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Ever since my family started their negotiations of what Thanksgiving would look like in this year of ongoing-pandemic-times, I’ve been thinking about the importance- and difficulty- of flexibility. With differing vaccine-statuses due to age- and differing levels of willingness to tolerate the cold, Michigan November- my family’s celebrations did not look like years past. And plenty of us were ticked off about it. Change is not easy and pandemic-life is requiring it nearly-constantly.

At the start of the pandemic, it was so blatantly obvious that we needed to be flexible and completely revise our scripts for how we approached each day. The upheaval of life as we knew it led to many remarkable, positive innovations.

But now we are here…A year and three-quarters into this never-ending, constantly fluctuating cycle of stress. And the need to relentlessly stretch and flex and pivot and revise is just exhausting. Most of us just want to be able to predict and count on some basic things: That our holiday plans can happen as we wish. That school will be in session consistently, 5 days a week. That Wednesday of this week will look roughly like Wednesday of last week. It makes sense to want predictability, stability, and routine. The constant disappointment of plans not working out and the evolving changes caused by virus-variants can lead to overwhelming fatigue and depression.

To make reasonable decisions about how to approach our day to day (whether to eat inside a restaurant, attend a crowded sports event, resume indoor extra-curriculars, etc.) we are forced to constantly re-evaluate the data of the current moment and assess what makes sense in this specific time. And then we have to decide what to do- not based on our past experiences- but based on the present, actual facts in front of us. That, too, is just exhausting.

And yet- if we rigidly cling to our ideas of what we think will happen or insist on doing things how we were doing them the same way we did them 2 weeks ago- we will end up repeatedly overwhelmed by disappointment or put ourselves in situations that are either unsafe or overly-restrictive.

Given the inevitable fatigue and often-demoralizing-reality in front of us, what can we do? Honestly, I don’t think it is possible to *do* anything about this reality. But I do believe our mindset about the current reality will make a significant difference. If we can simultaneously embrace the necessity of flexibility, while recognizing how hard it is to manage all that we are, we can buffer ourselves through the storms of unpredictability.

You may have heard Einstein’s comment, “The definition of ‘insanity’ is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I would modify this to say: During pandemic-times, the recipe for frustration and disappointment is to do the same thing over and over again and expect the same results as in the past.

Embracing flexibility does not mean you have to love change or be excited about the lack of stability. Frankly, these are truly terrible times in many, many ways. We can be both flexible and compassionate with ourselves about how scary and hard life is right now. When we can’t do something we were looking forward to, we can talk to ourselves with care: “This is really disappointing. It feels unfair. It makes sense I want things to be easier.” When school is cancelled again, “This is so hard. It is impossible for me to be at work and take care of my child. There should be systemic supports in place to help families.”

As we move through the final month of 2021 I believe there are several ways that embracing flexibility might bring some increased ease into this season.

By flexing our standards: Not making every holiday meal from scratch. Not expecting ourselves or others to work the same crazy hours as in the past. Not requiring the dishes to be put away. Not expecting we won’t make mistakes in our work. These are impossible times; it is ok for us all to do less.

By flexing our understanding of others: When we read something on social media that triggers us or a family member makes a provocative comment, it may be particularly beneficial to try to take that person’s perspective- to see where they may be coming from. We can flex our imaginations to consider numerous reasons a person may be struggling or why they have formed their view so that we can extend them grace during this time.

By flexing our expectations for the future: While still hoping for the future, it may be wise to go into all planning with a sense of both tentativeness and preparedness. Telling ourselves, “This *may* work out or it might not. And if it doesn’t, my plan B is x.”

Wishing you flexibility in the days ahead,

Beth Pearson, Ph.D.

*(Some of these ideas were adapted from a letter I wrote previously for the parents of Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor back in 2020.)