17: Surviving vs. experiencing joy

Am I living to get through the day or am I having fun?

The changes in my life since March of 2020 have been dramatic. On the surface, things are the same - same job, same house, same family - but a layer deeper there has been a lot of transformation. I used to do three to five trips a month for work, but it’s been almost two years since I’ve been anywhere near an airport. When not traveling, I used to walk to my office downtown almost everyday, now I work from home full time. My wife used to spend her work days driving from meeting to meeting, now she’s at home most of the time as well. We used to have dinner or evening plans with other people several nights a week, now we occasionally see friends for an outdoor happy hour, weather permitting. We used to take our daughter to do all kinds of activities on the weekend - museums, zoo, shopping - now we only do outdoor things, and when it starts to get cold (like it is as I write this) we stay home all day. I used to go to bed at 9:00, get up at 5:00, and adjust my plans as the day unfolded. Now, I go to bed at 7:30, get up at 3:30, and do a rigid morning routine that keeps me grounded (stretch, coffee, write, long run, shower - all before my wife and daughter wake up). I find that I stick to my routine insistently, and I get upset if it changes.

Those are just the external factors. Internally, I’ve been exploring identity and reflecting more deeply on the society we live in, what I value in life, and what kind of life truly makes me happy. I’ve learned about and acknowledged the deep inequalities in our society, and dedicated much of my time to deepening my learning, reading works by authors who are Black, Indigenous, other people of color, or who are neurodivergent, or who are LGBTQA+. I have been shocked and saddened by what I have learned, and also grateful to the large community of people who are doing hard, risky, often thankless work to educate others and strive for a more just society. This learning has fundamentally changed my view of our society and my role in it, and challenged me to be more intentional about how I use my privilege and spend my time.

This long period of self reflection has guided me to understand that I am autistic, and to pursue and receive a diagnosis. Recently, I have decided to stop drinking, and I’ve also decided to transition fully to veganism. The long, extended days with my wife and daughter have brought me closer to them, strengthened our relationships, and deepened my admiration for my wife, the incredible work she does, and the grace and power that she holds. From a selfish perspective, I feel more at peace and centered in my life now than any other time in my memory.  I feel complete, I feel fulfilled. My life is stable and predictable, and I realize now how important that is to me and how much it helps me maintain my equilibrium. 

The things that are bringing me this newfound peace and inner joy are, for the most part, solitary activities. While I think I have achieved something wonderful inside the boundaries of my mind, and of our home, I have largely withdrawn from the world of gatherings. I still connect with other people, but I do it in ways that before would have felt unsatisfying or incomplete. This withdrawal from the social world was, of course, forced initially. As the pandemic has evolved, I have consistently been on the cautious and careful end of the spectrum, very slow to return to indoor social activities even with full vaccination. This was manageable over the summer, and we’ve been lucky to have an extended warm fall, but now that we’re heading into winter I find myself nervous and reluctant to return to things like restaurants, live performances, or any kind of event. Even dinner parties with friends make me uneasy. We’ve started gathering with family, and our holiday season will be “normal” in terms of having meals with extended family, but these occasions feel stressful and daunting to me. We are planning a trip to visit siblings over New Years, and while I am looking forward to it in many ways, I’m also exceedingly anxious about not only the travel aspect, but about being away from my routine for eight days. Having discovered a deeper understanding of who I am and what my needs are, I am reluctant to give up what I have found. 

Now that my wife and I have received our booster shots, and now that our daughter has started her vaccination process, the “legitimate” reasons for maintaining my lockdown lifestyle are dwindling. I have to face the harder choice of declining invitations because I prefer not to do things, or because I don’t feel the need to do them (rather than because I honestly feel it is not safe to do them), or of rejoining the social arena.  The idea of rejoining has, so far, not been appealing to me.

For many, the past two years have been incredibly challenging and stressful. A lot of people - most people? - have missed their interactions and gatherings with others, their rituals and traditions, their ways of being in, and connecting with, society. For me, speaking strictly of my mental state and not commenting on the great tragedies that the pandemic has imposed, the past two years have been somewhat of a salve. Where others may have experienced a long slog, where the goal was survival and joy was absent, I have found a quiet happiness.  I don’t feel like I have lost anything. There is nothing that I feel I am missing that I long to return to. I don’t feel like there is a void in my life, or that the pandemic has left a hole that needs to be filled. I have processed the grief of saying goodbye to the lifestyle that we left behind in March of 2020, and I have come to terms with it. I have embraced this new life, this new way of being, this new way of connecting. I have not been waiting for the pandemic to end. If anything, I have been anxious about the possibility of going back to the way things were.

From my home, I have made deep connections with dozens of new people - some of whom I have things in common with, some of whom offer me a completely new perspective, and all of whom I never would have met if it weren’t for the pandemic. I have been in conversation with people all over the world, I have shared my deepest inner thoughts through writing, and I have read the reflections of others who have also shared. Some of these people are colleagues, some of them are professional connections, some of them are people I met through the wonders of the internet. In many ways, I feel more connected to myself and to other people now than I have in a very long time. And yet, I haven’t been with people much in the typical sense. I have not “broken bread” with people, I have not done face to face activities with people, I have not engaged in the kind of boundless, lingering, unstructured time with others that many people enjoy, but that I find difficult. Visiting someone for “an afternoon”, without a specific start time, no defined end time, and no specific agenda, is hard for me to endure. But sharing thoughts through exchanges of writing, meeting for an hour on Zoom, commenting on each other's social media posts, are all things that enable me to build and maintain connections in ways that are comfortable for me. 

The question I find myself confronting is whether the lifestyle I have adopted since the pandemic began is acceptable in the eyes of others. People who I spent time with in the physical world before the pandemic may want to return to what they consider to be “normal”. Without the pandemic hanging over us as an edict not to gather, they may interpret a preference for not gathering as a sign of disinterest in our relationship rather than as a desire to connect in different ways. Or, people may look at my lifestyle, now chosen rather than enforced, and imagine that it is devoid of joy. That I don’t have fun. It’s natural, I think, to assume that what is fun for you is fun for everyone.

These are familiar issues for me, because the way I have been living my life these past two years is very similar to the way I was living my life before I learned “how to be normal”. When I was in college, my idea of a nice Friday evening would be to relax in the cozy part of the historic library, by the big old fireplace, and read until I was too tired, then walk a meandering route back to my dorm room and have some tea and write in my journal until I fell asleep (this changed my senior year when I met a group of friends and found alcohol). When I was 23 and living in Washington, D.C., working at a school with a group of other new college grads, I would decline their invitations to happy hour, and instead walk a circuitous path home through the beautiful neighborhoods of Northwest D.C., and spend my evenings writing and reflecting on my experiences. I remember one evening around 9:00 o’clock, as I lay in bed anticipating sleep, my neighbor across the hall knocked on the door. They’ll go away, I thought. But they didn’t. They kept knocking. They called my name. How did they know I was home? Finally I got up, put on some clothes, and answered the door. They could see the sleep in my face as my eyes adjusted to the light. They invited me to the party they were having. It reminded me of how I would be brushing my teeth for bed in the dorm bathroom while other people were getting dressed up for the evening. “Sure!” I said, trying to act happy about it. I declined alcohol but engaged in conversations for a couple of hours before being released. It was fine, but they weren’t my people. We didn’t hang out again after that. 

Learning “how to be normal” was a long process that, for me, started in my mid twenties and continued well into my thirties. As I started that process, I remember thinking that my parents had really missed the boat on teaching social skills. I didn’t know I was autistic, that I was actually neurologically different from others, I just thought I hadn’t been raised properly and now I was discovering, through the patient teachings of others (such as my new girlfriend, and my new colleagues), what everyone else had been taught growing up. I now realize that that isn’t true (I have amazing parents, and only in retrospect did I realize how lucky I was that they raised me how they did). 

Learning to be normal was learning how to cover up my personality and pretend to be someone else, someone that I thought others found more appealing to be with (the autistic community calls this “masking”). It’s a complicated and nuanced process that involves a lot of second guessing, a lot of trying to adjust on the fly based on how people react, and a lot of thought and energy put into what other people might be thinking about you. I realize in retrospect that doing this led me to be always uncertain about myself, and overly focused on trying (unsuccessfully, often) to guess what I thought other people wanted. The pandemic has helped me “uncover” my more natural self and be more comfortable with who I am. But, in the eyes of people who met me while I was masking, this change in me might be hard to interpret. Change is hard. 

The small number of people who I am really close to have seen me in so many different situations that they know the “real me” - I don’t think it’s possible to “mask” with people you are truly close to (though the technique can be very effective with coworkers and acquaintances). Some of them have probably known the real me for longer than I have. The conflict in my life has stemmed, I think, from the fact that I didn’t know who I was, which led me to try to be different things in different contexts, sometimes with success and sometimes not. Now that my own self understanding has deepened, I can more easily see what gives me joy and what drains me. Some of the things that drain me, I can easily avoid. But some of those things are important to do in order to maintain connections with the people who are close to me. There is a balance I need to find there. For the past two years, I’ve been indulging in the activities that bring me joy in solitude, and now I’m trying to figure out how to re-enter the social world without losing myself in the process.

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