The Gift of Time

By Shyama Parui

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to healthcare professionals, first responders, grocery store employees and thousands of workers and volunteers on the front lines battling the coronavirus. This also includes caregivers in the family, neighbors who lend a helping hand and friends who ensure that we stay in lockdown mode with our sanity intact. It is because of you that my family and I are able to stay home safe and have hours to spare that would otherwise be spent running errands or to the children's extracurricular activities, at the Pilates studio, or perhaps in trivial engagements. I write this with heartfelt gratitude, and I hope that we, as a society can reciprocate the kindness our heroes have shown.

“Plunged into darkness by a sudden loss of electricity! Disconnected from modern appliances! These are some of your fondest memories from childhood?", my children asked in disbelief. At first, they thought it was bizarre, but understand it better after the COVID -19 scenario. So, what was so memorable about losing power? Ah, the joys of reminiscing….

Residents of Mumbai were lucky to have adequate power supply and periodic load shedding was unheard of. However, every now and then, maybe once or twice a year, there would be an abrupt loss of electricity. If you were a school kid doing homework on a late evening, what a lovely excuse to close your books. The opportunity to play Carrom with your friend next door would literally knock on your door. Teenagers and their parents would vehemently complain about missing their favorite Doordarshan show. Before you roll your eyes, it's worth noting that I am talking about the pre-internet, pre-DVR days which to some might sound like the Dark Ages. Even on the most popular television shows, the story line moved at a snail's pace and rather predictably. Nevertheless, friends would have lengthy phone calls to speculate on the fate of key characters in the next episode of “Hum Log" or “Fauji". Thank heavens for good ol' landline telephones. Candlelight dinners, neighborhood gossip sessions, and general activity increased in those moments. The sudden arrival of unstructured time released our creativity from its temporary state of dormancy.

The news of the Corona virus, which seemed distant in January, creeped in swiftly to take over our lives in a way we never expected. We sat home, for a week, then two, and soon it was close to a month making us squirm. In this unprecedented situation I found myself counting my blessings and simultaneously seeking solace from the barrage of information. Among many little things, my husband was glad he could get a timely haircut before salons pulled down the shutters and I was immensely relieved that we had not planned any trips during spring break. Much to my delight, in the past month I realized that my teenaged kids still love to hug me, and in a moment of weakness I discovered that ice cream can cure boredom.

The oft used corporate phrase, “every problem is an opportunity in disguise" used to make me cringe but now it seems to ring a soft bell. For a family that is constantly on the go, North Carolina's “stay at home order" gave us the rare chance to relax and spend our days at an unhurried pace. With a break from tight schedules, we could catch up on activities that had previously slid off the priority list. The Honey Do list has made a re-appearance, too. Additionally, our collective experience through social distancing has been more educational than online lessons. We learned to adapt, practice new technology, navigate through our emotions, and we were humbled by our lack of control. Expert instruction at expensive leadership retreats cannot match the spontaneous training we received in these invaluable life skills. Although the entire human race has without question paid a price.

An unwelcome side effect of extra time that tagged along, was the contagious forwarding of messages. Even when the intention was good and some of them offered comic relief, an overdose of news in the form of wild allegations and updates by the hour turned nauseating for the recipient who was trying to stay calm. But for every person who refuses to follow common sense there are a hundred angels, who selflessly put their hours and minutes to good use. One striking example is the overwhelming response by volunteers who sewed face masks to donate to hospitals, schools, and others in need.

Distinctly human characteristics that otherwise set us apart from other species have put us in peril. Individual differences in our reaction to a pandemic has made our current situation a case study in the difficulty of mass behavior change. Changing habits is excruciatingly slow and difficult to reinforce. Shockingly, people find it easier to consume medication, accept hospitalization and even face possible death than switch to beneficial actions. Stubborn individualism paired with fears of losing their rights has led people to deliberately hold house parties making one question their level of sanity. On the other hand, in co-operative societies the urge to gather is so strong that people struggle to stay six feet away from one another unless there is a threat of force or fear of being imprisoned.

At the end of the day the gift of time, despite its unexpected appearance, has given us a chance to introspect on what we value the most and evaluate if we are truly investing our time and care proportionately.

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Shyama Parui is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com