Did I Learn Anything from the Pandemic?
A Boomer reader wonders if the lessons have endured
In comparing her attitude during the dark days of 2020 with her thoughts and actions of today, Karen Czuleger Strgacich wonders if she learned – and retained – any lessons from the pandemic.
Did I learn anything during the pandemic? It felt like I was like the Tin Man living in Oz and I had just seen the wizard! I truly found my heart. How could I not? Seeing what I saw every day on the news. The loss of life, loss of jobs, and loss of security was staggering. And my newly adopted behavior of monitoring my own health, along with the obligation I felt to keep everyone around me safe, no matter where I was, was something I had ever experienced before. And perhaps for those of us who cared enough to share that experience, I think we all went to the wizard and found our hearts.
The country shutdowns started in March of 2020. But here we are in the summer of 2023. Have the lessons learned about shared humanity stayed with me? Or have I slowly folded back to the pre-pandemic thinking of “Me, Myself, and I”? That is my fear. And though experiencing a global pandemic was not my idea of an ideal opportunity to exhibit compassion amongst us, it did indeed result in that for many people. It was the silver lining to a devastating situation.
And again, here we are in 2023. I ask all of this because I had a stark realization the other day. I have realized that I may have begun to roll back into that autopilot mode of “Me, Myself, and I.” The person I had become pre-pandemic.
I live in Los Angeles. A city where they say dreams come true. Dreams may indeed come true, but you’re going to pay a hefty mortgage for them.
The other day I was following my daughter to drop her car off for service. As I was sitting at a stoplight waiting for the light to turn green, I looked to my left. Two feet away from me sitting on the curb was a homeless man. His head was bobbing up and down because he was falling asleep, but trying to keep himself awake while gripping tightly to the sign he was holding in his hand, which read, “Homeless and Hungry.” I looked at him and thought, “You poor man, you’re probably exhausted because you’ve been up all night trying to find a place to shelter and sleep while keeping yourself safe.” A place that a home would provide. I had about $10 cash in my wallet, and I felt utterly conflicted. I was on my way to pick up my daughter and knew she needed that $10 because she had no cash and had broken a nail. The nail salon only took cash, and she was going to a wedding, and she didn’t want her nails to look bad. The light changed, and I proceeded down the highway with my cash still in my wallet.
I was conflicted by my actions and my heart. I couldn’t stop thinking about that man. In my Teflon moment, I had prioritized a broken nail over a man who probably was truly hungry and exhausted and who needed my $10. As I proceeded down the two miles to the service center, I thought about how he got there. He was once someone’s little boy. What was his story and how did he get there? What went wrong for him?
Now I know there are complicated and often political solutions and even bigger reasons for the homeless issues that every city in America seems to be facing now more than ever. But at that moment, I understood within myself that my priorities had become distorted to the person I thought I was. That man wasn’t some cartoon, he was a human being, and I blithely turned away and drove past him as I am sure hundreds of cars had done before me.
That was his day, every day.
It made me ask myself, does it take a catastrophic event like a pandemic for me to find my humanity and my heart? Do we all need to go find our own wizard like the Tin Man did as we roll through our days? But the biggest question I had was who I was, and what happened to my heart.
The emotions we are now experiencing in a post-pandemic world have seemed to “pivot” from shared compassion toward each other to compassion fatigue. I always thought that compassion was hardwired into me by the way I was raised. My parents and grandparents always showed us examples of compassion as a result of navigating their lives through an economic depression and a couple of world wars. They had to learn compassion because everyone at one time really did lean on each other. I suppose it’s not hard to live from the “Me, Myself, and I” mentality these days. The news we see now every day exhibits a very angry society, and we see profound examples of this in our currently divided country within a currently divided Washington DC. I wish that wasn’t the case.
I believe that every day our shared humanity should start at hello. As I think back on that experience at the stoplight, I wonder if he had opened his eyes and looked at me, if our eyes had met, would I have seen his humanity? Would I have seen him at all? Would I have felt differently? Would I have felt compelled to automatically hand him the $10 I had in my wallet? But then why should it require him to look at me to show him compassion? Why didn’t I see the human being that he is?
I want that silver lining experience that I had during the pandemic to reside in me all the time. Because where I come from and the people who influenced me made this the very fabric of who I am. But somehow, I must have forgotten.
Though I realize I am only human, and I have failures of heart, mind, and spirit, and I cannot solve all the problems I see in my world, I need to approach each day knowing how lucky I am for all that I have and remember what humanity looks like. I will go back to the wizard as many times as it takes to remember that I do have a heart that is a compassionate one. I will default to being smart with my actions but also kind and slower to formulate a judgment of anyone that doesn’t resemble my life, because I don’t know what they have been through. And I will live in a place of gratitude. How privileged I am that I have a wonderful career and a safe home that I can pay for.
So, did I learn anything from the pandemic? Yes. I learned that life and security can be lost in a cool minute. And the only way to survive this is to help each other. Just be kind. How hard can that be?
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Karen Czuleger Strgacich is a national sales director in the hospitality industry, helping to bring meetings and conventions to the city of Los Angeles. She has worked in the industry for over 30 years. She loves her career and paying it forward by mentoring future hospitality and meeting professionals and helping them obtain scholarships. She raised two children as a single mom, a feat that was at times the most challenging thing she had ever done, but also by far the most rewarding. After work, Strgacich blogs her thoughts, experiences, trials, and triumphs to sites focused on single motherhood and professional working women. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.