Gratitude in the Face of Monotony

By now, most of you can probably relate to the premise of the great Bill Murray Movie Groundhog Day – where the main character wakes up every day to the same Sonny and Cher song, to the exact same radio announcer, to the exact same view outside the window, to the exact same… everything.  We joke about not even knowing what day it is anymore; how many days since we showered; how many days since we even wore real pants.  While there certainly is comfort in routines, the physical restrictions that have been asked of all of us have forced our daily lives into a monotonous, involuntary repetition that can feel downright oppressive.  I have to admit that I’ve been feeling more frustrated each day, wanting to go out and just do something – anything – that can take me outside of the shrunken bubble I now live in, as if somehow a change in the scenery or routine would change my mood, shake me out of the constant low-grade anxiety and malaise I have been feeling.

But then, this morning, I had an extreme Groundhog Day experience that shook me out of my reverie and got me thinking.  I left my apartment around the same time I always do, running down the same street, taking the same route through the park I’ve been taking every day for the past few weeks. (Admittedly, I could change up this route at any time and run elsewhere, but I like to watch the dogs running off leash in the mornings; nevertheless, I have to take ownership of the fact that this is one aspect of my repetitive existence I do have control over, something I could change at any time, but choose not to.)  As I rounded the hill by the picnic tables, I saw the same man sitting at the same table that I have seen him at for the last three mornings.  As I ran the next stretch, I passed the same three runners I saw yesterday running in the opposite direction.  The same cute little bulldog caught a lime-green Frisbee in his mouth, just as he had for the past few days.  The same older couple walked their two just-as-elderly Pomeranians along the dirt trail.  As I made my way home, the same three men in masks loaded produce off the same truck into the neighborhood market, just as they did every day.  As for myself, I felt the same way I have been feeling for as long as I remember.  A little tired, a little agitated, my thoughts looping on the same worries and fears that have plagued me for weeks.  It felt a little surreal, like a waking dream, like I was just pressing repeat on a movie I couldn’t stop watching.

I stopped running and walked the rest of the way home. I was more than a little disturbed by the blatant repetition that I was living.  How could I get out of this trap – one that wasn’t just imposed on me by the outside world, but one that I had set for myself as well?  How can any of us shake ourselves out of the fog that this monotony creates?  

Up until recently (and, truthfully, even now, albeit more virtually), we have lived in a world full of abundance.  A world where many of us could go almost anywhere, do almost anything, indulge in whatever external world pleasures we desire.  Travel is cheap.  Experiences are plentiful.  I live in New York, where I could literally go to a different restaurant or bar every night and still not visit them all after 5 years.  There’s just so much we could do, and so many of us run around trying to do as much as we can, to keep ourselves entertained.  But is that that the same thing as feeling alive, to be engaging in different activities all the time, to see different sights, meet different people?  Does that even make us feel alive?

And also, if that is true, does that mean we are doomed to feel less alive now?  Most of us are familiar with people who have been in far, far more restrictive situations for far longer, yet somehow persevered – even thrived – emotionally and mentally.  People like Nelson Mandela – imprisoned for 27 years, confined to a small cell for 18 – or POW’s in the Vietnam War, held in captivity for years at a time.  How did they do it?  How can we do it? 

It occurred to me, as I thought about this idea, that perhaps the repetitiveness of our days can create a certain sort of blindness – a blindness to being grateful for the constants in our lives.  This repetition creates a fallacy in our minds of perpetuity, that somehow the things – and people – that are here today will be there tomorrow, and forevermore.  But that’s not how the world works.  Some day, I’ll run past and that couple might only have one Pomeranian left, or maybe none at all.  Or perhaps one day there will only be one person walking, left to coax their teetering canine companions through the park alone.  Some day, one of those runners will have run their last lap.  Some day, I will go out for my last run.  I probably won’t even know when that day is. 

How many of us can ever know when we will be doing something for the last time?

However distant this virus may seem from your daily life, the potential consequences of it are a strong reminder of our mortality, a chink in the armor of our fantasy that those we love will always be there.  Someday, whether it be from the virus or not, you will wake up to a world without your mother, your father, your husband, your wife, or someone else that you cherish – and maybe take a little bit for granted – today.   If you live with someone you love, there’s a good chance that someday you’ll wake up and they won’t be there anymore.  This is true at any time – but especially now, it is even more so.  What if we used this time to practice being grateful for the constants that we have right now – constants that won’t be there forever?  We may feel like our lives are on “pause” (to quote Governor Cuomo), but our emotions don’t have to be.  We can use this time to examine all of the things that we have  – or perhaps more importantly, the people that we love – and feel gratitude for them – now.   Can you be bored with your life if you are constantly in awe of what is right in front of you?

I know, it’s easier said than done.  But maybe it’s worth a try.  After all, what else do you have to do (besides binge-watch another mediocre sitcom on Netflix, that is?)?