No Action

Fighting by Doing Nothing

So.  Here we are.  How should I write an introduction for a post in a time when our situation changes every day?  And how do I know what you need when you read this?  Do you want humor to take your mind off the horror of today and the uncertainty of tomorrow?  Or do you want serious advice on how to handle this new environment?

Let’s start with the advice.  I have none.  One of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that every person and every household are dealing with a completely different set of circumstances.  You could be living in a house with six other people, including an infant and a toddler, but out West, situated far from others.  Your fears of getting sick are low, but your problems with getting baby wipes and groceries are high.  Or you could be living alone in a New York City apartment, scared to death of getting sick and having no available healthcare, but close to plenty of food in a nearby market.  Or you might have few supply and health issues, but you just got laid off from your job.  The issues and stresses in each of these situations are different and require unique solutions – no general advice will do.

I have lots of humor, which sometimes I need desperately, and sometimes seems horribly inappropriate.  My friend just gave me toilet paper for my birthday, and I WAS GRATEFUL.  My Depression-era grandparents no doubt are looking down and smiling smugly.  “Don’t you wish you had spent more time listening to our stories about how to make spaghetti and meatballs out of nuts and grass from the back yard?!”

I could tell you warm and fuzzy things about all of us being in this together.  But I’m sure you maxed out on inspirational sayings on Instagram some time last week. In all honesty, it would be something of a relief if someone weren’t in this with us.  Then someone could rescue us, right?

Perhaps it would be helpful to acknowledge the specific frustrations of our little skirts-in-dirt corner of the world.  Do we have our own set of issues?  Of course we do.

If you are a woman in our field, you are not passive.  You haven’t waded through low expectations and condescending looks to succeed as an engineer/contractor/etc.  by sitting by and waiting for other people to make decisions and act.  You’re a problem-solver by nature, and the barriers to our gender in the professional world mean that you are used to powering through ugly situations to make things happen.  But the constant in all of these statements is action. And taking action is the one thing you can’t do right now.

Right now, the sky is blue, and spring is here (at least in the U.S.).  There are no bombs dropping from the sky to threaten our homes.  Soldiers aren’t marching down our streets.  We are not underwater in a flood, and hurricane season isn’t here (yet).  If you drive down the street, you see families out playing and talking, people running, and spring flowers sprouting up in yards.  You would have to know what to look for to see that none of the kids are playing with other families, and people on the sidewalks give each other a wide berth. Parents are smiling but drinking heavily because they’re spending their days as unqualified home-school teachers who are hoping they don’t ruin (or kill) their kids.

So we’ve all been confined to our homes because there’s something awful and ugly out there and we have to make sure it doesn’t kill us.  But we can’t go out and fight it.  We can’t organize a supply chain to the front lines.  We can’t take up arms and wipe it out.  In short, we can’t do what we do well.

If you watch the HBO drama Game of Thrones, you probably saw the battle with the Night King’s army last spring.  In the episode before the battle, the story examined each character as they waited for the army’s arrival.  That was the entire episode.  In my opinion, it was one of the best installments in the show’s long run.  Every character waited and thought about what was to come and hoped that he or she was up to the challenge.  It was terrifying.  It really brought home the fear that we all feel when bracing ourselves for an attack we know is coming but with details and outcomes we can’t predict.

This quarantine that we’re all inhabiting reminds me of that episode, but without the battle.  We can’t take up a dagger of dragon glass and try to resist the advancing hoards.  Instead, we have to stay at home and wash our groceries.  We can’t board a dragon and wipe out enemy troops.  Our battle must be fought by NOT advancing and NOT collaborating and NOT trying to wipe out the enemy.  It’s not an approach that most of us adopt very often, and we’re uncomfortable.  We’re also tense and tired and scared.

I have likened the spread of the coronavirus to the problem you have when you spill glitter in your house or when someone breaks a glass in a crowded party.  “Everyone stand still and don’t move!”  You know that someone will get cut no matter how much you order them to stay put, and glitter always disperses as if by magic.  We are trying to stand still, to keep from spreading glitter to every surface and person we will encounter for all eternity.  If you have daughters, you know the futility of trying to contain the glitter.  No matter how much you clean, you find it on the undersides of your car floor mats 6 months after your toddler spilled it in her toy room inside the house.  Unfortunately, this is glitter that will kill your toddler’s aging grandparents.  We can clean and clean, but then our only course of action is to STAY STILL.  How on earth do we start doing that now after we’ve spent our entire lives trying to save the world through perpetual motion?

If nothing else, we have a solid community in our foundations world.  We can call each other and lament our feelings of powerlessness.  We can video chat with glasses of wine and hope that our home-schooling efforts aren’t producing a generation of bad spellers who can’t do math. We can reassure each other that this is just another challenge with unusual parameters.  If there is something we do well, it’s handle unusual challenges.

Most importantly, we can re-calibrate our view of the world to fit our current reality. I think every person’s survival in this crisis and afterwards will depend on resetting our expectations.  If we change our mindsets to look at this problem as a project instead of an inconvenient and scary departure from normal life, we are as qualified as any group of people to crush it. If nothing else, rearranging our perspective might at least give us some peace of mind. This is just another project challenge for another day.  And hey – it doesn’t discriminate by gender.  There’s a silver lining to get you started.

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