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Looking within: self-discovery amid pandemic

May 19, 2020, 2:47 PM
pandemic lessons...
As the pandemic has changed the world, it has also revealed surprising traits within ourselves, both dormant and newly discovered. But as society slowly reopens, will these treasures carry through once life churns on outside home? Photo credit: Getty Images

NEW YORK (AP) — Confidence, resilience, passion: As the pandemic has changed the world and pushed people into their homes and out of old routines, it has also, for many, revealed some surprising traits within themselves.

But as society slowly reopens, how will these flashes of insight sustain us?

“My husband and I couldn’t be closer, and when we retire we won’t be killing each other,” chuckled 62-year-old Chris Onishi, an empty nester and police detective’s wife in Auburn, Washington, echoing the retirement thoughts of others. “We’ve found out it’ll be fine.”

The luxury of self-reflection without life’s usual distractions has taken some people elsewhere — to relationships with God, their value as workers, their shocking ability to do without people.

While it’s arguably not time for “silver linings,” considering the havoc the health crisis continues to wreak, the American Psychological Association’s Vaile Wright said, “I do think you’re seeing a prioritizing of relationships in a way that maybe we haven’t seen in the past. People are recognizing where their values lie in new ways.”

Researchers and politicians, psychologists and health institutions will spend years combing through the shards of this time. As they do, Kathryn Ray in Tucson, Arizona, will hopefully be well established as a medical assistant.

After earlier fits and starts in life, including a brief period of homelessness, the 31-year-old mother hopes to leave her minimum-wage existence behind. But her externship after a nine-month program to become an MA is on hold until she can start racking up her necessary 200 hours on the job.

She was scared as she ventured into her new field, wondering if she was up to the task. Then the virus hit and brave first responders fed her resolve. So did the many scores of volunteers lending a hand.

“I hadn’t had a whole lot of confidence in myself,” Ray said. “I may not be the smartest person, but I know I have a huge heart and a lot of empathy. Watching everyone help each other and care for one another has given me hope and confidence that I made the right decision.”

As Ray nurtures a newfound passion, Eric Little in Houston, Texas, has been reassessing an old one. Like so many teachers, he’s been struggling to instruct remotely.

“I didn’t realize how much that direct relationship with my students in the classroom, in talking with them and engaging with them on a daily basis, motivated me to get up every morning,” said the 34-year-old Little. “My only real communication with them now is sporadic phone calls, emails and little texts.”

Still green as a full-time sociology and psychology educator, Little teaches at a high school with a predominantly Hispanic student population, many from blue-collar families. His lessons often reflected the issues in their lives, including fears about undocumented parents, and struggles to care for siblings while the adults worked second shifts.

Little had grand ideas of regular interactive video sessions once lockdown began, but few among his 60-plus students have shown up.

“Most of them had to use their time much differently than when we had school,” Little said. “Not seeing them every day has been difficult.”

The idea of self-growth during times of adversity has a long and well-documented history, said Sarah Lowe, whose research at the Yale School of Public Health focuses on the toll trauma takes on health and relationships.

“Having to stay home and not engage with the world as they usually do, people are not only reconnecting with friends and family but are having deeper and more meaningful conversations,” she said.

Wright, a clinical psychologist and the APA’s senior director for health care innovation, also studies the effects of trauma.

“It’s the internal process of integrating what we’ve gone through, building resilience and then coming out the other side, ideally with a greater sense of meaning or where we want to be in the world,” she said.

For Dawn Burton Rainwater in Palm Bay, Florida, the past couple of months have been about faith, both in God and in loved ones.

Once an evangelical Christian, the 68-year-old mother and grandmother said her eyes have been thrust wide open by friends and family who she said have turned their backs on those suffering in the pandemic. They have refused to follow safety guidelines, putting others at potential risk, and they support the false notion that the world crisis is a “hoax.”

“My husband and I just keep to ourselves. I turned inward because I don’t feel I can trust many people anymore,” said the retired designer of wheelchair seating. “As a Christian, you should care about everything and everybody. I was smug as a Christian at one time, but now I’m holding onto my faith by a thread.”

At 52, Quinten Daulton in Heflin, Alabama, has experienced an epiphany of a different nature.

His job in the automotive manufacturing industry could be in peril; he lost his previous career, in construction, during the economic meltdown of the early 2000s. Three years out from a heart attack and bypass surgery, he has a medicine cabinet full of drugs he may “about to be unable to afford.”

Yet, Daulton insisted: “I am not special.”

He said he was one of those kids who “never really conceived of losing,” having grown up with plenty of positive reinforcement and some early achievements.

“It’s probably both a moral failing and a testament to staggering egotism that it’s taken an adulthood of measured success interrupted by occasional abject defeat to get to this point of self-regard,” Daulton said.

Speaking volumes for so many, he added:

“So whether I wind up keeping my job or finding another, weathering the storm or reinventing myself — again — or losing everything, there’s nothing remotely special or unique about my story. It’s shared by a few million people an awful lot like me, and I should probably quit beating myself up over it.”

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Looking within: self-discovery amid pandemic