I’ve always been a diligent, hardworking person. I’ve always strived to do the most and to polish my skills and to constantly be looking for new challenges which would in turn strengthen my resume, get me a secure job, and allow me to live out my days in peace. As long as you work hard, there’s nothing stopping you from that dream, right? The American notions of individualism and pulling oneself out of struggle by their own bootstraps sounds poetic, almost cinematic. However, if one is given even a sliver of sociological education, not to mention a global pandemic, it’s easy to see how that idea is fundamentally refuted time and time again.
I am incredibly privileged, I’ve always been aware of that, but with each individual comes unique struggles all the same. I always believed that, with hard work and determination, I would be able to pull myself out of any situation. Even with the existential crisis of climate change, I was given small slivers of hope from the efforts of young leaders and innovative scientists. Once the crushing, life-altering wave of COVID-19 hit, however, I was given what I had long needed; a wake-up call. A consistent and pushing realization that we as humans really don’t really have any control over our lives. We can walk out onto the street at any time and allow everything to vanish in a puff of smoke and car exhaustion. We can chow down on chicken strips in one moment and be writhing on the kitchen floor in the next. Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, no matter how much you try, things will not turn out okay. Sometimes, there is no happy ending. People are killed because of their race or their class and the disrespect for our earth is mounting and the people you love most are at risk and you have no control over any of it.
This wake-up call could have plunged me into an icy pit of depression. All of these realizations could easily have forced me to curl up and not want to leave my bed. Some days, they definitely did. But, there’s something incredibly freeing in the notion of no control. Why worry about the future when you literally cannot control any person but yourself?
And I’ll be honest, I haven’t changed much. I still work hard, and I still care too much. I’m human, I can’t help but become vulnerable in the quest for peace. This summer, I continued to work. I continued to try. Because that’s part of who I am. I learned that success is not necessarily defined by who works the hardest or who has the most talent. It’s a complicated, unfair mixture of things that has no rhyme or rhythm, much like everything in life. COVID-19 has reminded me that though I sometimes have zero control over my situation, this does not mean that I have no control about how I react to my situation. People are killed, so we mourn. Injustices are systemic and linked, so we protest in outrage and educate those around us. Our leaders are failing us, so we vote. We turn our sorrows into something to be proud of, if not for ourselves than for those who cannot cultivate that power. Why mourn what could’ve been when you can cultivate what can be?
The ideals of American individualism, bootstrap theory, side hustles, and burnout have dismantled and crumbled around me. Working hard no longer equates to success or even job security. This realization is terrifying, but it’s also incredibly important. My definition of success has become more fluid and versatile, and now it most often equates with fulfillment. Fulfillment in creativity, in relationships, in health, in work.
My entire mindset has shifted from putting pressure on myself to find security to trying to live the best life I can, because security is honestly a pipe dream. The only way anyone is really safe is if they sit in a room alone forever. And even then, you can still choke on that chicken strip. Did I become more nihilistic in quarantine? Perhaps, but the realization that none of this really matters is much more sane than to continue grasping at the straws of “success” when I’m well into my 40s. I’ve learned empathy and sorrow that I didn’t think I’d feel for years. And I’ve learned about the inherent unfairness of life. The solitude and stress of this pandemic has brought out both the best and the worst in people, and it has revealed that none of us really ever know what the hell is going on.