You know “survivor guilt?” Dictonary.com defines it as “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died.” We often think of survivor’s guilt in relation to the Holocaust, or perhaps, 9/11. It’s likely, I think, that some may experience survivor guilt when the COVID-19 pandemic has run its course. Those who have lost relatives, close friends, or colleagues may be left wondering why they were spared, especially if they were also exposed to the coronavirus.
What is “joy guilt?” My definition: “feeling guilty about being joyful when so many others are experiencing fear, deprivation, stress, loss, suffering or danger.”
I am feeling “joy guilt” at the moment. Or should I say, I am wondering if I should be feeling guilty about experiencing so much joy during this pandemic? I am joyful, while many others are stressed, sick, or even dying. Should I not be somber, sad, afraid? Should I not at least feel isolated and lonely as I keep my physical distance from those I love and the community in which I dwell?
And yet, I am experiencing irrepressible happiness, joy, and thankfulness. (Except in those few moments each day when I hear the news on Maine Public while driving or TV in the early evening.) Why am I so joyful? The pandemic has completely changed my daily life. Instead of rushing from one appointment or commitment to another, always thinking about what is coming up next and whether I will be ready for it, I now have a nearly empty calendar. Huge blocks of time have opened up during my days, and I have the freedom to choose how to use them.
Of course, I still have a “to-do” list. But now, instead of watching it get longer and longer, I see it grow shorter. Now, I am open to spontaneous suggestions or requests, as the invitation from a friend to walk our dogs together on the trails that surround our retirement community. (Keeping a six-foot distance from each other, of course.)
I realize that I am blessed beyond many. I have the resources to live in a wonderful independent living community where the very competent staff have put into place appropriate measures to protect us from coronavirus infection. I am not at risk of losing my business, my income, or my home. I am tech-savvy enough to be able to order online and have groceries, pet food, and pretty much anything else I might need or want, delivered. So, I am starting from a baseline of security that many others do not share. I am also well and healthy, with no medical conditions that put me at risk of death from the COVID-19. I am very, very fortunate.
I also realize that I am not invulnerable. My good fortune could come crashing down around my ears suddenly if a family member contracts and dies from COVID-19 or loses his or her job; or if I become sick with the virus and don’t bounce back to health quickly, or at all. My joy may evaporate at a moment’s notice. So, during the quiet early hours each day, I hold those suffering in the pandemic in my thoughts, trying to fathom their pain and fear, their insecurity and loss. I feel awe and gratefulness for the healthcare workers who are risking their lives to fight this disease. I am thankful for the US Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act. Though, I don’t understand whether it will provide the necessary relief that Americans or their economy will require.
Despite ubiquitous vulnerability, I feel joy. On top of my current baseline of relative financial security and health, I now have free time! Time to write, read, to pursue my mandala coloring and photographic hobbies, to meditate, to connect with others by phone or email, to enjoy the outdoors on sunny days, and work slowly in the garden preparing it for spring. Because I am not anticipating some future commitment, I can be more present in the moment, more aware of myself, others, and the world around me. I can go more slowly through the day; stare into space if I wish, chew and savor my meals, let the dog sniff one bush for as long as he chooses, without saying, “Let’s go, boy.”
I feel light-hearted and relaxed. I am less frustrated by interruptions because my most prized possession – time – suddenly seems, at least at present, unlimited. What I can’t finish today, I can happily leave for tomorrow, because tomorrow’s calendar is empty. I have empty days to fill with whatever my heart desires. Joy, delight, happiness are the by-products of my new-found freedom. Dare I say that I don’t want things to go back to “normal” – to the way they were before COVID-19 entered our world.
Perhaps the experts can predict what the world will be like socially, psychologically, economically, medically, and environmentally after this disease has run its horrific course. I can’t imagine that future. I sense things will never be quite the same, but I can’t yet envision the changes to my small hometown world in southern Maine.
I hope that I will not be the same. I pray I will not let too many commitments creep back onto my calendar. I hope the balance of my life will still tilt toward more free time – more time to indulge my dreams and to experience my connectedness to the earth and my fellow earthlings. May I still have time to contemplate the beauty around me, to listen deeply when someone speaks, to be still and silent, to respond to the promptings of my intuition and the desires and compassion of my heart.
Truth be told, I have squandered two other opportunities to create balance in my life: my retirement four years ago and our move to Maine about a year later. In each instance, I had the chance to start fresh, to create the simple, present, and compassionate life of my dreams. But each time, my habit of overextending myself thwarted my hopes. Each time, I re-packed my calendar with more appointments than I could comfortably manage and got involved in more activities and responsibilities than were good for my health or my spirit.
The third time’s a charm, as they say.
What wake-up call(s) do you hear amid the suffering of the pandemic? Do you want to be different on the other side of this disaster? If so, how? Dare I imagine that if each of us asks these questions of ourselves, discovers their answers, and has the courage and tenacity to implement them, our world, or at least our small corner of it, might be quite different, post COVID-19.