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How to be grateful during a pandemic

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Megan McArdle

In November of 1621, when the Plymouth Colony sat down to feast with the Wampanoag, I’d bet the colonists felt grateful just to be alive. Of the 102 passengers who struck out for New England aboard the Mayflower, only 53 survived a year of hunger and disease to eat that first Thanksgiving meal.

Yet they gathered to “rejoice together,” wrote Edward Winslow a month later, that “by the goodness of God, we are so far from want.”

That’s something to live up to, especially after our own national bad patch. And it was very bad: Covid-19 has killed close to 775,000 Americans, and many more still mourn their passing. The rest of us merely endured two years of fear and isolation.

But gratitude isn’t what we finally get around to when life is perfect. It is what we make space for despite hardship and chaos. When we do, the experts tell us, we become happier, better people. So this Thanksgiving, let’s make like the Pilgrims and remember all we have to be grateful for, even in a pandemic.

The best way to start is to ask yourself what changes you wouldn’t want to give up if you could somehow be magically whisked back to the before-times. For example, I sure don’t miss colds and flus.

Hand-washing, social distancing and masking may not have defeated the pandemic, but they absolutely smashed flu season. So how about gratefully acknowledging the gain by getting our flu shots and keeping up the aggressive hand-washing? (I don’t really miss food poisoning, either.) Maybe people who feel sniffily could continue to wear a mask when they venture out — though I’d really prefer they stay home, on pain of social shunning. (Yes, even if that means America has to bump up her paid sick leave offerings.)

What if most of us could go a whole winter without getting sick? What if flu deaths stayed low? Wouldn’t that be reason to be glad?

While we’re on the subject, I’m awful glad the pandemic forced so many buildings to improve their ventilation. We’ve known for centuries that better indoor air quality means fewer airborne diseases, but in the era of vaccines and antibiotics, we sealed ourselves into glass boxes that eventually turned into pandemic petri dishes. Even before that, they had been havens for mold and other pathogens. So give thanks for the reminder that ventilation is good, then bring on the HEPA filters and UV-C sterilizers. And for gosh sakes, architects, how about real windows that open?

And, of course, let’s have a moment of glad silence for the biomedical miracle we just witnessed. An unprecedented burst of global collaboration produced vaccines and treatments at a pace that would have been unbelievable just a decade ago. I hope it won’t seem ungrateful if I say, “More of that, please.”

Let’s also consider the farther-reaching ways the pandemic rearranged our lives. Many companies are permanently restructuring their operations to allow more hybrid or full-remote options. Farewell, commuting! We won’t miss you a bit!

Be glad, too, for what the pandemic did for ordinary workers. So many households came out of the pandemic with higher wages and fatter savings accounts, which is terrific news. So is the huge number of people who have decided to look for a career change after “pandemic epiphanies.” In the long term, this could be great for those workers — and for the rest of the economy — if they end up in positions where they’re happier and more productive.

The pandemic gave a lot of us new reasons to be happy. How about the new hobbies we acquired when we suddenly had time on our hands? The extra time many of us spent with family? The parents who have discovered that home schooling actually works better for their kids than a big classroom? The pets we adopted and now can’t imagine living without?

Heck, I even got something out of living with every window open to the 35-degree winds during the two weeks I spent caring for my Covid-positive dad. Dad’s now fine, and it turns out I sleep better that way. Nor am I the only one to discover fresh love for the great outdoors; I’ve spoken to a lot of people who want to do more open-air entertaining just because they realized that gathering around a fire pit is fun.

Yes, all this came at a tremendous price, and it wasn’t a fair trade. But while we missed a lot during the pandemic, and miss many people still, in missing them we also learned what we valued most. That’s priceless knowledge we can use to make a better future. That seems particularly worth remembering on Thanksgiving, since what so many of us missed most was simply gathering around a table with our friends and family.

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