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Perspective-changing experiences, good or bad, can lead to richer lives

The state mailed us a pulse oximeter to read oxygen levels from our fingers. The device beeped when those levels dipped too low — a seemingly objective measure during a subjective time. We used the device with abandon, only my husband regularly triggering the alarm. He went to bed, where he stayed for days, or maybe it was weeks. Time distilled into moments: remote school, meals, Christmas, pulse-ox, beep.

We exited quarantine on January 1, the day of fresh starts. Except my once energetic 8-year-old son, who somehow never tested positive, now loafed in front of the heater for hours. My husband, his breathing still abnormal and his fatigue lingering, raged. Ever the extrovert, I absorbed their emotions as my own. My risk calculation shifted, as despair overshadowed the fear of disease. The sickness we had hid from for so long had found us anyway. Were we now immune? Should we proceed just as before?

Prior to the sickness, I’d been researching pandemic fatigue, a term used to describe the boredom that can arise during a protracted crisis like the one we’re in now (SN Online: 2/15/21). “People prefer action to inaction,” social psychologist Erin Westgate of the University of Florida in Gainesville told me. For some, that compulsion toward the experiential runs deep, she and colleagues reported in 2014 in Science. When the researchers gave college students a choice between sitting idly in a quiet room or pushing a button to receive an electric shock, a startling number went for the shock.

I have been seeking, and pushing, that button all my life. I’ve taught English in Japan, worked as a national park ranger and, following an unfortunate series of events, sold pineapples along a tourist highway in Hawaii in exchange for a tent over my head. Westgate’s recent work suggests that button pushing sorts often flourish in rich and aesthetic environs. I took heed. Against the dreary backdrop of being homebound in a global health crisis, I signed up for private pottery lessons, drawn viscerally to the idea of creating something from mud.

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