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Amid uncertainty, an opportunity for growth

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

“There is something dying in our society, in our culture, and there’s something dying in us individually,” she said. “And what is dying, I think, is the willingness to be in denial.”

It was on a cool Monday in late October, while strolling along sidewalk-less stretches of grass hugging the two-lane backroads of Durham, that I encountered the Reverend angel Kyodo williams’s words. She was speaking to me directly through On Being, a philosophy podcast I’ve long adored.

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She continued: “It’s always been happening, and when it happens in enough of us, in a short enough period of time at the same time, then you have a tipping point, and the culture begins to shift. And then, what I feel like people are at now is, no, no, bring it on. I have to face it — we have to face it.”

The producers of the podcast had chosen to repost the 2018 interview because they believed it to be a “prophetic conversation” for the moment we find ourselves in today. The words did indeed feel prophetic: This year has brought a global pandemic, a national protest movement against racial injustice, and a bitterly divisive election — we’ve had to snap out of our denial more than once. Yes, the pandemic is persisting into the fall. Yes, race-based violence still runs deep in this country. And yes — the people of this country are desperately divided and deeply distrustful of one another.

Like many of my peers, I’d tried my hand at building an emotional wall of sorts — something to get me through the endless breaking news that has prompted headlines like “Is 2020 truly the worst year ever?” and “Is This the Worst Year in Modern American History?” My long walk was just one of the ways I’d attempted to breathe through the madness. But the unprecedented scale of the madness had made that pursuit difficult.

All along, there had been a deeper denial that I could not give up. Knowing that 2020 was tumultuous and tainted by loss had not automatically divorced me from my idealized version of this year. It was hard not to imagine a world in which I could pick up where I’d left off in March — as a student, as a friend, and as a brother.

That reality, of course, is not just around the corner. And it’s become evident that living in 2020 requires that we make decisions and truly lean into them, unhampered by hypotheticals. This means letting our willingness to be in denial die.

But how?

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Change is endemic to the college experience. From semester to semester, we shift between classes, apply for internships and fellowships, and travel between our campus and our homes every few months. In spite of this near-constant instability, we are able to make important subjective decisions about our personal, academic, and professional investments. We can often cope with short-term uncertainty by making contingency plans, and we almost always have broad notions about when things will happen.

Not in 2020. The dizzying scale of uncertainty at hand can trivialize our attempts to neatly organize our days and weeks, as Maisie McPherson ’23 describes in her recent column reflecting on her attempts to process her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis. “An unpredictable pandemic was not something that fit into ‘my plan,’” she writes. “[B]ut throughout quarantine and into the summer, I continued to create plans (all of which were cancelled) in an attempt to rationalize the situation and continue being productive.”

Over the last several months, something new has taken hold within and around us. It’s not just uncertainty about what lies ahead. It’s a sort of meta-uncertainty: an unstable framework of constantly shifting time horizons that offers a poor foundation for decision-making. A long and uncomfortable silence in response to the question, “when do we finally get to know again?”

In February, COVID-19 was just a problem in China. By March, we knew better. In May, it would last a few months and die out. By June, we knew better. In July, it was with us for the summer but bound to disappear by the fall. By August, we knew better. In September, at least we had the spring semester. By October, we knew not to get attached to that possibility. Now, in November, we know a little better not to think that we know better.

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Still, for eight months, we have made, delayed, and cancelled plans, waiting impatiently for clarity. We are as ready as ever, it feels, for everything to snap “back to normal.” As scientists and public health officials have begun to wave promising words about vaccine development tantalizingly in front of us, it has only fueled our inability to come to terms with this version of the world.

With the pre-pandemic past so fresh in our minds, it’s easy to see everything as a concession. Talking to sources for journalism assignments over Zoom, strategizing to conduct remote qualitative interviews for my senior thesis, adding footnotes to my post-graduate fellowship applications explaining how I might adapt my project to public health guidelines, and recording remote music videos with my a cappella group have all, at times, elicited a sense of longing for what was and what could have been.

Leaning into the bounds of the current moment demands a continual process of reframing. In my life, it’s manifested as a willingness to replace my denial not just with neutrality, but with an eye to the positive.

Through all of the aforementioned activities, I have gotten better at meaningfully connecting and building trust with people from afar, even without the benefit of eye contact; I have learned to plan around impediments to my research and artistic expression that might once have seemed insurmountable. I may or may not have developed these skills without the drastic disruption to our lives that is COVID-19, but I know that they will serve me well, far beyond the scope of this pandemic. They represent former impossibilities which have, by necessity, become possible.

These types of conclusions are usually reached through reflection. We know that we can identify meaning and growth in even the most adverse of circumstances — in fact, that is often where we find it most saliently. The current moment calls on us to embrace a paradox: embarking on that reflective process proactively. If we neglect to do so, we risk losing the ability to invest deeply in our present.

As the months have pressed on, I’ve had a fair amount of time to imagine an off-campus version of my final semester of college. Though I’ve long seen that option as sub-par, I’ve managed to get excited about it. I’ve realized that sustained uncertainty feels worse than definitive investment in a second-choice option; I can always adapt and make the most of my situation, so long as I can come to terms with the decision itself. Conversely, I can’t do much with uncertainty, other than wring my hands and write meandering op-eds.

In his 2004 TED Talk, “The surprising science of happiness,” Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert describes an experiment that demonstrates the psychological basis for this inclination. At the end of the semester, students in a college photography course were allowed to choose two of their photos to print out, then told that they would have to leave one behind as proof of the class project. One group of students was told that they would have the opportunity to swap out the photos within four days of their choice; the other group was told that their decision was final. Over the next several days, students’ satisfaction with their photographs of choice was recorded.

“Both right before the swap and five days later, people who are stuck with that picture — who have no choice, who can never change their mind — like it a lot,” Gilbert explains. “And people who are deliberating — ‘Should I return it? Have I gotten the right one? Maybe this isn’t the good one. Maybe I left the good one?’ — have killed themselves. They don’t like their picture. In fact, even after the opportunity to swap has expired, they still don’t like their picture. Why? Because the [reversible] condition is not conducive to the synthesis of happiness.”

Students who had the choice to swap out their photograph didn’t have the opportunity to make the best of the reality of the moment. They were caught simultaneously in the past and the future, dragged out of the present by a dogging sense that the path not taken might have been better in some unforeseen way. At the end of the day, the photographs themselves were arbitrary; the students imbued them with special meaning because of the psychological priming.

Attempting to preempt this qualification in my own life, I created “synthetic happiness” about living off campus. Though we tend to view that sort of happiness as inferior to the “natural happiness” that arises in response to the fulfillment of our primary desires, Gilbert says it is not any less real or meaningful.

When it comes to pandemic decision-making, it can often feel less like choosing between two photographs and more like choosing between a Picasso and a pre-chewed piece of gum. But this is the wrong framing. By straddling our idealized version of this year and the hard-to-swallow reality, we taunt ourselves with the sense that this condition — the omnipresence of the pandemic and all the associated regulations on our lives — is reversible.

In reality, there is no reversible condition. Those pesky public health regulations, as well as the scrambling of social order that has followed the virus’s spread, are going to stay with us for some time. Delaying that acknowledgement is like snoozing a morning alarm over and over; we end up leaving ourselves more exhausted and less capable of tackling the inevitable. We can’t just snap out of this.

That fact needn’t sentence us to misery, though. Adopting Gilbert’s experimental conclusions as a framework for decision-making, or at least for meaning-making, can help us reframe those challenging questions about how best to navigate our personal and academic lives amid this new type of uncertainty.

Our choice is actually between acquiescence and investment: between being happy despite or happy because. The persistence of the pandemic has shown that there is ample reason to choose the latter.

This is not to say that we should ignore the immense suffering going on around us or that we should blind ourselves to the injustices and harms taking place in our communities. It’s also not true that we should ignore the pitfalls and shortcomings of our virtual education.

But we are remarkably adaptable creatures, and this pandemic has offered us a unique opportunity to build resilience and flexibility in the face of uncertainty. The hardest and kindest thing we can do for ourselves now is invest in human ingenuity — tackling our goals with confidence and collaborating with each other to make them more realizable — understanding that such an approach will ultimately empower us to push forward productively.

We will undoubtedly make mistakes and miscalculations along the way. But we may also surprise ourselves. If we can follow through on our intentions now, just imagine what we’ll be able to do when we emerge from the time warp of quarantine. If we can let ourselves learn to ride the wave of the pandemic a bit more smoothly, just imagine what we’ll be able to do when we can stand on two feet again.

There’s one part of that quote from On Being that I left out: “I also think, what people know is that, short of a nuclear war, we’ll survive it.” One deep breath later, I finished the walk, kicked off my shoes, and made sure I was doing more than just surviving.

Remy Reya is a senior in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at jreya@princeton.edu.

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