Frayed

Last week I quote-tweeted something that I haven’t stopped thinking about since:

(As an aside: if you have not read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, please put this immediately on your to-read list. It is a raw and real portrayal of grief, beautifully written.)

In his thread, Joshua Eyler talks about two meanings of “magical thinking”. There’s the “everything will be better/different SOON” aspect — so, for instance, why many colleges and universities chose to kind-of-sort-of open this year. And then there’s the point at which “this state of being is temporary because we remember when things were different last year” turns to “this is our new normal, like it or not”.

We’ve been living with the former version for a better part of a year, now. At my institution, we haven’t learned what the next term will look like until halfway through the present term — including the release of the official course schedule for the next term. So there’s a constant feeling of everything being up in the air, and of scrambling to put things in order once we do officially hear about the next term. (Advising in this environment is a nightmare, as you can imagine. Student: “I need to take this course to graduate. Will it be offered next term?” Me: “… maybe?”) I mean, yes, we can guess, but there’s a comfort in just knowing what to expect that’s been ripped out from under us. It’s also prime season right now for recruiting and hiring student researchers for the summer — and no one knows definitively whether we’ll be able to have students work with us in person at all, or in some limited fashion. Planning in any meaningful way is impossible.

As for the latter version: we’re quickly approaching the year mark of the pandemic in the US. We were lucky at my institution that Winter Term 2020 wound down just as everything shut down, so at least we had the closure of a “normal” term before heading into our first pandemic term, Spring Term 2020. But the adrenaline’s finally wearing off, as we approach this anniversary. It’s been almost a year of pandemic teaching, a year spent on screens and/or with very restrictive, cautious interactions with students. And now that the adrenaline’s wearing off we’re left with the exhaustion, the sadness, the grief, and the anger, and we’re finally forced to confront all of it head on.

Professors and staff members shoulder impossible burdens of care of students, burdens foisted upon us last March and unrelenting since. Of course, many of us are here because we care deeply about students and their growth and development, and want to support them in myriad ways. But support requires more heavy lifting in a pandemic — more checking in with students, more flexibility, more following up, more modes of engagement. Work we all agree is necessary and are committed to doing, and at the same time feels crushing under the weight of everything else we are asked to do. There is no room, but somehow we’re making room — usually at great cost to our physical, emotional, and mental health. Our reserves are shot, and yet we’re still giving and expected to give from an empty well.

This intersection of grieving and depletion means that no one is at their best. We’ve collectively reached our limits, with predictable consequences. Innocuous emails requests yield fraught or panicked responses. Comments we might have shrugged off in the Before Times, we now construe as personal attacks. Conversations end in anger or hurt feelings, or both. We take advantage of any opportunity to unload our frustrations and our despair on someone, or something, else. Or, worse, we hold it all in and seethe internally until we reach a new breaking point.

And this doesn’t even acknowledge that for many of us, home is less of a respite than it ever was. Home confronts us with the ways our communities are failing us, impossible choices about school and child care and elder care, isolation, and family members whose reserves are also shot and are not at their best.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this lately, and what, if anything, I can do about it. I think acknowledging and naming what we’re collectively experiencing is important, and I would love to see campus leaders publicly acknowledge this grief AND this depletion. The all-to-rare “thank you for your hard work” doesn’t cut it anymore — we need our leaders to recognize and name the struggle, and stop pretending it doesn’t exist. That doesn’t remove the burdens, of course, but it would be comforting to know, and hear, that administrators see and understand our struggles.

Personally, I’ve been trying to extend more grace to others — and to myself. If an email rubs me the wrong way, I set it aside until I can go back with a clearer mind and a more helpful response. If an interaction goes south, I try to remind myself that the other person is more likely to be reacting to all the other stressors in their life and not necessarily to the matter at hand. I don’t respond in the moment unless I have to, and then I pick my words carefully. I’ve given myself permission to drop more balls than normal for self-preservation purposes. But to some extent, I have more freedom to do this than many around me — so I’m also finding ways to help other people drop balls and set more realistic expectations for themselves. Do I have a minute to pitch in and take something off of their plate, perhaps because it’s something I can do more easily for whatever reason? Can I help a junior colleague think through what’s truly essential to their teaching and course design so that they can cut through the noise of “here are ALL THE THINGS you NEED to be doing to support students at this time”? (Guidance that, in our eagerness to embrace flexibility and effective modalities in online teaching and be all things to all students and the BEST ONLINE INSTRUCTORS EVER, has been sorely lacking.) In my leadership roles, can I streamline my asks so that we’re still moving towards our goals but in more efficient ways?

To do this, though, I have to be honest about my own limits. About my need to get enough sleep to face the day ahead. Forcing myself to let go of things that are usually non-negotiable — running a certain number of days per week, cooking a “real dinner” every night, aiming for a perfect score on my upcoming black belt test. About what I can and can’t give to my kids right now. About the ways in which my family needs to do more around the house to support all of us. About what I can and can’t worry about (see: imperfect decisions about in-person school for the kiddos). About the ways in which I am grieving and exhausted — and the ways in which others in my life can support me in this time.

We’re all frayed, grieving, and more imperfect than ever right now. Let’s remember this, and extend ourselves and those around us the grace we all so desperately need in this moment.