“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
A lot has changed in the last several months. Here in Minnesota, new COVID-19 cases are falling every week. As of today, 47.3% of the population is fully vaccinated and 55.2% have had a least one dose. I joined the double-dosed club in April, and other than those who are too young to receive one of the three FDA approved vaccines, my entire extended family is there with me. Because of these vaccination rates, our two largest cities, Saint Paul and Minneapolis, have dropped their mask mandates and most of the stores I once frequented quickly followed suit. Clearly, the bold north is making decent progress towards herd immunity.
And yet, I still do most the same things I’ve being doing for well over a year. I do nearly all my shopping online or curbside. I keep a very healthy distance (why maintain six feet when you can stretch it to ten…eleven…twelve?) from the people I pass on the sidewalk – often crossing to the other side of the street. I take two masks with me when out pleasure walking or biking, even though I have yet to encounter a situation where I needed one let alone two. I get queasy when I see photographs of large gatherings of unmasked people.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t find any of these behaviors to be desirable or pleasing. I wish I didn’t have to wear a mask, and I really dislike the paranoia that comes from something as simple as greeting a neighbor. It feels as if I have fallen into a hole and I can’t climb out of my uncomfortable comfort zone.
Or is it that I don’t want to?
This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced similar reticence. Throughout my life, I’ve caught myself holding onto situations and patterns that are unhealthy, unwanted, unpleasant, unexplainable, or all of the above. Whether it’s a caustic job I am too afraid to quit, a relationship I can’t bring myself to end, or a habit I continue despite not enjoying the practice or outcome, the inability to thrown up my hands and walk away is not unknown to me.
This reluctance is summed up in one of my favorite jokes.
Two women are in a restaurant and one woman says to the other. “The food here is so awful.” To which the other woman responds, “Yes, and such small portions.”
That’s it in a nutshell — never getting enough of something I would rather not have in the first place.
Living in a COVID-19 World
But are my lingering COVID-19 habits necessarily bad or unwarranted? Perhaps returning to pre-pandemic patterns too early is the real habit. Denial and retreat are all too familiar ways to deal with difficult problems. Perhaps my continued mask wearing and crowd avoidance is the smart thing to do. We all want this to end and we want it to end yesterday. I long to return to my favorite theaters, restaurants, and group activities. I am not one of those people who use the pandemic as an excuse to be anti-social. I crave the in-person relationships I previously had. I am a huge believer in video collaboration, but it’s only a tool and not a replacement for the need to be physically present.
There is a lot more of the COVID-19 story that needs to be told. Only two infectious diseases have ever been fully eradicated (smallpox and rinderpest) and it’s far too soon to know where this one is headed. The variants are still a wildcard. The lasting effects of getting the disease are still being studied. My neighbor is a long-hauler and it hasn’t been a pretty story for her. To say “post COVID-19” is not only overly optimistic, it may be downright foolish.
For now, holding onto an uncomfortable comfort zone feels right. It’s certainly not as bad as the worst of my character flaws and it hurts no one. While the tendency to err on the side of caution is definitely a trait I can lay claim to, this one seems different. It feels more prudent than compulsive. More thought-out than addictive. It feels like something I will be ready and willing to jettison once all the data is in and the facts are made clear. Or so I hope.
There you have it — my caution, rationalization, paranoia, questioning, somewhat measured serenity, and in the end, choice. I didn’t jump into my pandemic habits immediately or all that smoothly and yet here I am taking my sweet time letting go of them.
That’s not to say that I am not relaxing my standards bit by bit. I am. In the past several weeks, I’ve had a few front porch dinners with vaccinated friends and all throughout the pandemic I’ve been surrounded by equally careful family members. My opening up may seem slow compared to those around me, but it is noticeable.
My first potential trip outside of Minnesota is not scheduled for a while. This is the IAUG Engage conference that was rescheduled from February to June, before being rescheduled again to December. Since I am writing this missive in June, I still have several months to watch what the virus decides to do. If all goes well, I will be in Orlando presenting my three or four breakout sessions. If we backslide like they did in India or Italy, I will be happy to give the same presentations virtually. Comfortably uncomfortable.