So the world has gone mad, nothing is in its usual place, and we’ve all had to scramble… Now what? For most of us, the nervous energy of the first weeks of quarantine has given way to a certain grim resignation: we’re going to have to keep doing this. So the question really becomes, how are we going to do this? Those of us who like to turn fear and nervous energy into projects (“I can’t control the pandemic, but I WILL control this junk drawer! OH YES, I SHALL”), are perhaps finding that we can’t sustain the frenetic pace at which we began. While it is noble and admirable to look for the opportunities in every struggle, is it really realistic to think we can use our quarantine to become fluent in Italian, lose 10 pounds, watch all of Netflix, redecorate the house, learn to crochet, solve world hunger AND hold down a job, while keeping the family from killing each other? Seems like a lot, honestly.
A few weeks in, and we are weary, friends. All of us. And to my knowledge, there will be no Quarantine Achievement Awards Ceremony when it’s all over. No All-Pandemic Team, no Social Distance MVP or Isolation All-Stars, no Best Performance by a Quarantined Parent in a Math Class.
So why are we trying to out-hustle our fear?
These are extraordinary times we find ourselves in, and although everyone’s losses and disruptions are different, the grief is collective. Which is both a challenge and an opportunity. When crisis befalls an individual, the rest of us rush in, apply our attention and aggregate strength and help. But what happens when the bottom drops out on everyone at the same time?
We think like teammates, not individual competitors.
My daughter is an athlete – a rower at a Big 10 university. With the pandemic and subsequent closing of just about everything but Target, she has moved back home to finish her semester online. The competitive season for which she and her teammates had trained rigorously since September was abruptly cancelled two days before their first race, leaving them primed for competition, yet headed home instead. So I now have a collegiate athlete in peak physical condition living in my house. Tessa’s used to training with her teammates, so she likes it when I join her for workouts, and while I consider myself to be reasonably fit, she is killing me. Training like a D1 athlete is hard. It’s even harder when your college years are long past, and in that time you’ve developed an affinity for things like cheese and bourbon. I wear an activity tracker, and I keep waiting to get the alert, “Maybe you should slow down a bit??” When quarantine ends, I’m going to emerge either totally ripped, or using a walker. At this point it could truthfully go either way.
Since I’m pretty much in pain all the time now, I’ve started to go for regular walks to ease the soreness. Often Tessa joins me, and we talk about everything and nothing. Her chem TA who refuses to pronounce her name correctly, the professor of abnormal psychology who talks so slowly that she listens to his lectures on double speed, the roommate who takes advanced science classes yet can’t work their mailbox, the dean who showed everyone her cat during their teleconference, the paper that’s due soon, the upcoming exam. Sometimes she uses the time to process her sadness over losing her competitive season, but mostly she just misses her teammates, so she tells me stories. One in particular struck me.
There are all kinds of benchmark workouts and tests during the build-up to the competitive season, all performed on a rowing machine – known as an “erg” to people who regularly engage in this madness – and as a freshman novice rower last year, these were all new to my daughter. One workout in particular, the team-wide 12 x 500 that takes place every year on the morning of their team banquet, was particularly daunting. 500 meters, twelve times, with a scarce amount of rest between efforts – and this one had a catch: everyone had to hit an assigned pace for each 500, or the whole team had to repeat the interval. These paces were ambitious, to say the least, making the workout especially grueling. Despite being sick at the time, Tessa resolved to not be the weak link that cost her teammates, but as the intervals came one after the other, her heart rate spiked and she struggled to regain her breath during the rest time before the next 500. Lungs burning, legs on fire, her vision getting fuzzy at the edges, she started to panic – what if she couldn’t do this? What if she passed out? She finished her next 500, dropped the handle of the erg and gulped for breath that wouldn’t come. This was it, she thought, she wasn’t going to hit the next one. Heck, she might not even stay conscious for the next one. Her heart rate soared and fear gripped her chest. And then… a hand appeared to her left. Peyton, a senior on the team, was on the erg next to her. Similarly gasping for breath during the rest interval, she looked over at Tessa and simply held out her hand. She didn’t say anything – she couldn’t in that breathless state – but she didn’t need to. For the entire rest period they sat silently holding hands, grasping for whatever recovery they could gain in that short time. Tessa proceeded to finish her 500’s within goal pace, gaining not just confidence in her own abilities, but also the assurance that her teammates had her back. And she learned something big, something that especially resonated with me right now: in the midst of our own challenges, we can still help someone else.
This year when the team took their places for the workout, Tessa, now a sophomore, chose an erg next to a freshman. The girl was nervous – they had all heard the stories, they knew this was going to be rough. “It’s ok,” Tessa told her, “I’m here. When it gets hard, I’ve got you.”
That’s what it’s like to be on a team. It means not waiting till we’re feeling refreshed and recovered to look around us. It means searching for that struggling teammate – not in spite of our own fatigue, but because of it. It means taking turns holding each other’s hands while we collectively gather our strength.
The only way we get through this well, is to get through it together.
I don’t know how long this pandemic will last. If it were a 12 x 500 meter workout, I couldn’t tell you if we’re on our fifth interval, or our tenth. But we’re likely somewhere in the middle, and some of our teammates are getting weary and scared. Find them, see them. You don’t need to be strong enough or rested enough, or have any of this pandemic stuff figured out. Just hold out your hand.
And when it’s your turn to grasp for help, we’ll be here with hands ready. Because that’s what teammates do.