The Unexpected

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Since around the start of the new year, I have often been thinking about how our expectations for how time will pass often do not match what ends up occurring. This disconnect can be perceived to be negative, beneficial, or have no significant impact on us depending on what specifically did not match our expectations. 

The COVID-19 pandemic had already led many people to rethink their goals and expectations for the future back in 2020. Despite a new year starting, the pandemic continues to impact our lives in both old and new ways. At the beginning of the pandemic, people tended to focus on how life during the pandemic was different from plans for the future they had pre-pandemic. What had been everyday parts of life before, from giving someone a hug to an anticipated vacation, were now canceled, closed, or at the very least no longer safe during the pandemic. These changes in lifestyle were often referred to as the new normal. Now about a year into the pandemic, it is not the ‘new normal’ that is causing my expectations for the future to not match what happens as much as my expectations for life during the pandemic not matching future events. 

Some changes during the pandemic have become somewhat predictable. There continues to be random shortages in certain items when grocery shopping, so my family has learned to build up a bigger pantry when possible and be more flexible in what foods we make. However, other changes continue to be unexpected. Recently, I was driving to an area I used to commute to almost daily pre-pandemic on highways I always used to get there. There had been construction on these highways for at least over a year now, but I had not driven on them in at least a month or two due to the pandemic having me stay home more and do certain things remotely I would have traveled in-person for. Despite my previous familiarity with the commute, the lanes on these highways and the time it took to get through the construction had completely changed in the time since I had last driven in that direction. I had estimated the time this commute would take would be longer than what Google Maps predicted, as had almost always been the case before, but the unexpected, large changes in where the construction was located made driving take longer than both what Google Maps and I had each predicted. 

This was not the first time during the pandemic that I had been away from a particular construction site long enough for major changes to have been made. New skyscrapers that were still just metal beams in late 2019 were completely covered in glass when I saw them months later in 2020. I had also previously witnessed major changes to the highway construction that more recently took me by surprise. I was used to slowdowns and lanes being closed due to the construction, but this time, the highway itself had changed shape. There was a hole in the center (this part of the highway has roads underneath it), with a new shape to the lanes on either side of the hole. I did not think it was possible for that large a change to be made in such a short amount of time and it seemed that many of the drivers around me were just as much not used to it as I was, further adding to the slowdowns as people tried to figure out what lane to be in to navigate around the hole where construction was still ongoing. 

While this example of the time it took to drive on previously familiar roads not meeting my expectations only affected me the day it occurred, other mismatches between my expectations for how time will pass in the immediate future and what happens, in reality, can affect me for much longer periods of time. A good example of this is the complex situation around attending college remotely during the pandemic. Not only do I have many overlapping expectations for how classes will occur, but it also is an experience that lasts weeks longer than the example of commuting through construction. Some of my expectations for attending college remotely have been completely met. Being a commuter student previously, I knew attending classes remotely would mean I no longer had to spend part of my day driving back and forth. I had therefore expected to have more free time now, but the opposite happened. Recently, my professors have assigned large amounts of reading, with related assignments to prove we actually completed the reading. Only two weeks into my current set of classes, I have already had to finish reading multiple whole books, along with smaller articles. I have never had this large set of readings at once before. Besides not expecting my time to be taken up this much by reading, I also thought the biggest challenges I would face during remote learning would be specific to classes being moved online. However, there would have been similar reading assignments if classes were still in-person, though not necessarily this large a quantity. I expected remote learning, in general, to be more difficult for me, but the only issue specific to remote learning that has stood out so far is the classes blurring together a bit. I’m always looking at my computer in the same room, often using the same apps to attend class and sometimes with the same students across multiple classes. Compared to physically switching classrooms, if not buildings, for in-person classes, there is not much differentiating one class from another in my memory besides the professor. Meanwhile, other issues I expected to occur with remote learning have yet to happen. 

There has also been a positive aspect to remote classes I did not expect, which has been being able to talk to my family members more often when we both need a break from work or school. Before the pandemic, we rarely arrived home at the same time from work and school. Now, everyone is working and attending school remotely, making it easier to interact when we want someone to talk to. Over time, we have also gotten better at making sure to also give each other time to be alone while all stuck at home for months. By now, I am very used to the ways being stuck at home together has changed our lives and my expectations for the future in this regard usually come true. While the pandemic has allowed my immediate family members to interact more, the unfortunate side to this is still not being able to as safely visit anyone I do not live with. 

As the pandemic continues on, I have noticed my expectations for the places I visit have also changed. Before, places like movie theaters were somewhere to escape purely for enjoyment. Meanwhile, going grocery shopping would have been thought of more as an undesired chore that I only completed out of necessity. With most fun escapes now closed, or at the very least less safe to visit, going grocery shopping has taken on a new meaning. My only physical escapes from the house are now for essential tasks only, like doctor visits or grocery shopping. When the weather was warmer, I did sometimes go on walks outside partially for enjoyment and partially to exercise, but now winter has taken away that last remaining fun escape. I can still do certain fun activities to get away from other parts of life for a bit, like watching Netflix or leisure reading, but those activities do not get me physically out of the house. I have noticed that the longer grocery shopping has become my escape from always being home, the more I have started to enjoy it and not see the trips just as a necessity. I start noticing more small details I would simply have passed by before while shopping because these visits are one of the few sources of new stimuli I get anymore that isn’t digital. What does this say about our lives now when grocery shopping becomes a source of novelty? I’m glad I am appreciating the task more, but it also shows how limited the set of places I can physically be has become. This provides a more limited set of new stimuli and experiences compared to the larger range of escapes I used to safely explore. If I go to the same grocery store every week or so, not much will be new on each trip compared to exploring somewhere I either have not been to in a long time or somewhere I have never been. Pre-pandemic, I was the kind of person who enjoyed traveling and visiting new places. Now, I am having to find the new aspects within frequently visited places. 

As time passes, I have also noticed my expectations for my own body are also continuing to change. In a time where what I could do was limited, I think my greatest accomplishment of 2020 was improving my flexibility and balance through exercising at home. Both my balance and flexibility have become better than I ever remember them being. I can now move my body in ways I did not think I would ever be capable of. However, my body also keeps changing in ways that are less beneficial. The other day, my jaw randomly hurt severely. This not only changed my expectations for my health but also how I had planned to spend that particular day. I had planned to focus on homework, but I instead spent that day visiting my doctor to try to figure out why my jaw hurt and how to treat it. I’m proud of some of the ways my body has changed over time beyond my initial expectations, but there also continues to be less pleasant surprises. 

Being only a few weeks into 2021 when writing this, there have already been so many events that fell somewhere between meeting my expectations and being completely unexpected. Whether it is the physical space around me, interactions with other people, the activities that end up taking up my time, or my body itself, the world is often not what we planned for. The unexpected has the potential to be fascinating and joyful, so uninfluential to us that it goes unnoticed at first, or leads to issues in our lives. I think it takes both some of our expectations being proven right while others ending up proven wrong in order to navigate a primarily joyful life. However, it also depends on what the mismatches between expectations and reality are and how they affect us for them to lead to a pleasant future or not.