I’ve been feeling down, lately, and I bet I’m not alone. In fact, I bet there are millions of us feeling the same way. Maybe even you. Even before the pandemic forced us to embrace social distancing out of necessity, we were already experiencing a loneliness epidemic. This virus basically took an already appalling situation and put it on steroids.
Social science tells us that there are only a few things we can (somewhat) control that bring us joy. These things include family, friendships, community, vocation, and faith—and COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on every last one of them.
If you skipped Thanksgiving this year to protect your loved ones, you have firsthand knowledge of the psychic impact the pandemic has had on family, friends, and community. If you lost your job or business (or even if you just had your workday invaded by “remote learning” for offspring who should be at school), your vocation has been, at a minimum, hobbled. And even if your religious faith is strong, you are probably worshipping online and thereby missing the communal and spiritual benefits of gathering together with like-minded believers.
As a natural introvert who has worked from home for the last four years, I was mostly unfazed by the first few months of this. Sure, I missed seeing my friends, but the occasional Zoom chat sustained me, as did my podcasts and video interviews, which forced me to talk with stimulating people several times a week.
I was also blessed by virtue of a change of scenery. My family moved to West Virginia just as spring arrived. The days were getting longer, and we were often able to dine outside, often with the Blue Ridge Mountains as our backdrop. We went for long hikes. We attended church under a large open-air tent. It felt like we beat the system.
But now, we are nearing the darkest time of the year. Most of these outings are coming to an end, and we don’t even have the prospect of holiday parties, family gatherings, or elite Georgetown cocktail parties (I’m trolling, here) to soften the blow. It’s starting to feel like I’ve finally exhausted all of the ways to motivate myself. I bet I’m not the only one. At some point, you can’t con yourself. I have now reached that point.
Churchill supposedly said success is going from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm. Personally, I don’t think that’s the definition of success. It’s the definition of survival. And the tools we might normally use to buy ourselves out of a serious funk—that weekend on a sunny beach, that glamorous night at a nice restaurant, tickets to see that new movie—are no longer at our disposal.
For me, there’s something else, too. Aside from enduring months of social distancing, coupled with the annual gloom that accompanies the onset of winter, I’ve also discovered that returning to my rural roots was a double-edged sword. Pre-COVID, when I lived near Washington, D.C., I was always busy flying somewhere to do something that at least looked glamorous or important. I still saw my family a lot, but I was on the go and in demand.
Now, I’m always here. Unfortunately, being here is a constant reminder of my past: the classmate who died in a car crash when he was just a teen, the girlfriend who cherished me when I was too stupid and immature to appreciate it, and my dad who dropped dead of a heart attack at age 56. Their ghosts are all alive and well. Here.
Forgive me for waxing nostalgic, but for the first time in years, I have the time to wallow and contemplate. Is everyone else going through this? Or could it be that I’m merely having a midlife crisis amid the other craziness?
That hardly seems fair. Besides, who would run away with me in a convertible IN THE MIDDLE OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC? I have a hard enough time making new friends, and it's the wrong season to drive a convertible. And where would we even go? Plus, it’s difficult to look cool in a mask (unless you’re Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, or those girls in that Bryan Adams video—but those were different kinds of masks).
My wife doesn’t have these problems. She can rock a mask and make new friends. She met up with a female neighbor just the other night. They sat outside around a fire, drank wine, and talked for hours. This was a new friend she made since moving here. Why couldn’t I do that, she wondered. Men, I told her, don’t make those kinds of new friendships easily. Not at this stage in the game. Not after high school or college. Sure, I have a few good old buddies, but they live far away. The ones who are close by are also being very safe—so safe that they probably wouldn’t even risk meeting up with me outside (not that I would ask).
She urged me to set up some Zoom calls this week, and, after balking at the idea, I decided she was right (as usual). So, taking great pains not to sound desperate (I am desperate), I’ve set up a few calls, even though I didn’t feel like it. And you know what? The mere process made me feel a little better. Small changes can make a big difference because they give us something to look forward to.
Something else that has helped me is remembering the reason for the season. The best way to get out of a funk is to realize how blessed you are. Thanksgiving prompts us to be grateful and to give thanks. To remember how fortunate we are and to reach out and give back to those in need.
Take me, for example. I’m healthy. I live in a free country (if we can keep it). I have a beautiful wife, two great kids, and turkey leftovers in my fridge. A lot of other people would kill for my life. Thinking about someone other than ourselves is just the thing to pry us out of the worst of funks. And just think—a vaccine is (potentially) just a few months away. Now that is something we can all be thankful for. 2021 is going to be our year. I can feel it.