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Rethinking “Achievement” in the Pandemic Era

May 7, 2020 | by Judy Gruen

Quarantine has reminded us that our lives are measured not so much by what we sell or build, but by what we give of ourselves to family, friends, and community.

Over the years I tried many popular organizing systems that came on the market. I always started strong, entering professional goals, deadlines, and achievements, but after a while I’d fall off the wagon, feeling defeated by the blank pages looming endlessly before me. Still, in an example of hope triumphing over experience, I started a Planner Pad last January. It was uncomplicated and user-friendly, and I had my name embossed on the cover. Maybe this time, I’d succeed.    

But in “Groundhog Day” fashion, the day came when I entered nothing. A week. A month. I’d been logging mostly work-related projects, but I also had a growing number of personal obligations and commitments: paying a shiva call to a family friend; cooking and delivering a weekly meal to another friend whose father was in the midst of a medical crisis; babysitting my two-year-old grandson each Wednesday while his mother slept after a night shift as a hospital nurse. I cared for my husband for one week after a planned surgery, and twice a week I picked up a girlfriend for yoga classes. I had also begun a daily study series on the Prophets, and tried valiantly to keep up with the pace. My weeks were also rounded out by numerous phone calls, texts, and some impromptu, very welcome visits with my adult children and grandchildren. I did not record most of these activities.

Yet our current “shelter-at-home” quarantine phase of life has brought into stark relief the fact that all these unrecorded efforts, calls, visits, study sessions, caretaking, and health-promoting disciplines were also achievements. What I wouldn’t give now for that weekly babysitting opportunity with my grandson, reading him a story while he nestles in my lap, and holding his hand as we walk down the block, searching for bugs.

For now, Story Time is offered via computer – that’s life in the Zoom lane. It’s awkward holding the children’s books so that my grandchildren can see the pictures while I crane my neck to read, but I’m delighted to be asked.

My girlfriend and I now exercise in our homes, seeing each other in a small corner of the computer screen, both of us missing our mutually nourishing talks in the car on the way to and from class.

And recently, when the need for bikur cholim or shiva visits have been so great, we’ve been limited to providing what solace we can through phone calls, emails, or FaceTime.  

My work as a writer has always been immensely fulfilling for me personally, but forced isolation from anyone outside our home during these past two months underscores how I had failed to record in my Planner Pad those achievements that are the most fulfilling and important: all the life-affirming, relationship-building encounters with loved ones, friends, or community members whom we may not know well but for whom our small acts of giving, or just our presence, can provide a modicum of comfort.

As the restrictions begin to ease, I cannot wait to see relatives, friends and community members in person, not distanced and not behind a depressing mask. The day doesn’t go by when I don’t begin to tear up, imagining the moment when I sweep my children and grandchildren in my arms for long-awaited, loving hugs.

I’m just one among millions of people who have discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, how much we need to value the activities that we usually outsource to an institution, business, or organization. We are tapping into our individualism, self-reliance, creativity, inventiveness, and humanity when baking homemade bread, making crafts projects with our kids, reading more thoughtfully, gardening, supervising our children’s school lessons, praying in our homes, perhaps hearing the reassuring voices of others who also called in to that minyan. Amid a time of fear, insecurity and tragedy, we’ve received the gift of getting to get to know our spouses, children, parents—or even ourselves a bit better.

The Western emphasis on material achievement and competition made me think that so much of what I did with my life only constituted achievements with a small “a,” unworthy of noting in my “professional” Planner Pad. But of course, our lives are not measured by how much we sell, write, design, or build. They are measured by what we give of ourselves to family, friends, and community. These daily acts and encounters belong in whatever record books we may keep.

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