness to do anything about it (other than sew masks, a tactic whose effectiveness I understand to be unclear. On a Zoom happy hour with college friends last night, we dubbed mask sewing a “feel-good sham”).
Despair. The economic toll of this pandemic is already enormous, with unemployment claims skyrocketing the past two weeks and heart-breaking stories of families living on the edge filling our news feeds. Mr. Rogers always encouraged seeking the helpers in tough times, and being a helper has always been a personal core value. But today, I feel handcuffed. Aside from making donations and supporting local restaurants’ take-out business, how can I help if I can’t leave home? (In addition to the coronavirus toll, my hometown, Nashville, has just barely started to recover from the devastating tornadoes that struck less than three weeks ago). Our economy is in freefall. People are suffering. And I feel like a passive bystander.
Gratitude. I have a roof over my head with a backyard big enough to toss a lacrosse ball, in a neighborhood where socially distanced walks still allow enough human interaction that you’ll encounter someone willing to chat from six feet away. I have two jobs, college professor and executive coach, that lend themselves beautifully to Zoom. My students are being flat-out awesome, showing up to virtual class and crushing it on presentations. My clients are still with me. I have two wonderful daughters aged 10 and 11. I tell them often that my love for them is unconditional and my like for them depends on behavior – and never in my life have I loved and liked them more. Sure, my tween rolled eyes and slammed her door when I told her home-schooling would start during spring break. But she has also taken on responsibility for the dog, watering the plants, and folding laundry. When I enlist her help, she agrees, if not always cheerfully. My younger daughter surprised me the other morning by unloading and reloading the dishwasher, then waking me up with a cup of coffee in bed. My blessings abound, and I vacillate between being brought to my knees with gratitude, and feeling crippled with guilt because so many are so much worse off.
So I’m without terra firma. I float through these states sometimes as if in a dream and sometimes as if in a horrible nightmare. On Tuesday, I had my first day of remote teaching for my Negotiation students at Vanderbilt, and I shared that my approach would be business as usual – we all need some normalcy in these crazy times – with a large dose of compassion. I taught for 2.5 hours in the morning, and again for 2.5 hours in the afternoon. The students were awesome – all of them came to class, turned on their Zoom cameras, and participated with more passion and intelligence than they did on February 24th, the last time we were all together in a classroom. For most of the day, I was back in my default state of optimism, and even managed for a few precious moments to forget about coronavirus. Business as usual felt perfect.
But Wednesday was completely different. A student I adore told me she tested positive for COVID-19, one of several in the Vanderbilt community. And another shared that he believes he is positive but can’t get tested. It rained all day, inside and out. I find myself on this trek with no map and no obvious orientation, because the destination – where we’re all headed – is unknown. Moving through emotional microclimates doesn’t fill me with wonder. It fills me with many other things, and that’s the problem – the landscape is always changing. I’m coming to terms with my microclimates and trying to learn to feel okay in each, as scary, infuriating, depairing and awe-inspiring as they might be. And for lack of a better compass, I’m bringing my mantra of “business as usual with compassion”. This, too, will be a hike I’ll never forget, and neither will my children. Neither will any of us.