When life interferes with expectations, reflect and regroup, and then put one foot in front of the other with purpose and direction. Trust that you will find your way.
After almost four months of not walking outside, I spontaneously slip out of my sheepskin-lined slippers and into my tennis shoes, grab a windbreaker and my house key, and confidently walk out the door. As I carefully step up onto the parkway trail across the street from my house, I take a deep breath and inhale the damp spring air. The trees bordering the spring-fed pond are just starting to bud; polka dots of green splatter the barren, brown arms reaching up to light and hope. Oh, how these daily excursions had sustained me through months of COVID-19 isolation—until the nerve pain resurfaced with a vengeance at Christmastime and kept me hunched over on a chair for months.
I get halfway up the nine-degree grade hill, where I pause to catch my breath and realize that I just expected to resume where I left off in December. Over nine months of gradually increasing my distance and stamina during the pandemic, I had trained my nerve-damaged right leg and foot to instinctively walk up the hill without having to contemplate each step consciously. And now, the right side is lagging, and my body is working harder to get back in synchronized step. I have to think—again—how to put one foot in front of the other.
Isn’t that what happens when life interferes with our expectations? We go about living day to day until something unexpected interrupts our routine and our goals. After initially reacting, we pause to reconsider our options before resuming or redefining, or letting go of our expectations.
When the circumstance is out of our control—like sudden surgical-induced nerve damage or a global pandemic—we feel even more anxious and uncertain, which clouds our thinking and distorts our perception.
Olivia-Anne Cleary, a London-based writer on the verge of her thirtieth birthday, writes how she expected to have life figured out by the age of 30. And then the pandemic changed her confidence and perspective and her friendships and career path. She’s resentful, and yet she acknowledges that the stillness of lockdown has given her clarity. She wrote in The Lily, “Sometimes reality falls short of your expectations, and you have no choice but to take an alternate route to your end goal.” Note that she still had goals—she adapted her strategy after some reflection and found purpose and strength within. That’s resilience.
Reflect and Regroup
Change isn’t always bad, as much as we humans resist it. Unexpected events give us pause to reflect and revise. COVID-19 tossed us into the unknown and unpredictable and forced us outside of our comfort zone. But you already knew this. The question is—how did you adapt?
We’ve been forced to rethink, modify, and drastically change the steps we take to get through each day. It now takes conscious thought—energy used for something that once seemed automatic. In the first month of mask mandates, I inadvertently walked into a UPS drop-off location without a mask and was baffled by the long arms abruptly reaching out for my package and then quickly turning away from me. I didn’t realize my mistake until I got back into the car and saw the mask sitting on the passenger seat. I had been in the store less than thirty seconds but humbled and regretful for days after. How could I forget a simple safety rule that puts us all at risk? This advanced forethought consumed so much energy, but it became routine.
Many of us expected (perhaps hoped) that life would go back to normal—or something close to it—by the end of summer 2020. I initially anticipated a four-month ordeal, like seasonal influenza running its course through the community. I ignored the historical reality of the Spanish Flu lasting for almost two years until I wrote about it in a blog six months into COVID-19 in the U.S. Despite the potential for history repeating itself, it was comforting to hope that advances in medicine and technology over the past century could more quickly halt the progression of this dangerous new virus.
Eventually, I just accepted the long-term prognosis and went about my day, determined to move beyond reactively reading pandemic news and on to reviving my goals. I needed purpose and direction. It’s stressful living life in limbo!
There Is No Normal
And here we are more than a year later, with cases and deaths rising globally despite having multiple vaccines and several evidence-based therapies available to sustain life and modify outcomes. The medical advances made are miraculous and yet insufficient, particularly in the delivery. We are still chasing the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus around the world.
I no longer expect that life will return to normal. Or even a new normal. There’s too much uncertainty and unpredictability to expect any consistency or routine.
When my son had leukemia, I wrote about finding a new normal, and Brennan wrote about trying to be a normal kid despite having leukemia. Back then, I learned:
Normal was an illusion driven by our expectations. We had to learn to expect the unexpected, adjust to uncertainty, adapt to abrupt changes in plans, and accommodate disruption. While it seemed chaotic at the time, we learned to live in the moment, not knowing what the next moment might bring, and to breathe through the challenges, because sometimes that was all we could do.
When our frantic pace calmed a bit that summer, I had time to stop and look around, to see where we were headed, and even to reflect on where we had been. It was like resurfacing after a high dive jump. I took stock of where I was and then got out of the way. (Standing at Water’s Edge, Chapter 14. Finding Normal)
COVID-19 has thwarted expectations and redefined normal, just as cancer did for us twenty years ago. Ms. Cleary is 30, the rest of us are a year older, and none of us have life figured out.
We Can Live with Uncertainty and Unpredictability
Having expectations is human nature. Although we like to think we are realistic—that our goals are potentially achievable and under our control—they often are rooted in misperceptions, wishful thinking, or unfounded “data.” Even the COVID-19 experts are guessing—okay, they are using complex mathematical models to predict trajectories and outcomes. And after a year, they have data to extrapolate a model, but even calculated predictions have unforeseen variables. We don’t know how these new coronavirus variants will act, how our healthcare systems will hold up, or how people will respond to another year of restrictions. Human behavior is unpredictable in novel circumstances.
And yet, we have our one precious life to live. Living with attention and intention involves reflecting on our values, needs, and expectations and knowing when to let go. My family’s experience with cancer, my own health limitations, and the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 remind me to take each day as it comes, stay grounded in my values and priorities, and set achievable yet flexible goals. Because life intervenes.
And now, I’m ready to walk up the hill again. I’m grateful that the snow has melted and the sun is shining, the rhododendrons are flaunting their purple, and the weeping willows are budding back to life. Mother earth is painting the landscape a little more each day. Even though getting up the hill will require concentration and effort, I am more prepared this time, and I have new colors to discover. I will just remind myself to put one foot in front of the other.
Cheers to you on your next adventure! Remember to pay attention to the moment.