And then it hits: This isn’t where I usually wake up. This is Seoul. This is Cape Town. This is Manhattan. This is Hong Kong. This is an anonymous hotel room at the other end of the world, and I’m just passing through here. Suddenly, that what caused anxiety a moment ago turns into an awe-inspiring realization: I’m right here, right now, in this strange place, and I have the opportunity to explore it and everything it has to offer. How great is that?
As you can probably tell, I love to travel. There are very few things that invigorate me so much as the anticipation of a trip to a strange and unfamiliar place. But of course, I haven’t been able to board an airplane in the last 18 months. In fact, I had been looking forward to a wonderful journey to Panama and Costa Rica which was coincidentally planned to take place in March 2020, right when the pandemic fully hit. I grudgingly cancelled my plans only after the Austrian Health Minister said something on TV to the effect of “I would advise citizens not to leave the country for the foreseeable future.” I complied, but I was pissed like rarely ever before.
What followed was a challenging time of uncertainty and doubt, not only for my travel plans but for my professional live and my entire future. The job I was supposed to start in April suddenly evaporated. Health, safety, and hygiene moved from the back of everyone’s mind to the center stage of our collective attention. People started to work from home, teach from home, study from home, while I was just… sitting at home.
In the beginning, many of us thought this would be an uncomfortable, but quickly passing episode: By Easter, we’d be out of the worst. By summer everything would be back to normal. But as the months went on, the reality of what had hit us began to sink in. This wasn’t going to go away any time soon, despite the promises of overly optimistic politicians. This was here to stay. And people got frustrated, disappointed, and angry.
You could feel the mood changing just by following the newspaper comments, which I had plenty of time to do. Where at first there was a collective sense of “We’ll get through this together”, slowly a more dire tone took hold. Many bright, young, healthy journalists suddenly seemed to have nothing better to write about than how awful life had become since the outbreak of the pandemic. I know and I respect that these times have been hard for many and that pointing this out is part of the media’s job. People continue to suffer from this disease, millions already died of it, others lost their livelihoods, their homes, their loved ones. I’m not trying to downplay any of that. Neither am I trying to belittle the smaller calamities that have befallen so many. The trouble of having to homeschool one’s kids whilst laboring at a full-time job. The agony of putting yourself at risk doing what’s considered “essential work” while at the same time caring for and elderly relative whom it would be safer not to see at all. The anxiety and depression caused by not knowing how to put food on the table next month.
I don’t deny that there’s real suffering here. And I fundamentally believe that we, as a society, have an unquestionable obligation to help each other out as best we can. Furthermore, the better-off members of this society–among which I count myself–have a personal moral obligation to do whatever is within our power to reduce that suffering.
Reading and hearing all this lamenting, this hamming home again and again day after day how unbearable the situation has become, I think isn’t helpful. Neither to me, personally, nor to us collectively. Of course, I acknowledge the fact that I’m tremendously privilliged in all of this. I’m young, I’m healthy, I’m financially secure and I’m in a position to live an independent life. Therefore, I do everything that I can to help out family and friends, as well as my local community and–if possible–society at large to come out of this relatively okay.
But having said that, I also refuse to apologize for that fact that those past 12 months have been the best, healthiest, most endearing, most entertaining, most challenging, and most rewarding ones in my entire life so far. Of course, they were completely different from what I had expected them to be. The mere fact that I wasn’t able to travel hit me hard, and that I suddenly found myself unemployed as a 32 year old software professional was by no means easy to stomach. But I was able to do other things with my newfound time. Things which I’d never have done otherwise. Things which turned out to be even more meaningful, more transformational, more gratifying than collecting a couple more frequent flyer miles.
I spent more time in nature walking, hiking, and running in the last 12 months than in the 12 years before combined. I read more than 70 books. I learned how to savor the beauty of the works of Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, and many other classical composers. I sat down day after day for months on end to write a novel which got published just recently. I was able to spend more quality time my mom than practically ever before. I volunteered to hep out at our local Red Cross branch, where I got to know some wonderful and inspiring people who keep the fabric of our society in tact at a level that was completely unfamiliar to me. But I also got to meet those who have to rely on free groceries from the food bank week after week just to feed themselves, thus providing me with a healthy dose of perspective on my own privilliged existence.
The fact that I didn’t get to see Panama and Costa Rica suddenly doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore, does it? Quite the contrary, I’m grateful for all the other things I got the opportunity to experience instead. But this shifting one’s perspective isn’t easy. It’s more comfortable to cling to how things should have been, rather than actively and positively engage with how things are. This takes time, and practice, and patience. And it doesn’t always work. I’m still waking up from time to time wishing that I would find myself in a hotel room at the other end of the world. And who knows, maybe sooner than expected, I will be able to. But even if not, the experiences of the past year taught me that it’s possible–if not vital–to accept reality exactly as it is, and make the best of it.