I absolutely hate silence. Dramatic pauses in movies, awkward moments after a teacher asks a question, gaps in conversations before you realize you have nothing left to say — all of it. And yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps us inside, I’ve been forced to confront a lot more silence than I have ever thought possible. Even as I write this, I notice how my typing sounds against the backdrop of a barely furnished apartment. It irritates the hell out of me.
I blame these feelings regarding inactivity on my personality — some might call it “type A.” I need to “do” things, be productive, check items off my to-do list.
This particular brand of neurosis is — to a certain degree — a good thing. It has significantly contributed to my success in life thus far. But my mother frequently comments on how particular our generation’s definitions of “productivity” and “success” are. She grew up in Germany, where the college you attend is largely irrelevant, and being a nerd is more likely to get you bullied than praised, so she regularly marvels at the esteem old Ivy League institutions hold in American society. You might think that getting into a school like Yale would make us feel validated — confident even — in our academic abilities. But I have found that this could not be further from the truth.
When I got into Yale, instead of patting myself on the back for a job well done, I saw the goalpost move farther away from me. Sure, I’m at Yale, but my classmate has their ten-year plan bookmarked as a Google spreadsheet, and I am sitting at home, biting my nails off about how I can sustain the level of performance that got me here in the first place. While the pressure to achieve at Yale is nothing new, being able to perform on such a high level during a pandemic is another matter entirely.
Most obviously, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities on and off-campus. Students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds fear for their family’s financial security as unemployment rates skyrocket. This isn’t helped by the fact that CDC guidelines for mask washing only include instructions for using a washing machine (which many people in the U.S. do not have access to). Even something as simple as washing your hands can be difficult in areas where clean water is in short supply. Moreover, rates of domestic violence continue to climb as stay-at-home orders persist.
There is also the matter of the emotional toll the pandemic has unleashed, which makes “high- functioning” expectations especially unrealistic. With the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor earlier this year, the Black Lives Matter Movement has gained a much-needed presence on the social justice stage, spurring activism on social media and the streets alike. However, for Black and Indigenous people of color, it can be exhausting to be forced into the role of an educator to all of your white friends. Moreover, discovering the depth of systemic racism and rehashing it constantly is a burden that becomes heavier by the day.
Further, other minority groups on campus, particularly those with disabilities, experience their health decline due to health care shortages, delayed supply chains for medical equipment and the genuine fear of dying. Let us not forget those with cognitive and mental health-related disabilities, for whom being cooped up for the better part of six months has worsened their condition.
People with disabilities and chronic illnesses are at the mercy of their peers’ compliance with public health guidelines (which Florida’s spring breaks on the beach and growing numbers of COVID cases on other campuses have made clear). And given the general sentiment of “let the weak die” coming from the right, it is safe to say that our faith in humanity has been knocked down a good five pegs.
As a person with a disability myself, I am familiar with my body forcing me to rest even when I want to work and having to learn the hard way that pushing further than I am physically able results in long-term consequences. However, many Yalies have never experienced bodily limitations. If they want to pull an all-nighter, run back and forth between Science Hill and Old Campus all day, and schedule meetings late into the night while balancing homework from their four to six classes each semester, they can — and they do. But what will we do with ourselves when much of that is taken away? How will we accumulate new extracurriculars, credentials, employable skills that will make us successful, productive, worthy members of society?
We have been sold a particular narrative with a hint of “The Great Gatsby”–esque American dream: If you work harder, and longer, you will beat out the competition and find “success.” What this narrative does not include are the unforeseen events: the death of a loved one, break-ups, accidents, pandemics, and just plain facts of life that we run into along the way. Not to mention whether all this success-striving will make you at all happy.
Though there is much for us to mourn, I also maintain a sense of optimism. This time is a chance for Yale students to explore who we are beyond our “normal,” high-functioning academic and extracurricular lives.
Find out what board games or types of movies you like. Discover a passion for baking or cooking, rediscover an old love of jump rope, or knitting. Try and fail at something that has absolutely no potential consequences. Yes, this pandemic has not magically erased all the aspirations and dreams and motivations we have for our future. But perhaps, instead of taking this time to do everything you never had time to do, it would be better to take the time to do absolutely nothing at all.
MAFALDA VON ALVENSLEBEN is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .