July 17, 2020

How to Go About Daily Business in the Midst of the Greatest Uncertainty We’ve Ever Faced

By Vega Subramaniam

I know there’s a lot of variation in how we’re experiencing Life right now. Me, I’m pretty terrified, I have to say. I worry about my parents. Mala worries about her mom. We worry about each other, not to mention all of humanity. I’m probably not wrong to imagine that you have your own Whac-A-Mole version of this. I don’t know how to think about next week, much less next year or 2025.

As a result, I’m way too often just going through my days. Doing whatever. Crosswords. And so forth. I mean, occasionally also things that are not crosswords. Although crosswords loom large.

Actually, do you know what I do? Here’s what I do. I have a podcast going while I’m scrolling Facebook. I am doing a crossword while I’m watching Rachel. I am listening to Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me while I am reading the Washington Post. I am terrified of being without a distraction distracting me from my distraction. You see, the problem is, if I don’t have two distractions at any—at every given moment, then there will be space in my brain for reality to creep in. And reality is very complex right now. Very complex. So you can see, can’t you, how it’s just better for everyone involved if I just drown it out.

I kid. (Sort of.) It’s important to consider what steps to take to go about our daily business during this time.

Step 1: hahaha, gotcha! There are no steps.

At an intellectual level, we all know that we’re making up The Rules of Life as we go. Take adulting (please!). We get that no one has a manual. There is no manual. And the older we get, the more that awareness sinks in. Oh, right, no one “arrives,” and suddenly we have access to The Rules. That said, we do have our experiences and the wisdom that we derive from it, and we also have our elders and our mentors and our role models. There are footsteps we can follow, is what I’m saying.

But now? This? I mean, there’s not having a manual, and then there’s this. The absoluteness of the uncertainty about what will happen next week, next month, in five minutes. The absoluteness of the inability to plan for the future. Feeling every single human feeling, at the same time, all the time.

Feeling lost.*

Ironic, given how much time I read and think and talk about articulating our core values and purpose and defining our goals.

In the Before-Times (February), I was used to moving through the world with a sense of purpose, or maybe more accurately, not actively having to wonder about “purpose” because it was just always there (to be fair to myself, I’ve done a lot of work over decades to be able to say that).

But now I feel so lost that I need a distraction from my distraction. What should I be doing? What’s most needed from me, now? In this temporal vortex that we’re living through (what is it, exactly? An “opportunity”? A “portal“? A “rupture”?), how do I prioritize…anything?

And then, occasionally, amongst the podcasts and the articles and the crosswords, a quiet moment insinuates itself. And I have a momentary—and often quite startling—recognition of myself. I’m reminded that it’s not that I have to suddenly turn into somebody else (though I might need to spend my time doing different things than I’d been doing). I can still live moments with intentionality. That, actually, has not changed. We’ve only ever had this one moment, this one breath. Right now, I just keep forgetting.

I think that’s it, actually. There’s no Step 1 because there’s only one step: focus on and bring intention to this one moment, this one breath. For me, this is everything. I remember myself.

We’re all building such new muscles right now. I want to acknowledge us for the muscles we’re building.

What are you learning about how you carry yourself forward in these times? I’d love to hear.

*(Speaking of elders and mentors and role models, it also helps to remember that this is not humanity’s first rodeo. No doubt the details of this moment have unique aspects (the immense reach of technology, the specific execrable individuals involved, Sarah Cooper). But globally and historically speaking, we have much to learn from the many communities who experience(d) and protest(ed) terror, uncertainty, and jaw-dropping loss over and over again.)



  1. M Rolfe

    Yes to all of this! Like Aaditi, I too have had to reduce stimulations (or distractions?) because my brain/body has been shocked into hyper presence. I honestly can’t believe how much I used to DO in an average day and how many interactions I’d have. I’m finding myself having to rebuild that threshold, and coming to terms with the way it may never come back.

    One thing I’ve realized is wow, I’m so grateful for how much practice I’ve had with uncertainty over the past ten years. And the other thing I’ve realized is wow, I have so much more work to do around practicing with uncertainty. I am amazed at how “here” I am, although it came after a great deal of – perhaps necessary but very uncomfortable – panic and flailing (also known as “March and April”), that I’m sure I’ll circle back into again. As you write, we’ve always not known what the future holds, and now we are really, really, really aware of that.

    And so like you, I’ve seen how the same things that kept me tethered in the Before Times keep me tethered now, although the sheer necessity of these things are put into such relief that they are no longer cute or optional. They are now absolutely vital for our traverse through the unknown together.

    • vegamala

      “Hyper presence.” Yeah. And as a capital-E extrovert, I keep surprising myself with how much I am comforted by sheltering in place, something I’d never have predicted.

      I appreciate your last paragraph about how, yes, this moment maximally clarifies what’s vital.

  2. Aaditi

    Speaking from the After-but-not-really-Times, what has surprised me most has been just how much decision fatigue I’ve been feeling now that I have choices with my time again. Post-lockdown life feels a lot more overstimulating, including getting slightly motion sick on very standard city bus rides. The best muscle I built was finally learning to not sweat the small stuff. I’ve also accepted how much comfort and mental rest I derive from routine.

    • vegamala

      Aaditi, I am envious that you’re in the After-but-not-really-Times (though perhaps I needn’t be). And I appreciate the glimpse you offer into those times–that the the eventual re-open will come with its own dissonance and challenges, and also that the muscles we’ve built/are building will stay with us.

      I can imagine that there’s a correlation between the decision fatigue and the mental rest derived from routine. Meaning, routine helps to minimize the number of decisions you have to make, which reduces that fatigue, allowing for comfort and mental rest.

      Here’s to not sweating the small stuff.

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