“We humans are wired to pay attention to urgent threats, and so this global pandemic captures our attention in a way that a distant threat like climate change does not,” as the Harvard Business Review reminds us. And while my own attention was being captured in ruthless fashion this past year, I had to make a lot of decisions, both big and small – based on how COVID-19 was affecting my life. . .
Think of some of the decisions you’ve had to make since the pandemic began back in early spring. Some may have been made hastily, perhaps based on panic (which explains those early days of toilet paper shortages).
Other decisions, however, may be slowly unfolding only now.
Dr. Art Markman is the author of that HBR article and also Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, a podcast co-host of NPR’s “Two Guys On Your Head”, and author of the book Bring Your Brain to Work. Here’s how he explains our decision-making processes this year:
“Panic makes people want to act right now to avoid a threat, but the decision to act should be based on deliberation, sober reflection on data — not in reaction to a headline or a tweet. Fast judgments are generally biased toward action, so you need to slow down to be sure that quick reactions are actually warranted.”
Dr. Markman also lists some key reasons why so many of us find decision-making during this particular crisis to be so challenging:
First, there is a looming present threat (COVID-19 is real, and spreading rapidly).
Second, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this virus (we’re not good at understanding future trends that involve accelerated growth).
Third, people have very little control over the virus spread (yes, we can wash our hands, stay six feet apart and wear masks, but the choices other people are making are completely beyond our control, which can “create anxiety and a desire to do something to re-assert that control”). As Dr. Markman says:
“Threat, uncertainty and anxiety can combine to lead us to make short-sighted decisions.”
He cites the phenomenon of doom-scrolling as an example of an anxiety-producing choice. We crave more information, so we spend more time online looking, looking, looking for news updates – even when we know that consumption of negative news causes us even more stress and anxiety.
One of the basic early decisions my immediate family had to make was to agree on how close – or far apart – we needed to be from each other to create a safe “family bubble” of exposure.
Luckily, my grown kidlets and their families live close by, but back in mid-March, we made the joint decision to keep our distance. Changes made in those early days included:
–no physical contact with our darling 5-year old Everly Rose. I could watch her from afar (learning to ride her new bicycle down the back lanes criss-crossing our neighbourhood, for example) – but no more hugs, no more sleepovers. That lasted for two months during the pandemic’s first wave, until our province managed to “flatten the curve” and public restrictions eased up a bit. Not snuggling with her was heartbreaking for me.
-I ordered my first face mask on Etsy
-I taped red paper hearts to my windows and joined my neighbours at 7 p.m. each evening to bang pots and ring bells to show our appreciation for all healthcare and essential workers
–no in-person shopping in stores (or, how I discovered curbside pick-up, no-contact take-out, and home delivery so I could keep supporting local businesses)
-only phone appointments with my doctors
-our family dinners together on Tuesdays were replaced by weekly grocery deliveries from my son Ben, who rang the doorbell and waited out on the sidewalk for me to retrieve the bags he’d dropped at my door. We’d chat outside for a while, and then wave goodbye until next week’s delivery.
–no more big gatherings with friends. But staying home didn’t seem like a hardship to me, by the way. As I like to say,
“I’m not STUCK at home. I’m SAFE at home.”
-my favourite gift for my April birthday (inspired early on by astrophysicist Dr. Summer Ash) was the biggest bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream I’d ever seen, for the express purpose of adding a creamy dollop to my morning coffee – until the pandemic, a tradition reserved only for Christmas morning breakfast.
-I updated my will (in case my worst fears came to pass, I resolved to make my will and my wishes expressed in Advance Directives as clear as possible for my executor and my family to handle). See also: Being of Sound Mind: It’s Time to Update Your Will
But one of the most drawn-out decisions over all these months will likely seem like the most unimportant compared to the far worse realities so many others have suffered in 2020 so far.
It was, however, a big one for me. I decided to give up my bicycle.
A once-keen cyclist (whether commuting to work or daytrips with my cycling buddies), I had not ridden my bike for years because of an injured knee that’s worsened over time. My bicycle remained locked up in oblivion, dust-covered, flat-tired, ignored – a sorry sight indeed.
And at least once a year, my neighbours on our condo Strata Council have politely urged me (yet again) to remove my unused bike from its much-coveted reserved spot in our building’s bike storage room. I resisted their requests, though, because, after all, I may be well enough to resume cycling one day, some day, it could happen, who knows?
Gloria Liu wrote in Bicycling magazine about the day she said goodbye to her own bike:
“It’s emotional. Not like saying goodbye to a piece of equipment, but to a trusted companion. When you hand it over, you can’t help but recall everything that happened to you on this bicycle, and maybe some of the things that happened in between, too. A bicycle embodies the person you became while you rode it.”
So getting rid of my bicycle was an emotional decision for me. It meant the definitive end of the old me, and the realistic acceptance of the current me.
But I was tired of facing reality, of facing yet another loss in a string of things I have loved doing that I can no longer do. And I had never NOT had a bike. Until now. See also: The “Loss of Self” in Chronic Illness is What Really Hurts
It took me nine months, but I decided to donate my bicycle to a local bike-sharing non-profit group. As much as I didn’t love the idea of getting rid of my beloved bike, I decided to love the idea of it being enjoyed again. In a way, this felt like I’d finally freed that bicycle to ride on to its new life.
As Dr. Markman confirmed:
“In times of (relatively) slow-developing existential crises like a pandemic, it is best to take your time when making decisions rather than acting on gut feelings.”
Image: Arek Socha, Pixabay
Q: Do you recall your own reactions to the early pandemic decisions you made?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote lots more about adjusting to life as a heart patient in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“ , published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2017. You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).
-Other Heart Sisters articles about living in the time of COVID-19