How Should a Person Be (During a Pandemic)?

Jennifer M. Taber, PhD, Assistant Professor; Kent State University


During stay-at-home orders, I am stuck in my thoughts more than usual. Repeatedly, I mull over how I should be feeling, thinking, and behaving. Fellow academics express similar sentiments: “I feel like I’m supposed to feel grateful for having the ability to still have a job through this,” and “Because I have no kids and am stuck at home, I feel like I SHOULD be more productive, but then that's really not happening, which probably makes it worse.”

I am used to feeling guilt for not working. In a stranger turn of events, I now also feel guilt for working. A Facebook friend urged people to refuse to be “visibly productive” in order to “normalize work slowdowns” and show solidarity for those suddenly homeschooling children, worrying about loved ones, and figuring out how to care for one’s community. Elsewhere on the internet, we are told to, “Let go of all of the profoundly daft ideas you have about what you should be doing right now.” But in the next breath, this is contradicted with more advice and another “should”: “Your first priority during this early period should be securing your home.” Research productivity, the author argues, is “denial and delusion.” Everyone, it seems, has thoughts on how people should feel, think, and be.

One response is to work towards compassion, both towards oneself and towards others. This may include adopting a nonjudgmental acceptance of others’ choices, whether that means working or not working. Another response is gratitude. I can quickly list the things I am grateful for, a list I cycle through multiple times a day. For example:

I am not teaching this semester, given a fortunately timed research leave. I am not homeschooling children. I live in a house, which means I do not encounter people in elevators or narrow stairwells when I need a breath of fresh air. I live in a college town that is even less populated since our students were sent home. I didn’t realize I was fortunate to not watch live sports until a friend noted that even that distraction is gone. My governor, Mike DeWine, has acted fast to implement social distancing at the state level. He follows advice from Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton ("Mistakes that I have made throughout my career have generally been because I didn't have enough facts, I didn't dig deep enough," Mr. DeWine said. "So, I made up my mind I was going to have the best information, the best data available.”)

These thoughts of gratitude can be tricky, though. The distinction between gratitude and social comparison feels blurred. When does my gratitude become just a series of downward social comparisons (“It could be worse…”)? In normal times, I am grateful for my relationships, my job, my home. These thoughts of gratitude do not feel linked to social comparisons in the same way my gratitude does now.

These comparisons bring up new feelings: being a person during a pandemic causes me to feel rage at the inequality in our society. I feel discomfort about the ways in which I can shelter-at-home safely, job and income intact, whereas others cannot. Eventually, we will emerge back into the world. When we do, I hope we can work collectively to ensure the health and safety of all of us. I hope the compassion we foster in isolation drives us to create a world in which downward social comparisons are much harder to make. 

I agree with the friend who wrote in a group text, “Grateful schmateful. There is no way you are ‘supposed’ to be and feel during a pandemic.” Perhaps though, there is a better way to be and feel after a pandemic.