There isn’t a single life out there that has been left untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s impossible to say that any single age group, country, or ethnic group has a monopoly on the pain and frustrations that have been caused by this annoyingly persistent virus. I think of the elders left vulnerable in nursing homes experiencing outbreaks, and then I see on the news that mass graves were dug in Brazil. This year – from March of 2020 to now – has not been easy for anybody. For young people, however, this brave new world – a sleepy world waiting to come out of hibernation – has been difficult in a different sense. In many ways, I think that the lockdowns, the shelter-in-place orders, and the constant reminder to be six feet apart have really been the hardest for young people mentally and emotionally.
For a fourth-year undergraduate student like me, this has been (and continues to be) a year of substitutes. A year of substituting an in-person summer internship with a virtual one that I completed for four months from my childhood bedroom. A year of substituting big birthday bashes with birthday drivebys, you on the driveway and your friends in their cars driving past and shouting, “Happy birthday!” A year of smiling behind masks instead of bear hugs. For me, this last post-secondary school year will end with seeing my name appear for two seconds on my screen at virtual convocation instead of seeing 500 caps get thrown up in the air at the same time.
When I talk about this in my friend circles, usually one person will try to lighten the mood and say something like, “Let’s just focus on enjoying the small things for now.” The small things. I know what they mean by this – we’ve all had to focus on the small things for the past year. A movie night in. A road trip to go hiking for a day. A nice family dinner. I’ve enjoyed all those things this year; seriously, thank God for those things.
But at the same time, for me (and the rest of my peers who find themselves in the same life stage as me), counting the small things is getting harder and harder because this was supposed to be the time to count the big things in life. An actual graduation ceremony. A grad trip abroad. Moving to a new city to start grad school. Walking into the office – a full, not socially distant office! – on the first day of work post-grad. A new apartment. A new start. A new life.
I’m somebody who gets excited about things—too excited sometimes. That’s why this year of substitutes has been hard for me. Flights to Southeast Asia or Europe for the summer, now changed to just the possibility of a road trip within the borders of the province. Massive gatherings to celebrate the end of four years now turned small and tight-knit. Having everything downsized or cancelled stings more than I’d like to admit.
I know everybody has missed out on these things, not just young people, but something about the life stage that we’re in makes it a little more bittersweet. In a survey done with 2000 young people (age 16-25) in the UK. 64% of them said they were feeling like “they were missing out on being young.” It feels like this pandemic is coming at such an inopportune time for us.
I tend to shy away from talking about this topic; it’s hard to write something like this without it coming across as whiny or privileged. When I’ve been feeling down about life in the pandemic, I always have to remind myself that so many people out there have it worse right now. People unable to pay rent, students with no access to remote learning, kids going hungry at home. It always makes me feel guilty for admitting how the pandemic has made me feel because my problems seem so minor in comparison. But I wanted to write about this side of the story because I know, out there, other young people are feeling it too.
We’ve always been told to make the most of our early 20s. One of my favorite quotes by Kyoko Escamilla goes: “Your 20s are your ‘selfish’ years. It’s a decade to immerse yourself in every single thing possible. Be selfish with your time and all the aspects of you. Tinker with shit, travel, explore, love a lot, love a little, and never touch the ground.” Sure, the world will open back up again and we’ll go into the “new normal”, but we’ll have lost our prime years. There’s something unique and special about a person’s early 20s that will have slipped out of our grasp. And so, now, my heart drops a little each time I’m told that I should just be counting the small things. I know counting the small things is what helps; it’s what we’re all supposed to be doing. I don’t want to complain. I’m just getting a little tired of it.
The other day, my friend told me about a recent small gathering he had with some close friends. He said they were just hanging out and having fun, and suddenly, hearing the sound of his booming laugh – the laugh that makes you feel like you’re developing ab muscles – he realized, “It feels so good to laugh like that again.” He told me that small moment, for him, was note-worthy. I didn’t know whether to feel happy or sad.