Ever since this pandemic took over global consciousness — restricting movement, limiting contact and requiring recalibration — I have been on break. Don’t be jealous just yet; I use the term ‘on break’ lightly. I was on a five-week academic recess to prepare for exams, so that I can get one step closer to getting the Master’s degree I’ve been working towards for the better part of the last year.
I got no work done in the first two weeks. Most of my time went in frantically following news channels and trying to make sense of the many pieces of information that was coming out then. World leaders were taking distinctly different decisions, countries were increasingly closing their borders and the global death toll was rising rapidly. While so much about my life seemed the same — I still lived in the same place, ate the same food and had access to Netflix to distract myself from every day exhaustion and unpleasantness — it wasn’t really the same, because the realities of so many other people were changing, in a way that was sure to alter and affect my own.
In times of crisis, the media is on steroids, with different sources fighting to offer the most relevant and compelling information — how these tidbits of information make us feel is always a gamble. Every scroll on a news app makes my heart flip. First I feel good and warm, because did you hear there’s a budding romance under lockdown in New York? Scroll, scroll, scroll. How inspiring, many former medical workers are voluntarily returning to the front lines to help fight this crisis. Scroll. Someone decided to hold a wedding in India? That’s so irresponsible. Scroll. What is going to happen to all these stranded migrant workers? Heartbreaking uncertainty. Scroll. Are Muslims being systemically sidelined in Uttar Pradesh? That’s scary. Scroll. Over 5,000 people died just today because of this pandemic? That’s really really scary. Scroll. Picture of a cute cat. Wait… what am I supposed to feel now?
Since we don’t have hindsight to help us cohesively analyse all that is currently unfolding in such uncertain and unprecedented times, we are reactive and anxious towards everything we hear. History offers us lessons, and we struggle to understand our own roles in making sure the worst parts of it don’t repeat itself. This everyday struggle essentially eats into our emotional capabilities and our processing abilities. In a way, we are walking through our days with a cognitive limp, dealing with the everyday dissonance of a world that seems the same, but is entirely different.
By week three of my exam prep time, I’d come to terms with this, but understanding is different from accepting, and another week was spent struggling to come to terms with my own cognitive dissonance. This involved developing a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms, like spending time on elaborate cooking rituals, opening up past emotional wounds to see if anything had changed and staring into the distance, deeply contemplating existential questions, for long lulling hours. None of this, obviously, made sense or helped me make progress.
By week four, a sense of panic had set in. I was frantically trying to collect my notes and make sense of all that I was supposed to study. I started setting boundaries, like deleting news apps off my phone, batch cooking healthy food and showering every morning. However, productivity was elusive. My mind was constantly scared and tired, and focus was hard to achieve. And then a meme on the internet, which is often a source of infinite wisdom, rightfully reminded me: it’s a pandemic, not a productivity contest.
What is productivity though? Some have jobs to do, bills to pay, people to care for and deadlines to meet. If not for this pandemic, we would be dealing with the stress of all these responsibilities — we would be ‘productive’. Now we have to deal with the stress of our responsibilities, the stress of confinement and the stress of being part of an uncertain world that’s rapidly changing in a high risk situation. That’s a lot. What are minds must go through, to function through so much stress and change!
If you, like me, haven’t taken exams in a while, let me call on your memories of finishing secondary school in the Indian educational system, where you feel like you are being pressure cooked for excellence, and you come out with stream puffing out of your ears, but feel oozy and oddly euphoric just to have survived the experience. Remember that? This was the same, only at a higher level of education and calling on the employment of higher order thinking skills. Taking exams are stressful under normal circumstances, but under conditions that layered the days with stress and uncertainty, it was all the more challenging on the mind.
In the final week, as the exams loomed near, classmates struggling under the same pressure bonded over all that we hadn’t yet studied. We leaned on each other for support over Zoom therapy sessions to share stories of how we spontaneously broke into tears at odd hours or to discuss all the things we should not have stress eaten, but ate anyway, twice.
It was a rough week, but not as rough as the week after, where exams were administered online and we pulled all-nighters to study (interspersed with breaks to check COVID-related statistics), drank way more coffee than is normal and let most of our hair fall out due to stress. We emerged though, feeling lighter and accomplished, from under the weight of the exams. And then, we wondered, what next?
Even with all the extra work and stress it piled on, the exams were a flag post of sorts, an important goal to mark progress. Without that motivation, it suddenly felt like we finished our sprint, but realised, we have a whole marathon left.
The world is seeing an upheaval like it has not experienced in modern times. We are changing everything, in the hope that this crisis doesn’t change the world we’ve built too drastically. We are adapting, we are reconfiguring, and even as we limp, we aspire to keep going. This makes everything more difficult, but as we keep moving, we keep building resilience, which we will need to navigate this changing world.
Just like a fitness expert who screams: “no pain, no gain,” as you work out in the gym, life is harsh in that it tells you the same in subtle, everyday ways. We have a long marathon ahead of us, and whatever time we have saved from curbing travel and social outings, we need to invest back in ourselves to build up our mental capabilities and nurture emotional support systems.
Now as I stare at the seemingly endless expanse of time ahead, I’m reminding myself of how it only seems that way. Space and time have folded into each other, creating a cognitive mesh that our minds need to work through constantly. Time is dripping away every second, and it’s up to us to keep moving. But remember, pace yourself. This is not a sprint; we are running a marathon.