Feeling Joy in a Pandemic

The last week of my father’s life, I spent an hour each morning working on a manuscript that the American Journal of Sociology had given an invitation for Revise & Resubmit. I woke up, made myself coffee and oatmeal, settled in for that hour, then left my house to surrender to the tears, the grief, the goodbyes of impending death.

The optics of that are very, very terrible. And there are ready-made narratives for what I did. Perhaps I was scared witless of falling behind the academic treadmill, and so I made the conscious decision that I had to devote some time–precious, fleeting time–to the task of revising a manuscript. Or perhaps it wasn’t quite a conscious decision; I had just been so thoroughly trained by the tenure track that even without the carrot of tenure hanging in front of me (I received tenure just before my dad died–and I’m forever grateful he could celebrate with me), I would still unthinkingly stick to my routine of workaholism, and in times of crisis, routine feels really good.

But neither of those narratives stuck.

The thing is, I had been procrastinating on that manuscript for months. And while I managed to write a book manuscript as my dad slowly died over three years, I felt uncannily distant from it, unsure how the words managed to come out, unsure of how I managed to focus enough to set the words in meaningful relation to one another.

That feeling of being ever-so-alienated from words, from sentences, from paragraphs, from chapters and from books–whether my own or someone else’s–was one of the worst parts of the sustained anxiety I experienced as my dad slowly withered away. Reading felt impossible; writing seemed unsustainable; teaching was a feat. I somehow managed to do all of these things, and for much of it, I can’t honestly tell you how I did. But at some point, I stopped reading for pleasure; the joy of primped prose was lost on me. I found other ways to connect what was going on inside of me to the outside world: hiking, biking, cooking, movies, interior painting, art. But the things that I loved about sociology–unraveling my own puzzles (writing), weaving my brain through someone else’s dense theoretical framework (reading)–felt like torture, except that I could never figure out whether the torture was coming from outside or inside. The situation was objectively terrible, and as a result, I built up my own scaffolding (barriers, boundaries, whatever you want to call it) without which I could not have survived (mentally and spiritually, at least) what was happening around me.

That small amount of time–an hour a day, no more–of working on a deeply theoretical paper (it was AJS, after all!) while my dad died wasn’t paying homage to the academic machine. It wasn’t mindlessly succumbing to my academic socialization. It was letting go of that interior scaffolding that was both protecting me and torturing me–and realizing that surviving my dad’s death wouldn’t mean much if I wasn’t able to let that go. It was okay to love things, to enjoy things, to carve out a space that was just for my mind to be itself.

Now that we are in the middle of a pandemic, I am feeling a lot of familiar feelings: the panic, the dread, the ambivalent acceptance of reality, the deep-seated urge to hunker down and prepare–really prepare, mentally and physically–for the worst. But I also want to remember a lesson I learned from the small-scale isolation wrought by my dad’s condition: that there is something in the naked truth of stripped-down life that forces you not just to reckon with suffering but also to reckon with joy.

For those of you who are re-entering this constellation of feelings or finding them for the first time, I just want to say: it’s okay amid the circumstances to feel joy. And if you can find joy–even a minute of it–in the midst of anxiety, panic, and crisis, you’ve won.

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