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A month has passed since I stayed behind with a few hundred students after campus’s official closure. During the first few weeks of quarantine, I was restless. I FaceTimed friends constantly, went for long runs, and binge-watched all the shows I’ve never had time for. But recently, I lost all my motivation. I had no energy to call friends and family through a screen or tune in to live Zoom classes. I would take long naps and scroll endlessly through Instagram and Facebook feeds. My day doesn't really get going until 5 p.m. Somehow, time both slips away and passes excruciatingly slowly. There seems to be a distinct quarantine fatigue that comes from being alone inside all day.
Adjusting to this isolation and exhaustion is not easy. Even so, every time I reflect on my quarantine situation, I would compare my circumstances to others and tell myself over and over again that I have no right to be sad or unproductive. “I should not feel sad when there are people who are sick. I should not feel unproductive when there are people who don’t have access to the resources I have.” I see this mindset of comparison in many others who are going through this experience and it is not only limiting but also decreases our empathy for others.
The coronavirus epidemic has brought us collective grief in different forms. David Kessler, the foremost expert on grief, explains that we are collectively grieving the loss of normalcy, connections, and plans for the future. “We’re feeling a number of different griefs,” he says, “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different.” However, despite the fact that we are going through it together, we still compare the grief we are feeling to that of others. For a college student who has lost their graduation and the last two months of what was supposed to have been the best time of their college experience, their grief is “less” compared to the grief of people who are sick. For people who have been working hard on a project, a performance, an event for weeks, months, and years and lost the chance to see it come to fruition, their grief is “less” than the grief of people who lost their job.
By comparing one person’s grief to another’s, we are creating a sort of suffering Olympics. The suffering Olympics ranks everyone’s level of suffering and decides based on the ranking who has a right to express their feelings and who does not.
The worst side effect of this Olympics is that it diminishes the empathy we have for others. Brené Brown, University of Houston professor known for her research on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, explains in her podcast that when we deny our emotions, they double down and grow, inviting shame for feeling a certain way when other people have it worse. Brene says, “The exhausted doctor in the ER in New York does not benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from yourself or from your coworker who lost their job. The surest way to ensure that you have a reserve of compassion and empathy for others is to attend to your own feelings.” We have to put on our own emotional oxygen mask first before assisting others. It’s not a zero-sum game; letting ourselves feel in the first place will allow us to have more love and empathy to share with others.
It is still important, however, that we feel grateful for the positive situations in our lives even now. Gratitude can coexist with a bit of sadness and grief. A college student can feel grateful that they have a safe home to return to, yet simultaneously feel sad for the lost two months of independence and memories with their friends. A parent can be grateful for the health of their children, yet feel overwhelmed with the noise and chaos of the whole family being home.
Feeling sad does not mean we are ingrates; it just means we are complex humans capable of having different emotions and thoughts at the same time.
All of this is unprecedented, including the stress and the quarantine fatigue. Although it sounds effortless to stay inside with all this free time, lack of outside stimuli and a feeling of entrapment can be taxing. It is more important than ever for us to be kind to ourselves and spend even a few minutes allowing ourselves to accept the sadness, fear, and anxiety of the moment instead of numbing or trying to distract ourselves. These personal emotions should not be subject to the suffering Olympics. They must be embraced. By allowing ourselves to feel, we open the door for others to do the same, ultimately infusing empathy and love into our grieving world.
Javhlan Amgalanbaatar ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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