November 16, 2020
He looked miserable. I don’t think he realized how loudly he was doing it – grunting and moaning each time he looked up at the path ahead of him. Some have described the Narrows in Zion as one of the most beautiful places to hike…but he was not impressed.
Our family of seven was hiking through our first of four National Parks on our two-week road trip this summer. Despite his love for the outdoors and his excitement for our vacation, our 9-year-old Jacob was having a hard time. I think his system was in shock.
In a usual summer, Jacob spends at least 7 hours per day outside – playing, running, hiking, and exploring. He has gone to Outpost for the past six summers. On his off days, he’d have what we called “Jacob camp” choosing to play basketball, ride his scooter, and re-enact adventure scenes in the yard. I’ve always called him my “outside kid.”
Yet as we hike through the shallow water in the midst of breath-taking scenery, between the grunts and moans I hear, “I hate hiking! I hate this!!”
It’s a challenging hike for a 9-year-old, especially an emotionally shaky one. Hiking through the Narrows requires repeated planning with each step. No surface is guaranteed to be solid. The ground is covered with large, smooth, movable rocks submerged under 1-3 feet of water.
As the rest of our family hikes along happily albeit unsteadily, Jacob pleads with us: How much longer? Can we turn around now? Isn’t it snack time??
With five kids, our decisions are made using a ratio system. If four out of five kids are having fun, the activity is a smashing success. Jacob’s hopes of ending our hike early are crushed as he sees his siblings’ smiles. We do declare it snack time, though, as three other kids mention they’re hungry.
His siblings find a large dry rock to the side of the water-filled hiking area, perfect for a snack break. Jacob carefully walks toward them. As he exits the water, he over-confidently steps onto a large rock. It’s more slippery than he anticipated, and he falls back hard. His fall is so sudden and loud that onlookers collectively gasp and turn his way.
Aside from a bruised ego and a bruise on his lower back that lasts the duration of our trip, he is physically fine. But emotionally, he is spent. Everything I say is unhelpful. Everything his older brother says makes him mad. The onlookers’ sympathy turns to annoyance as Jacob’s cries shift from physical pain to emotional anguish.
We watch him carefully and notice that he’s walking normally and keeps forgetting where the excruciating pain is supposed to be coming from. We know he isn’t hurt. It’s something else. Physically, emotionally, and socially, he’s out of practice. We all are.
Years ago, my dad once said to us, “I think I could do anything for a year.” Our family had a lively discussion about what would be hardest to do and whether his argument was flawed.
His point was that if we know it’ll “only” be a year we are able to wrap our heads around that time frame, mentally prepare ourselves, and look forward to the end point of a defined amount of time.
One of the issues with the pandemic (much like a seemingly never-ending hike) is its undetermined amount of time. I tend to be naturally optimistic, so in March I believed the worst of the pandemic would be over by summer. Then, I hoped the school year might be able to start semi-normally. When that didn’t happen, I told myself at least it’ll be over by the end of 2020. Nope.
I’m using an important coping skill – adjusting my mindset over and over when the data I have changes. I extended my timeframe and adjusted expectations, season by season. I’ve tried to help my kids do this, too. But I’m getting tired. And the elongating of our timelines is wearing on my soul. My coping skills are working less well each time. I have optimism fatigue.
After labeling my optimism fatigue, I wondered if it was a widely discussed pandemic topic. A quick Google search showed me that it has been described most often this year which makes sense. It was highlighted in several articles in the context of vaccine optimism fatigue, the optimism fatigue of financial markets during the pandemic, and in relation to leadership burnout. (Sources below)
We are tired. Scientists are tired. Economists are tired. Leaders are tired.
We are so tired, in fact, that other disruptions to our systems are almost too much. This was the case during Jacob’s summer hiking. He had already handled his school being closed (“but this was my favorite class ever, Mom!”), his boy scout trips being cancelled, and postponement of his favorite routines. He out was of handling ability.
In awaiting election results earlier this month, I spoke to many people who’d reached the end of their handling powers. In my circle of friends, there were people voting for both parties and championing various issues. And they were all surprised by the physical toll of the two weeks surrounding Election Day.
This reminded me of Jacob’s hiking when his mindset radically changed each time he reached the halfway point. “The second half is always easier,” he told me. He had walked the terrain. He knew how long it took, and he was prepared and able to identify the finish line.
On Election Tuesday, if election officials had identified Saturday as results day, it would have been manageable. We would have made plans for distraction, counted down, and readied ourselves for the outcome that weekend.
But they didn’t know. They couldn’t have known. Instead, they said, “Wait.” Wait for an undetermined amount of time. And we did. We waited.
For my friends and family, and for me personally, the double waiting was too much. Like I’ve said to myself so many times this year, I wondered, what is time anymore? Why does it feel so different this year?
Will we live in a pandemic for the rest of our lives? No. Will it be over this year before the calendar turns to 2021? No.
Sometime between 2021 and forever, the pandemic will end. Some kind of normalcy will return. We will talk about “those days.” We will be able to separate our quarantine time into chunks and phases and know where it led us. Our losses will be finite instead of yet to be determined. We’ll see the whole hike and be able to wrap our minds around it.
But right now, we’re on a hike through uncharted terrain, without mile markers, maps, or directions. We’re in no man’s land. And it’s really, really hard. It’s hard to watch our kids suffer. It’s hard to keep cancelling plans, especially as the holidays approach. And it hurts to be stressed and flooded with cortisol for months on end.
It’s difficult to manage little stressors when we are already full, too full – full of waiting, coping, adjusting, trying again, persevering, taking care of others, trying to care for ourselves, trying to make enough money to keep our lives as similar to pre-pandemic times as possible.
It’s exhausting, but we’re doing it. We’re using our muscles, ones we didn’t know we had. Our kids are doing this, too. We’re all learning. We’re making progress.
How much longer? I don’t know. But we’re getting there. And we’ll arrive at the end eventually.
Dr. Kelly Jones
Executive Director, Outpost Summer Camps
“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” Brené Brown
Optimism Fatigue Sources:
Tracey Anne Duncan mentioned optimism fatigue in the context of “vaccine optimism fatigue” (www.Mic.com – July 2020).
Brian Kozel described the optimism fatigue of financial markets during the pandemic (www.northberkeleywealth.com – October 2020).
Jeff Spark discussed optimism fatigue in relation to leadership burnout (www.3rdwaylife.blogspot.com – May 2020).