Last week I was chatting with a faculty member about how things were going in her classes. Looking at the third week census data and the first hint of color in the trees on campus, we both realized that we were well past the feelings of starting off and now fully immersed in the fall semester. With so much attention to the transition back to campus, that simple fact had escaped our notice. We are no longer in transition; we are here.
I am very proud of all that has occured to get this done. Between the rearranging of classrooms, to the creation of processes for collecting all of the relevant health information, to the managing of curriculum with an eye on any abrupt departures, everyone has worked tremendously hard to get back to something like normal. I am looking with joy at the performing arts and athletics schedules, and smiling as I observe students scurrying across campus to their classes. It feels almost like what I like to call the before times.
But it isn’t quite the before times.
Shortly after the conversation with my colleague, a series of messages came to me. Several were about managing campus spaces in this COVID environment. There were questions about addressing people who are wearing masks improperly, the limits of our obligations to students who are quarantining, appropriate strategies for dealing with a missing COVID test reports, and how we are handling contact tracing in an environment where the majority of people are vaccinated and wearing masks. As I responded to each question, I could see the frayed nerves in the language of the messages. I did my best to respond in ways that might soothe those frayed nerves, but I’m sure I missed the mark here and there.
Then there were the other messages about normal things – schedules, governance, new programs or initiatives. These messages also seemed to carry an intensity of tone that was, well, a little overwrought. People are trying to get on with the usual things that universities do, but everything feels a little extra right now. Messages are a little more accusatory than the tone of our normal, healthy debates. Things that might have taken a few exchanges to get to frustration, now seem to start at a yell. Maybe the fact that so many of our conversations are still in Zoom-like environments, is causing us to lose the ability to recognize our shared efforts and camaraderie.
I think what we are experiencing is the emotional equivalent of long-COVID. Please know that I understand the seriousness of the physical symptoms of long-COVID. I am not being glib. What I am observing, though, is that this pandemic has created a sustained period of uncertainty and it is wearing us down.
In the field of communication, there is a body of research about uncertainty flowing from Berger and Calabrese’s Uncertainty Reduction Theory. The gist of the theory is pretty simple – we don’t really like uncertainty and we work hard to reduce it. Sometimes this behavior results in short cuts that are problematic (stereotyping, for example), but in all cases we tend to seek information to reduce uncertainty as quickly as possible. We build understanding with each interaction with new people or places or ideas and try to build ourselves a map of what we are experiencing and how to proceed. With COVID-19, it has been very difficult to get to the part where we feel confident about the predictions we are making for how to proceed.
We thought we would be through this by now. After all, the promise of the vaccinations became real last December. Many of us couldn’t wait to get our appointments and our biggest concern was holding on until our age group was scheduled. Yet, even as we did this, many were still in that limbo that comes with family members who are too young for vaccination. They have to hold out longer.
Then we were faced concerns about getting the vaccination in it’s experimental status. The FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine helped, but there was also the emergence of the Delta variant and suddenly everyone seemed to know someone who was vaccinated and still got COVID. Doubts began to flourish and all my hope for returning to classrooms under normal conditions were dashed with a quick pivot back to masks. We all have to hold out longer.
Despite these lingering concerns and disruptions, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic. We have emerging science on the impact of booster shots that is very encouraging. There will soon be vaccinations available for younger children, helping all members of our community get just a little more peace of mind. Today the trend data shows that the rate of infection is slowing again, so maybe we’re turning a corner. Fingers crossed.
But even with the good news, we are still living with uncertainty. We can’t get that feeling that we have things under control, and it is stressing everyone out. I wish it weren’t so, but that stress is showing up in interactions all over the place. We are going to have to find a way to reset our perspectives and figure out how to live in this limbo a bit longer.
This leaves me thinking about what I can do to support everyone through what I hope is a not too much longer period of not quite normal. I would love to be able to just mandate some hours of relaxation for all of us. Instead of a common hour for meetings, we need one for breathing. Would that I could alter our schedules for this immediately! But I can’t so I will suggest things that are totally obvious, but maybe need to be said. Here goes:
- Take more walks. Right now is the perfect time as the temperatures drop and the leaves change. A walk on a trail or a sidewalk is fine. Getting outside is the crucial part. I want to also recommend that you actually leave that phone home while you do it, but if you must carry it for emergencies, keep it in your pocket.
- Try a little yoga. I know the complex routines of advanced yoga can be intimidating and some see it as something that is outside of their worldview, but the most basic of stretches are really soothing. The most important thing about them is that you stop focusing on to-do lists and inhale deeply. It is a natural way to slow your heartbeat and re-group. If I really can’t convince you to do yoga, try any other quasi-athletic thing you enjoy. The point is to shift your attention from your work life and the rest of things you feel you must do.
- Listen to or play some music. If you are playing music, you will not be able to worry about other things. If you are lucky enough to play music with other people you will reignite those collaborative skills of nuanced listening and mutual support that seem to be suffering in the zoomiverse. If you are a listener, do it with your eyes-closed. Tune out the world and tune into the sound. It is a break from the endless screens that we rely on all the time.
- Most of all, examine your schedule and delete a few things. We just don’t have to do every task we have set for ourselves. If we take a good look and cut out a few things, the rest of this marathon of uncertainty might be just a little more manageable.
But I always say to do a little less. It isn’t just COVID that pushes me this way–it is the general observation that our society – especially education – is trying to do too many things. We really can’t teach everything or ensure that our students will absorb or engage everything we thinks is interesting and important in a few short years of their lives. Nor can we do all of the research that interests us, even in a full career. We can afford to do a little less and still learn interesting and valuable things.
For today, though, my case for less is really about making room for the breaks we need right now. This long pandemic is wearing us down and we need to get a grip. So I am encouraging everyone to do a little less so you can log off and turn your attention to anything that makes you breathe deeply. You’ll be glad you did.