COVID-19 has made us painfully aware that things aren’t what they used to be. For many, it’s also helping us realize that the “used to be” version of our lives needed a kick in the pants anyways. Maybe we needed a catalyst—like a global pandemic—to both value and experience our lives to their fullest?
Aldous Huxley said, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted,” and it’s taken the slap in the face of a virus to put the spotlight on what we assumed would always be there—from the trivial, like vanilla almond milk (oh, how I miss you), to seeing a loved one in person (oh, how I miss you, Dad), and to the biggest one of all: life itself.
There are, as of writing this, 169,967 reasons to remind us that life is totally temporary. 169,967 souls have passed from this virus so far, and many had a lot of life left in them to live about a month ago. That number is hard to grasp for its sheer immensity, but also because we’re wired to mentally distance ourselves from other people’s peril. The tentacles of this virus are far-reaching, though, and by now we all know at least one of the 2,475,010 people who have caught this thing, and many of us know someone (or of someone) who has died from it. That brings it a little closer to home, doesn’t it?
Many of us have been stuck in a kind of autopilot for countless virus-free months and years, letting the same routines and habits suck the life out of our lives. Some of us knew deep down that we needed to shake shit up but didn’t really have the push to do the shaking. Whether we were ready or not, shit got shaken up. Our train rides into work, the cappuccinos we get at that place near the office, the good morning nods to Yolanda in marketing, the morning status meetings in conference room B, the reheated P.F. Chang’s for lunch, the train rides home, the next episodes on Netflix, the bedtime routines… the routines aren’t routines anymore. The autopilot switch broke weeks ago.
We’re clamoring to make sense of a new normal – but is normal what we really want? Only 9% of Britons said they want things to go back to the way they were in a recent survey. If what many of us are interested in is feeling “the rapture of being alive” ( a la Joseph Campbell), then a pandemic-sized change might be exactly what we need. I don’t want to go back to the routines that lulled me into varying degrees of lifelessness.
Much to my delight, many clients and friends are talking about how they want things to be in their post-COVID lives, how they’ve experienced subtle—or even seismic—shifts that they want to sustain when they can go back to buying all the toilet paper they want again. Many have made decisions about how they want to take care of their bodies a bit better, or spend more time with their kids (but definitely not 100% of their time for weeks on end). Some want to continue their weekly zoom calls with remote friends and family, lamenting why it took a pandemic to start talking to Aunt Carol again. Some want to travel to Thailand the minute it’s safe to do so because not being able to travel to Thailand has made it that much more alluring. Some want to edit their careers to be more meaningful because the pandemonium has made them see their current gigs in a new light. Scarcity has a way of framing things as more valuable, doesn’t it?
Let me pause for a moment and admit that I have been wringing my hands over here, and not because I don’t have my vanilla almond milk. My undying interest in tapping into mortality-as-a-means-to-vitality has been rivaled as of late by my unwavering desire to not hurt people’s feelings, especially in a time of fear, anxiety, and grief. Will talking about the way I see this pandemic as an opportunity to live like we mean it be seen as “too soon?”
I do think that now is the time to reflect on our impermanence, precisely because it’s a tender time out there. When we’re at our most raw is when we might just be receptive to change. And I do think that now is the time to interrogate where the shine might have dulled around the edges of our lives. I believe we show our lives the respect they deserve by experiencing them widely and deeply, in the limited amount of time with which we’ve been graced. If anything could be seen as “too soon,” it’s that our endings might arrive before we know it, before we’ve had the chance to see what our lives are expecting from us.
This isn’t an attempt to put a big, pretty bow on a terrible and deadly time. This also isn’t meant to diminish the grief that people are feeling out there. It’s a clarion call to make something of this moment in time, to maximize what might be the most profound opportunity available to us. Just like how the season of spring is forcing new growth, people are starting to awaken to what’s possible in this next season of life. The blunt awareness of what we have to lose has made what’s possible seem so much more valuable.
This might be the once in a lifetime event that forces us to rethink everything: whether we’re living vitality-filled lives, meaning-filled lives, lives we’re proud to call our own. What do we need to do today to start living on purpose, and how do we want it to be when the corona-dust has settled and the temptation is strong to go back to the way it used to be? I don’t know about you, but I’m hellbent on not wasting this wakeup call. I don’t want my life to be a big yawn before I get to the proverbial big sleep. I want to live a long life, sure – but mostly a full life, a life that I appreciate because it’s precious and fleeting. I want that for you, too.