Lessons from hard times

We live in weird times. In the last few months, I don’t know how often I have heard friends say that simply going about daily business feels surreal. It’s true. Like something out of an apocalyptic novel–monitoring devices, face masks, temperature checks, lines. And not to dismiss the loss felt by so many with loved ones passed and jobs disappeared, but on my brighter days, I wonder if we can’t learn from a pandemic and find changes in our lifestyles that could become permanent.

Like this one: we’ve moved much of our lives outdoors seeking better ventilation and greater spacing. Classrooms, performances, meals, recreation. Now, I’m lucky enough to live in Montana where not only have our rates of infection been low but where most of us already live an outdoor lifestyle. I’m a trail runner, so I’m on single track where I see no one several days a week, and when weather permits, I prefer my bike to driving, so the recreational parts of my life are largely outdoors already. I’m also a patio enthusiast, whether that’s my own or on those where I am supporting local coffee houses by frequenting their outdoor decks. But the reality is this: how much time does the contemporary American spend outdoors? According to the EPA, the average American only spends 7% of his/her life outside. 7%! 6% of our time is spent in cars! (In the EPA study, that 6% gets factored as indoor time.)

I’m left to wonder how much of our collective sociological and psychological woes exist in direct proportion to locking our lives away indoors, which, let’s face it, means a lot of life lived on screens (like this one!) rather than engaging with the world or with people. Couldn’t our lives be fuller simply by breathing in more of the natural world, even if that is only found in pockets of urbanity? Might we move into fall and winter even in Northern places like where I live and learn we can make some simple accommodations to enjoy outdoor time in inclement weather? Can we be just a little less whimpy and not complain about the rain or the cold? Just as we know our bodies and minds benefit from the chemicals released from exercise, might we not find some mental health benefits from simply taking more of our lives beyond the threshold?

I do think good can come from this pandemic. People can grow more compassionate to others. We may learn to value simple patterns in our lives–cooking more, reading more, driving less staying in better touch, venturing back into the world that’s larger than the human-manufactured spaces we’ve locked ourselves away within.