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What I'm Learning

There is something humbling about this quarantine thing. Even though I’m still doing my job, I’m working from home, and my life is pretty rudimentary. The routine is basic, the interactions are few, and one day blends into the next. And yet, despite the enormous change and the profoundly simplified structure, I’m still kind of average at most things—at least according to the complex, detailed self-judgment chart I first created as a young teenager. My personal grading system is much more sophisticated than it used to be, and perhaps slightly kinder. On difficult days, though, it helps remind me of the ways in which I don’t live up to some crazy expectation of my own making.

But in this odd time, when Wednesday is just like Tuesday, and we’re all just doing whatever we need to do to keep moving forward, the chastisement feels like a waste of time. It’s also so exhausting that I wonder how I’ve been able to aim at such a high bar for so long. What’s worse, I’m discovering in these days of not caring what pants I wear, is how hard I’ve been on myself for missing that bar so many times.

As we all struggle to find order in our newly unusual world, we seem okay with okay.

In what feels like week 97 of this strange episode in our lives, I’ve actually had some realizations about myself. The primary one is that this is about as good as I am at anything—and that’s not a bad thing. And it’s not just all this open time that has helped me recognize that I am who I am, no matter what. When I retired briefly six years ago, I had dreams of spending all my free time writing and doing other creative projects. I didn’t question the fact that I had the same exacting expectations of myself in my after-work life that I had in the working one. I learned quickly that I may have, once again, been unrealistic and unfair. But I didn’t exactly let myself off the hook. Instead, I just went back to work, where no one raised an eyebrow at high personal demands.

Then came the pandemic. I find myself working just as hard—my calendar filled with meetings and my to-do list still unsatisfyingly long. And yet, I know really clearly that I can only do what I can do. Practically every conversation is stilted and slightly distant. Every email sounds too formal or too cloying. No day ends with a feeling of accomplishment. But it’s all we’ve got, and I can completely accept this. I’m running a little more because I have more time, but I’m balancing out the effects with extra food to comfort myself. And, weirdly, I'm just letting myself do it. The day I walked out of my office in mid-March, I imagined having more time to write in the quarantine. What I didn’t imagine was staring out the window and wondering for hours what life after this will look like. And yet, I’m really not chiding myself or holding up the bar to judge how short my jump was.

Instead, I’ve actually found my sense of humor about myself again—what do I have to lose? And more than anything, I’ve been reminded of a concept attributed to Voltaire—perfect is the enemy of good. As we all struggle to find order in our newly unusual world, we seem okay with okay. If I can get up each day and create some semblance of structure and joy, that’s pretty great. When I climb into bed at night, I let myself read a little longer than usual because I’m sleeping a bit later in the morning. And instead of guilt, I lament the many pre-pandemic days when I kept myself on too short a leash to be flexible with my schedule.

A part of me longs to hold on to some of this freedom I’m allowing myself when we return to whatever will be the new normal a few months from now. Honestly, though, I don’t fully trust that I can or will. I can easily see myself tightening up the rules, tossing this crazy time aside as an anomaly. But I’d love to see this as the line in the sand, welcoming me to a clean slate—less structure, fewer rules, and many more celebrations of a life well-lived.

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