April 8, 2020

YAO | After Coronavirus, Don’t Forget What Uncertainty Feels Like

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Remember the good ol’ days? Back when I voluntarily vegetated in my dorm because the cold made even the walk to Appel unfathomable. My parents called me often then, their panicked voices rising in tandem with the worsening coronavirus crisis in China. In return, I dismissed their pleas for me to protect myself and grew confused when they mailed me alcohol wipes. I shielded myself from any notion that the epidemic — it wasn’t a pandemic yet — would escalate to such an extent in the U.S..

In those earlier months of 2020, I spent the waking hours pouring over economics lecture notes and calculus problem sets. I sent out applications for summer work and, on occasion, let my friends pull me out to campus events. In the idle hour here or there, I scheduled my future. Potential courses, potential majors, potential internships, all compiled together to create one overarching recipe for my college career.

Now, I can only wish for the luxury of naivety as I continue my (involuntary) vegetation in my childhood bedroom. My plans for freshman Spring and Summer have expired prematurely. Sophomore fall contains a large question mark by it. I’ve scrapped junior and senior year altogether — who knows what 2021 to 2023 will bring.

Coronavirus destroyed the structure that I, and so many of my peers, thrived off of. Time, something I had considered so precious at Cornell, has grown cyclical in nature. The hours between sunrise and sunset feel like hollow imprints of what they could be. I can’t help but think that I should be doing something, anything. Enrolling in summer courses. Brushing up on my French. Reading ahead for economics. Yet, without any stability to look forward to, all these activities seem futile.

As we’ve learned, mundanity is fragile. In March alone, the United States spiked from 335 confirmed cases of coronavirus to 300 thousand. Schools and businesses shut down nationwide, sending students and employees scrambling. On the international level, the Olympics have been postponed as countries begin their lockdowns. This pandemic thrust the entire world into limbo, and I’m working to accept that I’m allowed to freefall as well.

The future-oriented mentality I adopted in the past as essential for “success” does not apply to our present. Thus, it’s time for me to adapt my mindset to accommodate reality. But more than that, I aim for this personal shift to be long-lasting. Even after the period of fear and frustration fades to a distant blip in our country’s narrative, I want to stop attributing fulfillment to the high stress environments I tend to create for myself. Micromanaging my life to exhaustion for that next moment of fleeting gratification is unsustainable and unhealthy.

In the past few weeks where I’ve been lucky enough to be home with my family, I picked up my first pleasure-read in years. And then my second. And yesterday, my third. The familiar voices at the back of my mind immediately swooped in to spew out a list of “more productive” pursuits. I let myself drown them out using the elegant prose of Jane Austen and Amor Towles. I’ve begun to dismantle the Katie who views time spent savoring the present as time wasted. It’ll be an arduous process — breaking old habits and creating new ones always is — but I’ll try to be kind to myself. In the daily toil to guarantee myself a stable outcome later on in life, I’d forgotten that there’s no shame in living moment to moment. There’s no shame in uncertainty.

I don’t know what condition I’ll be in next month, let alone in 3 or 10 or 20 years from now. Four weeks ago, such a realization would have filled me with dread, and to be honest, it still kind of does. However, I am certain of one thing: I no longer wish to be the servant to an illusory future that oscillates without warning. When Cornell’s campus springs to life again, I hope we all can take a minute every so often to appreciate the now and embrace the unknown. Sometimes that means flipping through an old favorite book or discovering a new one. Other times, it’s bidding adieu to the master schedule you mapped out so long ago.


Katherine Yao is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.