Pandemic Malaise Recovery

Something exciting happened in the last few weeks. I started to feel energized rather than absolutely drained at the end of a teaching day. I’m excited to prep a new class for fall. Research has called out again. My thoughts have turned to long-term projects.

In sum, the pandemic malaise has lifted.

I wrote about burnout recovery over the summer. After seeing that post, my friend commissioned her talented child to create this whimsical representation of the marshmallow aflame. I still feel like that person (or mallow) some times, but perhaps the flames are now embers. The tiny smile is there more often than it was in the past 2 years.

“Marshmallow Aflame” by Pirro Flaherty

The malaise has been deep-seated. This is beyond work burnout. The pandemic has made everything harder and more worrisome. It feels like the pandemic has extracted a commission from every joyful event.

In the last two years, I was so focused on simply getting through everything, that I wasn’t free to put real breath or life into it. In a previous post, I noted that my teaching creativity has suffered. The recommitment to creating an engaging classroom experience led me to blow up my Senior Seminar syllabus and reshape it with student input.

This semester I’ve had so much fun with my students, listening to questions and worries, while also seeing their strengths emerge. I recently conducted an anonymous check in to see how class is going. This is exactly what I needed to hear: “The best thing about this class is how it does not feel like we are just being spoken too, we all speak and laugh like friends.”

I decided to make changes (e.g., blowing up the syllabus, cutting loose more in class), but perhaps a bigger change has happened unconsciously with my pandemic coping. Lately, I’ve had days when I didn’t actively think about Covid. There’s a lot of privilege in that experience. Covid only gave me mild symptoms in January. Most of my friends and family members are vaccinated and doing well health-wise. My kids are old enough to get vaccinated. Our medical coverage is solid. Not everyone has that, I know.

Yet I hope many folks can feel optimistic about this major piece of news (from the New York Times on April 19th, 2022):

People are still getting sick, people are still dying, but the trend is toward milder symptoms and less serious health impacts. The Times noted that their newsletter will focus now less on the number of cases and more on hospitalizations.

To be clear, the malaise lifting (for me) doesn’t mean the pandemic has lifted. What it means to me is a return of energy: I can be optimistic about a beyond. I finally have some momentum that carries through multiple days. Others aren’t there yet. I know that. But I hope that my feelings of optimism kindle them in others.

One sign of the malaise lifting is the celebration of a new research project with friends. Amanda, Roger, and I recently presented our work at the Eastern Communication Association conference. Working with friends on a topic we love put new kilowatt hours in my solar panels over the summer. Getting to speak publicly of our work for the first time gave an even bigger boost.

Roger, me, and Amanda at ECA holding our top paper panel certificates

In this research project, we analyzed news framing of the pandemic gardening boom. It struck us that hardly any of the news stories mention a harvest. Many of the journalists and their source quotes focused on communing with others and with nature in the garden. It’s as if pandemic gardening (from April 2020 to July 2021) was framed in terms of processes (joy in everyday life) rather than products (home grown food). In the beginning months of the pandemic, to expect tangible rewards–meaty tomatoes, a bushel of beans, or curvaceous pumpkins–in a sea of pandemic uncertainty would perhaps set us up for even more disappointment.

Folks will not be the same following the pandemic. I know that. But I hope that we can find our joy again. Whatever healing timeline you are on, I hope you can once more laugh like friends and dare to cultivate your own long-term sustenance.



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