Hurry Up and Wait

28 Mar 2020

COVID-19 Personal

Protagonist’s Syndrome

While working as a Test Engineer, I was often sandbagged by lead times. Time and time again, whether it was a high voltage cable in the Palo Alto office or a new battery pack shipping from Nevada, I was almost always waiting on something to arrive which was preventing me from starting an urgent test, whose urgency was reinforced by a continuous stream of emails, Slack messages, and phone calls from other engineers.

We referred to such situations as “Hurry Up and Wait” – a state of manic limbo where the pressure to proceed with a test was high, but no amount of effort on our part would accelerate the process. “Hurry Up and Wait” is something we all experience. It is the interval between the moment you submit that college application and the time when you receive the acceptance or the rejection. It is the time it takes for your manager to respond to the important email that took you half an hour to draft.

I suffer from protagonist’s syndrome; I feel as though I have the agency to do something about problems. Maybe because “Do Something” was the mantra of my alma mater, maybe because engineers naturally feel that they can solve problems. As such, the “Hurry Up and Wait” time was agonizing to me.

All the Time in the World

At the time of writing, we are a week into a California-wide “shelter-in-place” order. Federal governments around the world are urging the public to “Stay at home, save lives.” To flatten the curve is to give the brave individuals who comprise our healthcare system more time to handle the unprecedented influx of severe COVID-19 cases.

In this situation, the best we can do is to do less. Less commuting to work, less going out with friends, less frequenting coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. To fulfill our civic duty, we need to pause our daily lives and wait for the peak to pass.

I am priveliged in that I am well-poised to work from home. My daily research is done on remote servers, and UC Davis has moved all classes online for the forthcoming Spring Quarter. For the laboratory-based circuits course I am TA-ing this quarter, we are sending equipment to our students and holding our lab sessions and office hours over Zoom.

Hurry Up and Wait

I have never felt like an anxious person. Among the Big Five personality traits, I score in the 20th percentile for ‘Neuroticism,’ a trait associated with negative affect. But ever since reading about the outbreaks in Wuhan, I have felt an unprecedented ambient level of anxiety.

I feel a disconnect between what I work on day-to-day and what is happening in the world. I am coding away, mechanical keyboard clacking, and in the short time it takes for a program to finish running, my lizard brain switches me over to Chrome and opens up the COVID-19 Dashboard to see the latest number (660,706 confirmed cases globally, at the time of writing).

I feel that I am in a state of “Hurry Up and Wait” again, but now there is no ETA on my parts, no expected date for my admissions results. Worse yet, it feels like the work that I am doing is devalued in the face of this catastrophe. The protagonist in me wants to actively contribute to helping with the urgent, global problem, but the rational part of me knows that I am likely most useful by just staying at home, by “Hurrying Up and Waiting.”

Mindfulness and Meaning

I have struggled with this internal contradiction over the last two weeks. Recently, two people helped me frame this issue in a useful way.

Sam Harris’ work convinced me to take up mindfulness roughly two years ago. Admittedly, my adherence to the practice has been intermittent since starting grad school, and my meditation sessions have become even more sporadic in the wake of COVID-19. Recently, Harris released a podcast, “Meditation in an Emergency,” which reinforces the utility of mindfulness in a crisis,

Anxiety is very useful. It is not something that you’d want to banish… People who are incapable of feeling fear are deprived of a response to life that has an obvious evolutionary rationale… This has protected us physically and socially for eons.

It is not a matter of getting rid of anxiety or fear. But what you can do, what you want to do, what those who care about you wish you could do is let go of these emotions when they are no longer useful. The difference between feeling acutely anxious in response to new information that demands your attention and being made chronically anxious by that information is total. Those are descriptions of completely different minds, and you do really have a choice of which mind you’ll have… You can choose what to do with your attention, but to be able to make that choice, you have to notice the mechanics here.

So I view mental training, like physical training… as a kind of disaster preparedness. Who will you be on the most stressful day of your life? When you lose your job? When someone close to you gets sick or dies? You will only have the mind that you have built for yourself. You will only have the skills you have acquired.

(Note: While Sam Harris does have a mindfulness app, Waking Up, which is a subscription service (and therefore, has a finanicial interest in garnering subscribers), you are able to email the team to waive the subscription fee entirely. I highly recommend the app.)

Beyond mental training, we need a sense of meaning to undergird our work. In “The Moral Meaning of the Plauge,” (NYT, requires sign-in) David Brooks reaffirms what meaning is in the face of catastrophe. Brooks channels Viktor Frankl, who detailed the horrors of living in a Nazi concentration camp in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” writing,

[Frankl] reminded us that we don’t get to choose our difficulties, but we do have the freedom to select our responses. Meaning, he argued, comes from three things: the work we offer in times of crisis, the love we give, and our ability to display courage in the face of suffering. The menace may be subhuman or superhuman, but we all have the option of asserting our own dignity, even to the end.

In this light, working from home (if we are able) is the courageous and dignified thing to do, a rich source of personal meaning rather than a cause for anxiety. In addition to work, meaning is found through our connections, and with an abundance of time at home (and video conferencing software), we can reach out and check in with that long-distance friend or family member.

We cannot abolish anxiety entirely, but we can recognize the feeling of anxiety for what it is and act on it in a meaningful way: take necessary social and hygienic precautions, continue working diligently, and maintain our human connections. Sitting at home may feel like a case of “Hurry Up and Wait,” but for some of us, it is the most meaningful thing we can do.