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The Black Hole of Uncertainty

How do you pull yourself up if you don’t know that you’re down?

“We’re all going to have to stay in our homes for a little while,” said our national leaders. “It’s for the common social good. A few weeks, maybe a few months, of missed plans and isolation, and we will put all of the bad stuff behind us.”

“Oh no!” replied the introverts of the world, reaching for a blanket and burrowing deeper into the couch. “How ever will we cope?”

Sounds like me, right?

It’s been a little over a month since my state issued its stay-at-home order. It was, at first, a little scary: would we run out of food? toilet paper? what does this mean for my future?

These being the extent of my concerns, though – most of them intangible – shows how lucky I am: I can’t get laid off from the U.S. Navy (and boy do I try). No matter what, I’ll be able to pay my rent and have healthcare and a job. But this is not true for an alarming number of people who are now relying on a safety net not designed for a crisis like this, and wouldn’t be sufficient to support people in need, to this extent, even if it was. And now that I’m hurtling down My Bullshit Lane, if we could pull our heads out of our asses for, like, a single second, we might realize that some of our previous assumptions about the way things have to be simply aren’t true, and we can’t go back to the way things were, pre-pandemic. Too many of us are just a single misfortune away losing everything.

I say all of this as a disclaimer, knowing full well that there’s some measure of guilt in what I’m going to talk about here: being able to move through pure anxiety to find moments of joy during a crisis where others find only the misery of need and uncertainty. If you’re in a tough place, please don’t take any of this as a minimization of your hardship, or some inane encouragement to look on the bright side. Sometimes reflexive cheerfulness is the wrong reaction. It feels strange to be positive now, sometimes, occasionally. Now and then, it does sneak up on me, but it took a while to get there.

You're Interacting With Dark Matter Right Now - The Atlantic
Illustration by Paul Fleet

Social distancing guidelines forced my command leadership’s hand; they would prefer it if we sat around in the office all day, shining our boots and talking about how cool the Navy was, once. We started by splitting the workforce in half for morning and afternoon shifts with no overlap and a deep clean in between. After a few weeks, we changed to a one week on, one week off schedule instead, following our parent command’s example. The idea, I think, is to further limit exposure to one another.

This changed things for me in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.

At first, I reveled in all the free time, giddy almost to the point of delirium. Who doesn’t want a free week-long stay-cation? It felt good, full of promise and potential. With all this extra time, you’d think I would be more creative, more productive, and more rested, right? I thought I would be, too. I thought I would write and read and exercise and get done all those little chores that I never seem to have the motivation for on the weekend. But it was so easy to fall into a routine based solely on whims. I reverted back to my purest instincts, doing whatever I wanted to do in the moment.

I was also having trouble sleeping. I woke up two, three, sometimes four times each night, falling back to sleep though never for very long. I got hives on my chest. My jaw ached from clenching it shut. I didn’t feel stressed – or maybe I was doing a bang-up job of repressing thoughts and feelings of stress. After all (I tried to rationalize), what was there for me to be stressed about? People out there were losing jobs and incomes. People were on the front lines in healthcare and essential services, exposing themselves daily to something that might kill them. By comparison, all I had to do was hang out. I love hanging out! So why was my body so stressed?

I noticed, too, that my living space was increasingly neglected. Things were dropped and forgotten where they lay, piling up. Floors and dishes unwashed. Dust on surfaces – especially my car, grimy with lack of use. Our physical spaces sometimes reflect our mental state; I know this, yet I couldn’t motivate myself to care. It’s just me – here, alone – occupying myself long enough to pass the time until everything goes back to normal, or to a new normal. So what was the point?

Repeatedly asking what’s-the-point, though, accumulates in your head like so much dirty laundry. It seems like a harmless question, but when unanswered, it’s a statement of feeling without the boldness of imperative – that is, there is no point. There is no reason to clean, or take care of myself, or do something worthwhile, something I’m proud of. It turns out that I’m a world champion of distracting myself and passing the time, of never ever being bored because – activities! But in the absence of structure, I’m not so good at deriving meaning from nothing. Given a void, I become it: dark and hollow, empty of those things which make all the extra time meaningful.

I just had to, you know, like, discover purpose? Not for the first time?

This is something my therapist and I talk about quite a bit: how it feels easy and safe and sometimes even good to distract ourselves away from negative feelings with hobbies, with other people, with work, or projecting a cheerful exterior. I often mistake being entertained for being happy, especially because it’s so hard to confront yourself with the reality of your own unhappiness.

This is hard to admit. This doesn’t match up with my understanding of myself as independent, creative, and self-motivated. It’s embarrassing to realize that you need someone, like a parent, to tell you to do something more than just passing the time. But I know that I’m not the only one who learned (or re-learned) something about myself in the past month or two.

Two things busted me out of my sad lil funk:

  • Planning for possible outcomes. This sounds like classic anxiety disaster-anticipation, but it was the opposite: realizing that unintended and even undesirable outcomes could have positive benefits. I think I was troubled by the uncertainty of the future more than anything else, so imagining all the ways in which things might turn out better than my original plans brought a surprising amount of peace.
  • Having responsibilities to people other than myself. Okay, I did spend a lot of time gloating about not having a spouse or children to look after, and I’m sorry about it a little bit, but it feels good (maybe even necessary) to be needed and relied on. Work took this away from me, so I had to find it in other ways. Looking beyond my own needs made them seem less intense.

In short, I have to manage my expectations and maintain meaningful connections. For me, it always come back to those two principles.

And once I reconnected with these ideas, I was able to see some rays of joy during an otherwise dark time: talking to my friends and family way more often that usual; swimming at the beach – now so much clearer and bluer without the mass of tourists – while the pools are closed; starting a new equipment-free workout routine with a group of friends; being able to wake up with the sun and not before; attending Mass virtually with the Bishop, whose services I’ve truly enjoyed; finding a new creative community which encouraged me to start writing again, even when it felt hard. Allowing myself to experience happiness, in turn, gave me the courage to face those things which I had been avoiding, which might also produce unpleasant feelings: boring tasks, cleaning, taking care of myself.

I guess this post serves as a time capsule. I’m setting in amber a time where things seemed very scary and uncertain, and how it exacerbated my own particular anxieties. A time capsule, by its nature, is a manifestation of hope: that it will be unearthed sometime in the future by someone who will find it interesting or useful. Maybe, the next time I feel dragged down into that existential void by things I can’t control, I’ll come back to this post and remember that I’ve climbed out of holes like this before.

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