Yes, it’s yet another article reflecting on these “unprecedented times.” As the generation on the brink of adulthood, how are we coping with change?
“Embrace change, don’t battle it,” read the fortune cookie that I had just cracked open in a Chinese restaurant with my parents on a late Thursday night before Christmas. I had always hated change. As a child, I was ridiculed by my teachers for a lack of flexibility. One balmy summer night in late June 2012, at age 10, I sat on the couch in my air conditioned living room. A brush of cool air from the ceiling fan hit my face wet with tears. I wasn’t sure why I was crying. Something had overwhelmed me, hit me with such an intensity that I felt genuinely terrified. This was the first time I was upset and did not fully know why. Later that evening I sat on the balcony with my mother in the warm breeze as she attempted to calm me down. I think it had something to do with growing up. That was the first of many times I was hit with a bout of anxiety, the question plaguing me, what’s next? That was a long time ago. I am now twenty years old, in college, on the precipice of adulthood.
With maturation, responsibilities and awareness naturally increase. Growing up isn’t easy, as we navigate our social relationships, our identities, potential careers, academics, and prospective source of income. It comes as no surprise that teens and young adults are anxious. However, recent years have posed further stressors for the generation entering adulthood. We are growing up in a climate of global unrest, rapid climate change, political polarization, discrimination, violence, and (of course) the COVID-19 pandemic. The year 2020 was a neat sounding graduation year before 2020 actually happened. Now, in hindsight, not so much.
We entered 2020 with a different attitude. I had spent New Year’s Eve at a friend’s house that year. My friends and I had run outside down the driveway and into the street, clanging pots and pans, gleefully toasting champagne flutes filled to the brim with ginger ale. Soon after, daily routine came to a halt and intrapersonal connection nearly dissipated. The world encountered a new existence enveloped in tension and confusion. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cases of anxiety and depression have increased by at least 25% over the course of the past two years. As 2021 dawned on us, I sat curled up on a chair in my living room in a hoodie, and quietly watched the ball drop on TV in a sparsely populated Times Square with my parents. Change and uncertainty is all there was. Nothing to look forward to. Life feels nearly pointless when there is nothing to look forward to.
Two years later, as I sat with that fortune cookie in front of me, I wanted to believe that I could embrace change. That was the week before I finalized my decision to transfer colleges, to change my trajectory, which I believe likely would not have happened if it weren’t for the disruption in routine and time allotted for self reflection. It was also a week before the start of 2022. When change and isolation is thrusted upon us, we are put in a position to self-reflect, to observe the world, to analyze our relationships, for better or for worse. It’d be hard to imagine how life would be different if we had not been subjected to the copious amounts of change brought on by the past two or so years. Each generation has had its unique hardships, and this is why I feel that I must catch myself before I become too self pitying. But with a decade worth of history shoved into the span of two years, we, as young adults, each have our own story to tell. As a child I had wondered what it would be like to live through a historical event. I don’t think any of us are wondering now.
“When do you think I’ll go back?” I solemnly inquired in regards to my senior year of high school. I pressed my hands against my forehead, my elbows resting on the dining room table.
“May, June, perhaps,” my mom reassured me. It was late March. 2020. What I thought to be a blip in time had begun to feel like the start of a new era. Still, May seemed promising. Or perhaps June even more so. But deep down I knew that this would not be the brief stint I had hoped it to be. Days became weeks, then months, then years. Life was somehow simultaneously eventful and uneventful. Recently, Amanda Rosten ‘25 and I sat at a table outside on a sunny spring day, as she reflected on what her life looked like in 2020 and 2021. I asked her if she struggled with the lack of structure. “Yes. Oh my God. A hundred percent. I like having somewhere to be, I like having a schedule, I need a schedule to function. I need to have everything planned out. I’m very much like a structure kind of gal. Like even on the weekend sometimes I’m like, ah, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” To combat her idleness, Amanda taught herself ukulele and began doing yoga. “I think it really made me feel better. It gave me something to focus on instead of just being sad,” she says.
In the beginning of my isolation I, too, attempted to fill my time with new hobbies. I had dabbled in playing piano, perfecting my stir fry recipe, making smoothies, and baking banana bread. Despite my attempts at constructive ways to occupy my time, after a while I eventually defaulted to scroll paralysis to obtain mindless entertainment and as a means of distraction from my own deteriorating mental state. I wanted to feel less alone. The thing about loneliness during that time was, ironically, something none of us were alone in. “I think, I felt more alone than I ever had,” says Marissa Cohen ‘25, seated at the desk in my dorm room. I sat on the floor with my laptop. “I kind of diverted to, like unhealthy patterns of watching TV, getting way too invested in TV, just scrolling on my phone, reading fan fiction, and going on social media until two in the morning,” she admits. I personally downloaded TikTok to provide myself with entertainment and comic relief amidst the uncertainty, but in a structureless lifestyle, my bad habits had become addictions. I frequently found myself laying on the floor of my room in the same hoodie, mindlessly scrolling for hours. I felt numb. Particularly in the colder months, when going outside was less of an option. It was cold and isolating. Marissa dealt with similar feelings when isolated in the winter. “I went through this very depressive state and it was kind of like this space where I was taking two hour long naps every day…sorry, it’s so hard for me to talk about,” she says. “I would get upset and cry over the littlest things. Like, one time I was doing dishes, and I broke a bowl in the sink as I was trying to put it in the sink, because I was trying to put it in the dishwasher because my finger slipped and I broke it, and I just started sobbing. I was so upset.” Everything that we had been bottling up had its way of overflowing when left idle with our thoughts. I was not used to facing myself, or facing the world. I was used to distraction. My screen time climbed to nine hours a day.
An air of uncertainty and little connection with the outside world left room for rumination and attempts at self betterment. We turned to more media consumption and mindless scrolling than ever, seeking our dosage of dopamine from a digital world that warped our ideas of personal progress. Harrison Engart ‘25, a friend from my hometown and a student at Marywood University, reflects on how the period of isolation had affected his mental and physical health. “I ended up having my own dorm room because of COVID. And that was sort of the time where I developed an eating disorder,” he says. In isolation, Harrison craved change as a means of self improvement. He looked to a contrived, sensationalistic concept of progress in his excessive time alone. “I think quarantine is when I sort of started focusing on myself, for better or for worse. The worst being the people on TikTok who have millions of followers are the ones that have six packs and are super attractive, conventionally. And I was aspiring to do that,” says Harrison, who had begun counting calories and over exerting himself when engaging in excessive exercise. “It was for the wrong reasons. And obviously when you’re spending so much time looking at a screen, it’s not good for your mental health, either. You’re taking up so much time looking at how to be more fit on TikTok that you are using up the whole day when you could even go into a walk, like, that was one of the only ways you can get outside,” he says, regretting the time that he had spent striving for the change in himself that he had desired. Harrison has since deleted TikTok. “I think that a lot of my thoughts that came about wouldn’t have had it not been for the pandemic,” he says.
Turning an increased focus towards screens and social media not only affected our views of ourselves, but also our views of the world. In mid 2020, social media activism had hit an all time high. Harrison expresses that he, like myself, has felt somewhat disconnected and removed from recent global affairs after being essentially bombarded by bad news for the last two years. “I feel like people are more inclined to give their opinion, and I wish I had been a little bit more involved in that. I obviously have an opinion, but I was still kind of finding my voice in that opinion. But I feel like the world has generally come more together on issues, too. There’s been more that’s going on globally in the past two years than probably the past decade. I don’t know if all of the stuff that’s happened would have happened if it weren’t for COVID.” I had felt guilty for feeling numb and distanced from activist triumphs during the pandemic. It felt as though I was failing at caring. I wanted to force myself to care. Infographics on Instagram were telling me that I should care. “I feel like a lot of people have kind of created this unattainable perfect persona, it’s gentrified whitewashed activism, where people are like, here are all the things that you as an individual could do. And if you don’t do this and this and this, you are personally responsible for climate change, etc. I feel like so many people try to put this blame on the individual. It’s like the weirdest thing,” says Marissa. Our attempts at changing the world and engaging in self betterment began to feel futile. Caring began to feel like work. I felt drained and useless for not actively contributing to fostering change.
Amidst rapid shifts in the state of affairs from a local to global level, it is evident that the best and the worst of humanity was suddenly put on full display. COVID in itself laid humanity’s moral compasses out in front of us in plain view. As a restaurant worker who was required to wear a mask for several hours consecutively, I found it hard to fathom why certain customers would act as if putting one on for a few minutes was somehow a violation of their rights. “It sounds super dismal and dark, but I think [the pandemic] taught me a lot about how little others are willing to do to accommodate people who need accommodations during the isolation,” remarks Marissa, expressing her frustration toward the parents and students at her old high school who had refused to abide by the mask mandate when schools reopened. “But on the other hand, I learned that a lot of people do care about other people. There were a lot of people who were going out there, especially these first few months, like putting in masks and donations and food orders for hospitals and health care centers and actually making the effort to make people’s lives easier during the pandemics. I feel like it just taught me that people can be really great, but people can be really awful as well. It depends.”
During the height of the pandemic, Bret Senfleben ‘23 worked in food delivery at Lehigh Valley Hospital. Though rewarding, the job was really meant for three or even four people and took a toll on his mental and physical health. When COVID cases hit an all time high, Bret struggled with anxiety. “I absolutely do think that’s the whole reason I started noticing stomach issues about three months after the pandemic had really started,” Bret says. “Three months of just working all the time and again, it took a huge toll. Nothing to do, you know, there’s really no light at the end of the tunnel.” His anxiety symptoms resulted in several doctors visits for both his heart and his stomach. Nonetheless, two years later, Bret believes that he has learned from his experiences, and has chosen to see the good in people. “I think working in healthcare really gives you a new perspective on how to treat people, to have empathy, compassion, and patience is a big thing,” he says. “Health care workers…I really saw what they were going through. I can’t imagine that stress. Also those in food service, or maybe even janitors of hospitals, or just people working in general, at grocery stores, I think those people were really underappreciated, and not recognized as much, even though they were still putting themselves at risk throughout that time. I just think it really shows you that you gotta be nice to people. Like, at the end of the day, you just have to have empathy, you have to have compassion, and just have patience.” He also believes that the pandemic has shed light on the importance of mental health. “I would say the one good thing from COVID and the whole pandemic is that it has really brought to light taking time for ourselves and relaxing and taking mental health breaks. I think before we didn’t really recognize mental health as being important and actually being something that can affect so many other things. I think Americans have such a push to keep going, keep going. You can’t stop, but this pandemic has opened our eyes that mental health is real and that we’ve gotta take time for ourselves.”
Harrison also possesses a positive outlook, even after the difficulties brought upon him these past two years. “Obviously, you’re going to have ups and downs, but I think things will work out. And that’s a thought that’s always in the back of my mind, like, helping me get through,” he says. “I want to maintain the people that bring me joy in life. I was definitely more distant prior to the past few years. Now I have such an appreciation for my relationships, like friends and family and stuff like that,” he expresses in a newfound gratitude for those around him. Andrew White ‘25 is also starting to realize how much he values his relationships, as spending time around people was something he also didn’t prioritize as much before being subjected to isolation. “I realized I wanna be around people since I wasn’t around people as often,” he says. Even though a change in social circles is a common byproduct of the move from high school to college, I believe that due to the circumstances, they have been even more prominent for recent graduating classes. “I feel like it kind of taught me like how my true friends are,” says Amanda. This was perhaps one of the most universal impacts from our time being socially severed. While some of our friends fell to the background when our relationships were no longer circumstantial, we also found ourselves all the more grateful for the relationships that have proved themselves genuine. “There are a lot of people who I thought I was really close to, who I just completely lost contact with during the pandemic,” says Marissa. “And it kind of made me realize, oh, hey, if they’re not going to put out the effort to try and be there and try to continue this friendship, then maybe it’s not worth it, and there are a lot of other people who I reconnected with and got super close with. I’ve made my true friends and discovered my people.”
Reflecting on the unprecedented leaves us bargaining for justification, or searching for the silver lining. “I’m a believer in things happen for a reason,” says Harrison, reflecting on his own self growth amidst two years of constant change. I asked Marissa if she shares that outlook. “I think it’s like a little bit of both, kind of where I can understand saying that some things happen for a reason, but there are other things that are just you’re never going to have an explanation for. And I think the hard part is sometimes just understanding that sometimes things are just going to happen and they’re going to be really awful and that’s it. There’s no reason. There’s no explanation. It just happens.”
Whether we choose to trust the process, or if we choose to craft our own self driven purpose, this is the world we enter. This is the world I enter as I type on my laptop in the fireside lounge at Muhlenberg. This is the world that the group of girls in sweatshirts and iced coffees seated at the table in the corner enter. This is the world that the barista, the one that smiled at me as she complimented my sweater, enters. Here we sit in patent faux patent leather chairs, on the brink of adulthood, staring at computer screens to complete tasks that we ultimately hope will help move us forward. We can rely on the comfort of the notion that maybe there’s a reason for everything, or perhaps for only some things, or perhaps for nothing at all. We are products of our experiences. We are products of change. There will always be uncertainty. Change knows no limits. We can choose to do what we will with that. In the back of my phone case, there’s a paper fortune telling me that I should embrace change. We can choose to do that. I believe that I have done that recently more than I ever had before, and I hope that I may continue to do so. If anything, I have learned that embracing change is not easy, but it can be liberating, and we can learn from it. I still feel the ten year old in me cry at the notion of uncertainty; that of entering adulthood. But perhaps I – perhaps we – can enter this stage of our lives with a new sense of purpose, of understanding, of gratitude. We can always embrace the moment, appreciate the small things, before the moment leaves us. And perhaps there are things to look forward to, and maybe that’s the beauty in the unprecedented, if we learn to free ourselves from our expectations. Expectations can be comfortable, but one thing at a time, however. In the moment I feel safe here; the warmth of the coffee in my hand is enough comfort for now.
Photo courtesy of pixel2013 via Pixabay