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The idea of vaccination is to present the immune system with a mild challenge, something that resembles a dangerous pathogen but isn’t one, and thereby stimulate an adaptive response that leaves the immune system better able to handle the real pathogen, if and when it ever arrives. We don’t yet have a COVID-19 vaccine. But for me, there is a metaphorical sense in which COVID-19 is a vaccine.
I am a creature of habit. I cling to my routines and rituals, finding comfort in the familiar. But at the same time, I crave change, I thrive on new and different experiences, and I derive satisfaction from learning things. And so there is a constant tension in my life, as my preference for the comfortable and familiar leaves me feeling bored and stuck in a rut.
But a little more than two months ago, all routines were forcibly suspended, and any ruts I might have been in vanished. Mind you, I am conscious of the fact that I am one of the lucky ones: our household income has not been affected, and my wife and I can both easily work from home. We do not have small children to care for. We are essentially homebodies; my idea of a perfect Friday night is to eat takeout restaurant food while watching a movie on Netflix. I know that a lot of people are suffering far worse than we are. If it weren’t for shortages at the grocery store and the closure of some of our favorite restaurants, we could do this indefinitely.
Nonetheless, this forcible disruption of my routines has been like a reset button. Because we aren’t going to restaurants, I’m cooking some new and different things. My optometrist closed, so when I needed some new glasses I decided to try ordering eyeglasses online. I have learned that it is possible to cut one’s own hair. None of these adaptations are important, but they are new and different, and I expect many of my new habits to persist even after the pandemic is over.
More importantly, though, I have learned some new skills for keeping myself sane. I have finally learned what I already knew: that there is little to be gained by obsessively following news that only makes me anxious. Instead of worrying about the problems of the world, I have narrowed my focus to myself and my family. I cannot do anything about the pandemic, nor about the political arguments surrounding it, so it is pointless for me to fret about any of it. What I can do is try to keep myself and my family safe, and keep myself employed. I can try to control only the things I can control, and that is a remarkably effective way of reducing one’s stress level.
And I have regained some perspective that I had lost. We had to cancel our vacation plans for this year, but I find myself oddly content with that: right now, the idea of just going to the mall seems like an exciting enough adventure. And when I do find the shelves at the grocery store stocked with the products I came for, I don’t take it for granted: I am genuinely grateful for the prosperous country I live in.
I would not be so glib or insensitive as to say that this pandemic has in any way been a good thing. But some good can come out of the experience of living through it. This crisis, and the way it has forced me out of my routines, has prompted an adaptive response in me that I hope will leave me better prepared to handle a more serious crisis, if one someday comes. And indeed, even if one doesn’t: if I have learned to be more self-sufficient, more adaptable, calmer, and more appreciative of ordinary life, I will be better off.
I just hope that we, as a country, can similarly emerge from this experience stronger and better prepared for the next challenge we face, and not mortally wounded.Published in