Our calendars keep alerting us about canceled events, like ghosts of the lives we would have led
Laurie Daste and her husband, Craig, couldn't wait to take their son, Rhett, to watch the New Orleans Pelicans. The basketball game, part of a patchwork of events filling what promised to be a particularly busy March and April, would have been the 3 1/2-year-old's first professional sporting event.
Then came the coronavirus. "One by one, each thing got canceled or postponed," said Laurie. "And the game was one of the things I forgot to take off of our calendar."
One day, her phone buzzed. Time to pull on their Zion Williamson jerseys and head to the Smoothie King Center. Except, of course, the entire NBA season had been postponed.
"You've come to terms with the fact that this isn't happening anymore, and then the calendar reminder pops up," Laurie said. It sparked a second wave of disappointment.
For years, we've used electronic calendars to organize our professional and social lives. But now, with the world on hold, notifications pop up unexpectedly like zombies of canceled events. Calendars may seem a trivial bother in a serious time, but to some, the unexpected reminders of the lives we're not living still prompt disappointment, frustration and even anxiety.
They "present a stark feeling of loss and remind us we don't know when this will end," said Jennifer Howell, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Merced. "We're not normally faced with the 'what if' of what life could be."
Now, your phone can randomly ding at any moment, alerting you that "you're missing out on a life and there's nothing you can do," she said.
Abby Wilt worked as a content producer for the Nashville YMCA until being furloughed three weeks ago when the pandemic caused its health clubs to temporarily close. Unfortunately, all those pre-scheduled work meetings didn't shut down along with the gyms.
"I'm getting constant reminders from an office I'm not currently working in," Wilt said. She hears "a constant pinging of that meeting-in-15-minutes sound. It's a weird ghost of what my life looked like a few weeks ago."
The person who organized those meetings was also furloughed -- and since furloughed employees aren't allowed to work, the reminders persist.
"We have too many meetings" is something of a chorus in many workplaces, so it might seem paradoxical to mourn their halting. But they provide more than we might realize.
"We're probably the most social species out there," said Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at SUNY Buffalo, and work meetings still "fill a need for social interaction. Because this [need] is such a primitive system that we evolved to connect to other people, we might not be conscious of our feelings around it," Gabriel said. "We might not care about missing this work meeting or that event until it's gone."
In some instances, calendar reminders can spark anxiety for those who, due to the virus, cannot meet their deadlines.
Lindsay Hoffman, who works in fundraising for Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, checks her Outlook calendar daily. "But lately, it's become very frustrating to me because I'm seeing none of my deadlines are going to be met," because everyone is a bit too preoccupied, she says. "I don't know what the new deadlines are going to be. I almost want to turn off the reminders, but I can't because I still have meetings."
"It's driving me insane because I'm a very detail-oriented person," she added. "I can't say, 'OK, I'm just going to put this on my calendar in two months for now.' It's like the world is on hold."
One simple suggestion both Gabriel and Howell offered is to do the potentially painful work of clearing your calendar out in one swoop. That worked for Casey Cave, who works in fundraising with Hoffman at Sibley and, as she put it, lives "by my planner and calendar."
"I probably have every moment of my day scheduled up from 4:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.," she said. But those professional and social engagements began dropping off. Still feeling the need to plan out her days, she decided to take a deep breath and replace the things she had planned to do with what she was actually doing, one month at a time. In-person work events were X-ed out and replaced with the words "work from home." Zoom hangs replaced evening outings -- both in reality and on the docket.
So, with each new month of self-quarantine, "I just bite the bullet and do it," Cave said. "I do it in one sweep. It's like ripping the Band-Aid off. It's a little less painful than doing it week to week."
One key to updating the calendar, Gabriel said, is to allow yourself time to mourn the things you looked forward to, even if they seem small. Don't "double up on negative emotion" by feeling guilty for being genuinely bummed that you're, say, missing a Brian Fallon concert or the "Black Widow" premiere.
After that, it's vital to keep the mind occupied in whatever way works for you. Based on her research, Gabriel argues that it's important to let go of the guilt around screen time and take the opportunity to indulge in your favorite comfort foods, as they're often "associated with social connections, love, caring for others and being cared for."
Gabriel also suggested finding replacements for rituals like concerts and rallies and church and football games that "give a sense of connective effervescence." Now New York City residents throw their windows open each day to cheer for essential workers each night at 7 p.m. Across the country, people are placing stuffed bears in their windows for children to seek. Bands are setting up in yards. People are writing each other notes in sidewalk chalk. It all helps us "feel like we're part of something larger."
"It's very easy for all our days to float into each other and for none of it to feel special," Gabriel said. But, she added, if anyone can make it through something like this, it's humanity, calendars be damned. We created the alerts, so we can defeat them.