Do our everyday anxieties have a place amidst a global pandemic?
“What is stressing you out the most, at this moment?”
“And how I’m failing at my job.”
“Oh, and my fatness.”
Someone who had just woken up out of a two-month-long coma might see this text exchange between my sister and me and think two things, the first being “Why are you showing this to me, and where are my pants?”; the second, maybe, “That’s all a bummer, but seems like a relatively normal conversation.” Because the truth is, many of us are finding that the things causing us the most stress in our lives are not actually caused by a global pandemic — they’re the same things that always have.
There’s a guilt that comes with obsessing over trivial things when the whole world is tanking, whether it’s your cellulite or figuring out how to secretly take a poop in the same apartment as your new boyfriend now that the coffee shop next door has closed. The first three weeks of quarantine, such concerns were far from my mind. I binged the news. I couldn’t get enough of Donald McNeil Jr’s future-telling, of Anthony Fauci’s graceful guidance, of Andrew Cuomo’s firm demeanor (shamefully, something that has kept my libido up and running in quarantine). I mainlined updates about the virus and rising death tolls directly into my brain, becoming addicted to the feeling of helplessness.
As it became apparent over the next few weeks that this was not ending anytime soon, my inner survivor craved routine. My news intake dwindled. I prioritized regular meals, walks, scheduled Zoom family calls — and what came with those routine activities was routine anxieties.
My problems at work, my conflicted feelings of living in New York, ongoing issues in my relationship, were still all there. One particularly hard day after giving a lukewarm virtual presentation to my team, I broke down crying. A familiar thought made its way into my mind: I’m a failure and I’m never going anywhere. And in the midst of this routine end-of-my-twenties breakdown, I suddenly became disgusted with myself. The nagging thought at the back of my mind for weeks was pushed to the forefront. I cried out (literally) the last blubbery sentence of my wail-fest: “And I shouldn’t even feel this way, because people are dying!”
The apocalypse is complicated. Right now, we’re in a place where things are bad, but not so bad that social or professional obligations have been eradicated. In the “end of days,” we all expected to be wearing armor made out of wolf bones and old car parts, not Kirkland sweatpants and Dorito dust. Your heart breaks for your friend that just lost her job, but you quietly find yourself even more miffed because your crush didn’t watch your Instagram story. Seven hundred people died in a single day in this city, but on that same day, you needed to circle back with Lauren from Marketing about your late expense reports. These two colliding worlds — doom and gloom, and business as usual — make it difficult to navigate what we should be feeling and to gain perspective as to what is actually a valid problem.
The fact is that there are endless ways to justify this guilt, a chief reason being privilege — privilege of wealth, of class, of age, and health. The current climate makes it impossible to ignore these ever-present and pervasive gaps. Those hardest hit by coronavirus have been immigrant communities and people of color. The people losing their jobs are largely in the service industry, many of whom were already fighting to make ends meet before all of this. These are the reasons as to why we can’t allow ourselves to resign to complacency; after all, this hardwired self-absorption is one of the reasons we’re here in the first place. It’s an endless Rubix cube of morality, and whatever conflicted feelings that an upper-middle class bystander may have doesn’t equate to a fraction of the struggle of someone less fortunate who is directly affected by disaster. It’s even more devastating to realize that this is no different than it was pre-COVID.
Hoping to invite some company into the harbor of my shamefully privileged feelings, I set out to survey some of my family and friends with a general query this week: “What’s stressing you out the most right now?” One responded back: “That same general looming feeling.”
“Of the pandemic?”
“I was talking about if my ex and I are going to get back together. But yes, that too!”
Another replied, “I’m stressed that my weed gummies haven’t arrived.”
As silly as that was, it cracked a smile.
It’s easy to focus on what has changed, but it’s comforting to notice what has not. Maybe stressing about your ex is self-absorbed, but it is also a way of clinging to normalcy in a time of global uncertainty. It’s self-preservation that makes us oddly resilient.
As a millennial, there’s an added shame in giving in to your inner-dialogue; we’re already perceived as being the most narcissistic demographic (I might add here that it’s not just us. My father’s response was particularly insightful. What’s been stressing him out? “Having a bad run in backgammon.”) I’m not the biggest proponent of the new wave of “self care” culture, but there’s value to be found in what is now possibly the official millennial mantra: “your feelings are valid.” Even when that feeling is guilt, or pettiness, or happiness, despite everything burning around you.
It’s a normal reaction to be stressed when the world is crumbling, but self-beratement won’t cure coronavirus, and tears won’t help keep people employed (other than maybe therapists). Only our actions can, however much of it you can spare. So if you find yourself with a constant side-dish of guilt with whatever petty dilemmas that arise, it’s okay. It’s a constant troubleshooting of how to hold these things in duality. Go donate twenty bucks to your local business today, offer genuine help to your friend who just lost their job, applaud healthcare workers every evening with those chapped, super-clean hands, and when that’s done, take comfort in pouring yourself a glass of wine and complaining to your partner about how your boss is being a real pain in the ass.