November 4, 2021

OLGUIN | Thrown Back Into Normalcy, As if This Were a Normal Year

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November 1. When the day comes around, it’s a flutter of emotions – excitement for an upcoming holiday season and the feeling of “What–the–hell! How is it November already?!” This year, my emotions are in limbo, trapped between thrill for the fast approaching holiday breaks and the existential dread of a senior whose thesis project should be much farther along than it is right now. 

The beginning of November reminds me that we are in the full colorful throes of Fall — and of the academic semester. There are no take backs on the classes I am now in. They’re ramping up, filled with prelims and essays, due dates and deadlines. It’s the week when we are the furthest away from both our last break and our next break. It’s this week when sometimes we lack time to center our well-being and take care of ourselves. 

This year seems to feel no different than any other academic year we had. Except for the fact that it’s characterized by a very different reality from 2019 – a global pandemic, a worsening climate crisis and global economic crises. I was swallowed as a sophomore and spit back out as a senior, and I’m still trying to process the past year. I find myself a little more emotional than usual – both missing home, friends and family in sunny California. And yet clumsily trying to absorb as much of the treasured time I have with my friends in an arrangement that seems unlike the ones I will encounter after May. 

Yet, trying to bask in this time with friends or even process these emotions is burdensome. The semester has gone full speed ahead, having seemingly overlooked everything that’s occurred in the past year, everything that is still going on in the world. I am left with no time for my thoughts after a year when time was less of a commodity and I had thoughts to spare – just running in circles around my brain. 

Last year, there was just more time. Partly due to an online year but also from another trend – an ethos that ran through courses of greater understanding and compassion in an online covid year. Professors acknowledged the environmental, societal and global forces that physically impacted our lives and mentally jolted our realities. We spoke about zoom fatigue and being burnt out. Now, it feels like we are walking around as if those global forces are gone. When we know they are not. The ethos of understanding was short-lived. We are back on campus without the resources,efforts or time to even begin to process all that we lost in the last year. 

What does it mean to process this? To process our well-being in a post (but not really post even though we all keep saying it)-pandemic world? In the 2019-2021 Tompkins County Health Improvement Plan, well-being is defined as “a relative and dynamic state where one maximizes [their] physical, mental, and social functioning in the context of supportive environments to live a full, satisfying, and productive life.” Productive. A Productive Life. Similarly, the World Health Organization in the context of mental health, defines a state of well-being as one in which  “an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” And again we see productively. 

While I don’t mean to solely fixate on this word in a definition that otherwise gets at the sense, I do want to question the use of the term “productivityto describe the state of being well, as opposed to feelings of happiness, fulfillment and comfort. Anyone can be productive after drinking a cup of coffee, 5 cups or using any other “study drug” in the plethora of stimulants available. Many of us can be productive off of 2 hours of sleep for a week straight or no sleep at all. But are we well? Would you call that being in a state of well-being? 

Maybe I’m looking too hard into this. But I can’t say that reading this for my Health Equity class didn’t intrigue me. The fact that our local and international institutions’ definitions of well-being includes the need to produce reflects a truth we’ve all bought into – a culture of working and constant productivity. Well-being has been defined in the context of labor in our understandings of health and well-being. And it shouldn’t be. 

It seems like more of the nation is coming to terms with this, especially in a post-pandemic lockdown world. Workers are increasingly resigning and quitting in record-breaking numbers. Citing exhaustion, the desire to spend more time with loved ones and the need to prioritize their well-being. It’s a rebuke towards non stop productivity and the 40 hour work week. It’s a recognition of the debilitating effects of the pandemic. 

For students, it’s a different battle to pack up and leave school. But it is possible for us to pay attention to question our sense of well-being within this institution. Why have we returned to a pre-pandemic reality of school when we’ve seen the capacity for more accommodations and understanding in an online semester? Why weren’t students in quarantine given online accommodations when we’ve had a year of zoom classes? Why don’t we consider including wellness days in addition to our present breaks? Why are we acting like everything’s normal – when our normal has been altered? And if you have a climate change-obsessed friend, you might know that there’s no normal to go back to – our environment will be altered more and more with worsening effects of climate change.

Our movements in life have gone from walking back and forth from our rooms, to traversing across campus for classes, lunch, clubs and work – too busy to think about the global forces around us. My mind is still barely catching up. 

Thanksgiving break is coming up. And it will feel like pulling my head out of water, giving me barely enough time to look around & quickly gulp a breath down before I’m put back underwater – a current of more work and finals. Before the pandemic, that may have been the norm — just what everyone went through. But, like thousands of workers around the nation tired from the pandemic-exacerbated cruelty of the past year, we are burnt out and scattered. 

Vanessa Olguín is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Long Story Short runs every other Friday this semester.