Pre-Covid I thought a lot about balance. “Life balance” - an oft quoted ideal was, and is, something I believe we should all strive for. Life balance means getting enough of all the things that you need to live your best possible life. It means getting enough exercise, it means getting enough rest, it means having time and resources to eat well, it means making time for personal relationships, and it means having a fulfilling Why to work towards. Work is an essential part of life balance. We cannot feel like whole people leading meaningful lives if we do not have a Why.
I still think about and strive for balance, but amidst Covid I find myself thinking more about limits. What are our human limits? How do we decide when to push past perceived limits? How do we know when we should avoid the unwanted or unpleasant or when we should experience or lean into the pain? How much can we handle as individuals and as a society? Pre-COVID I thought of perceived limits as things to push back against to achieve goals. I was mindful of not pushing too hard though, because again, life balance was the goal. In the COVID era, I still think about trying to achieve balance, but I am thinking about limits a bit differently. Limits are perceived more than they are actual. Limits can be pushed and dissolved and broken. In other words, we are stronger than we think we are, and many times perceived limits are not limits at all.
A couple of years ago I listened to a Radiolab podcast on limits. The stories within it stuck with me. I find the stories so unbelievable in fact, that I had to re-listen to the episode last week in order to prove to myself that my memory of the episode was correct. The most astounding story to me is the account of the cyclists who ride over 3,000 miles, all in one go, in The Race Across America. These riders take nothing more than an hour break here and there, and essentially they ride continuously for several days straight until they reach the East Coast from the West. They are living explorations of human physical limits. Exhausted riders have been known to put duct tape on their heads to hold them up. They suffer open sores, muscle fatigue and hallucinations. Successful riders will invoke rage, fear and even welcome the hallucinations that help motivate them to continue on their journeys. Importantly, they also have support vehicles by their side. These support people encourage them on in spite of the misery and abdication they may display. Each of these strategies are tools the riders are using to trick their Central Governor - a sort of safety system within our central nervous system that keeps us safe from pushing ourselves into physically dangerous territory. It is not physical limitations of muscles, glucose or electrolytes in fact that keep us from riding this excessive distance, it is The Central Governor that is theorized to stop us instead. So often, when we are feeling too tired, too hungry, too sore, we actually can push on.
“I am so over COVID, we are all so over it”. We have all heard some version of this lately. Recently, when covering the hospice service, I listened to one of the hospice workers vent about her experiences that week. Hospice workers are among our frontline workers. They are strained as much as anyone right now. I respect and love them and the work they do. I also worry about them as COVID is a very real risk for them right now. At this moment, this particular worker was expressing her frustration about visitation limits at a facility where one of her patients resides. Because the residents of this facility are frail, no in person visits are allowed in order to prevent COVID spread. Window visits just were not enough. The patient was depressed and losing her sense of meaning in life. The hospice worker was feeling helpless. “I am so over COVID” this worker exclaimed. The conference call for a moment was silent. We have all had that feeling. We all feel that we are at our limit with COVID. But we can’t be “over it” can we? This is a different kind of test of our limits. This is not a test of our physical limits. It is a test of our psychological strength. It is a test of our ability to think beyond our own interests and even our own safety at times in order to do what is best for our species.
There is no good answer for this elderly hospice patient who will die of her terminal diagnosis before we see the end of COVID. There is no anti-depressant that will treat her longing for human interaction. She is a non-infected victim of COVID, and we are the ones relegating her to her bedroom where she will ultimately die without the troves of family by her side that she deserves. “Well we can’t just let people in there or COVID will run through the facility and they’ll all die”, says a blunt but wise RN after the pregnant pause. And with that we moved on.
Life balance then, summarizes an idea encompassing many elements, and part of that balance includes working hard while respecting limits. Even within COVID I think most of us can find some semblance of balance. But many of us cannot. Many of us are finding ourselves at our breaking points. We are sleeping less while taking care of kids AND working from home. We are managing kids and households without the help of beloved grandparents, caregivers and housekeepers. We are trying to celebrate life through distanced birthdays and funerals. We are not visiting loved ones in an effort to protect them, knowing that some of those loved ones will fall to loneliness or depression or may even die before we ever get to see them in person again. There are physical and emotional limits that we are pushing up against every day. What I think of in these times, is how those who have gone before us, also pushed limits, and how we survived. I look at our hospice workers, our teachers, our health care providers and others, and I draw strength from their bravery and had work. I recognize that this is all temporary, and while our Central Governor may tell us “I am so OVER this!”, we can in fact push on, and maybe even thrive.