“Well, thank you for doing my podcast,” CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta says to the first guest in “Chasing Life.”
“Did you know I had a podcast?” he jokes.
“Yes,” replies his wife, Rebecca. “It comes on my Alexa every day.”
At the end of April, Sanjay said goodbye to the “Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction” podcast.
Today, CNN debuts its successor, “Chasing Life,” where Sanjay sits down with his wife of 17 years in his makeshift home studio in a basement closet. They interview each other for the first time to come to terms with the changes their family faced this year.
“Have you been into this room before? What do you think of my podcast room?” Sanjay asks.
“Well, I’ve been in this room before because it’s a closet,” Rebecca replies. “The one that we built with the little IKEA shelves. It’s amazing what they can do with these shelves: they totally covered them in blankets and stuffed all the pillows and clamped some soundboard things. It’s totally crazy in here. But hey, enough room for a tape or a microphone or two.”
While “Fact vs Fiction” was all about the coronavirus – how to avoid infection, what’s behind the latest science, how the pandemic affected our lives in the United States and around the globe – “Chasing Life” is about the next phase, how to emerge from more than a year of social isolation, economic upheaval and countless hardships.
Like many others, the Gupta family is trying to adjust to glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel: acknowledging how much the pandemic affected them, taking inventory of how they’ve changed and figuring out how they want to piece together their lives going forward.
“I’m pretty optimistic that [the country is] in recovery phase now,” says Sanjay, who throughout the pandemic has used the analogy of the country as his patient. “We’ve gone through this terrible trauma, didn’t even know at times if we were going to live or die, we were in the ICU, and now we’re on the general care floor … We still need care – we’re still in this – but we have to start thinking about recovery.”
“I think that’s a really good way to look at it; I like that analogy,” says Rebecca. “When you go home from being on the general care floor you still have quite a lot of healing to do, and if you rush it or if you are not mindful of it, you can put yourself right back in that hospital. But if you do take the steps and don’t rush it, you can go on to back to regular normal activities if you’re lucky.”
“It’s been such a tragedy,” adds Rebecca. “It’ll be a bad scar that that still aches sometimes because we’ll always still feel bad about all the lives lost to this pandemic … but hopefully, we’ll learn and move forward and still grow and develop in a way that helps us in the future.”
Where we are now
Organizational psychologist, author and podcast host Adam Grant recently wrote an article in The New York Times naming the malaise many have felt during pandemic: “languishing.”
“When you can’t describe your emotions, it also feels like you can’t control your emotions. Psychologists have found for years that one of the best ways to manage emotions is to label them,” Grant tells “Chasing Life.” He thinks the reason the term “languishing” hit a nerve is because so many of us have felt it but couldn’t quite pinpoint that stuck-in-amber feeling.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized: not burnout, people still have energy; not depression, people don’t feel hopeless,” he explains. “It’s called languishing. And I think sometimes people call it meh or blah or even ennui. But in psychology, languishing is basically the void in between depression and flourishing.”
Sanjay tells Rebecca he reached that point last fall. “I think for me personally, in the fall of last year, I got to a point where I’m like, I don’t know where the joy is anymore … People say, when is this going to end? I can’t even think about the future. I don’t see anything right now. It’s just empty,” he recalls. “And now I feel like I can see it. I don’t know what it’s going to be, ultimately – it’s blurry right now … but at least there’s something there.”
The path forward
The hope is that soon we will stop languishing, get unstuck and when we do, we will have to decide how to move forward – which lessons and routines from the pandemic we want to keep and build upon.
In that same first episode, Lisa Damour, a family psychologist, author and podcast host, says everyone’s routines got “blown out of the water” during the pandemic, and that will all happen once again when we establish new routines as we return to life in “the new normal.”
“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty still about what’s ahead. The pandemic has gone on so long that everybody knows we’re not snapping back to exactly what we had before,” she says. “I think there’s something complex around trying to imagine what we’re returning to, what it’s going to look like, how long it’s going to take to get back into new routines again. So, it’s a real mix of relief and also continuing apprehension.”
One theme to emerge, says Damour, is an appreciation for how in some aspects the world slowed down. “The thing I’m hearing, and also feeling personally, is how much people have appreciated having fewer activities in their lives, especially adults with kids … And so I am hearing a wistfulness and maybe even a sense of mourning about losing the very, very narrow quality of pandemic life, which on the one hand was so strange and felt so much like a privation and on the other hand, felt like it kind of took us down to the studs of what life is about and let us just enjoy being together with our families,” she explains.
With three daughters at home, that point resonates with Sanjay and Rebecca, whose pre-pandemic lives were filled with travel, juggling their kids’ activities and Sanjay’s work schedule.
“I think there was a while there, between us and the kids and different things going on, that we were in New York once a week … And that just seemed like, it wasn’t a big deal and that that was going to be the way things in our lives were going to go,” Rebecca tells Sanjay.
“Between my work for CNN and at the hospital, I was always on the go,” says Sanjay.
“There’s one year where you traveled like 80 percent of the year – and it was ridiculous. There’s crisis after crisis … And you lost something like 14 pounds and your parents had that lovely conversation with me,” recalls Rebecca.
” ‘Why aren’t you feeding my son?’ ” Sanjay jokes.
And then all of a sudden, the coronavirus struck and, Rebecca says, “It just stopped.”
But since the start of the pandemic, because Sanjay has been mostly at home (although even busier than before) and the kids have had their activities greatly curtailed, Rebecca and Sanjay have managed to carve out time alone together, including lunchtime walks and yoga, and with the whole family – dinners, family games and spontaneous dance parties.
“It’s very hard to do things together when you’re not physically in the same place. I think that that idea of having that time – to walk, to reflect maybe even a little bit – all that is really important. I think that’s been one of the great lessons for me,” says Sanjay. “Why does it take a pandemic to get that sort of thing?”
“It’s the time,” said Rebecca.
Grant says one of the biggest effects of the pandemic for some people is that it erased the boundaries between work and home. “There’s a giant blur between all the different elements in my life. And we know that’s, that’s compounded by the fact that a lot of people are working two-to-three hours longer days than they were before. Some of that is, ‘OK, I don’t have to commute, I don’t spend quite as much time getting ready in the morning, so I can redirect that energy toward work.’ But a lot of it is: Everyone is available – so, we all get dragged into things that we didn’t necessarily sign up for or commit to,” he said.
The blurring of our worlds has been hard for a lot of people, but Grant says there is a silver lining. “We’ve finally gotten workplaces to experiment with flexibility. Most of the data I’ve seen right now suggest that on average organizations are expecting people to be on site three to four days a week, which gives them one to two days to work from anywhere, and I think that’s where we should have been for the past decade,” he said.
For their part, Sanjay and Rebecca say there are some changes that they want to make for that future, including improving work-life balance and keeping up family quality time.
“There are some good things – we’ve managed to find ways to, as a family, be a family and laugh and entertain ourselves in ways that we hadn’t before. And it’s made us become creative in our own way. And hopefully we hold on to those,” says Rebecca.
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“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution here,” says Sanjay, acknowledging that there are so many people who are still really struggling.
“But I encourage all of you to try and take this opportunity to reflect, think about what changes from the past year you might want to make permanent and which pandemic habits you are most eager to abandon,” he says.
And he hopes “Chasing Life” can help with that process.
Chasing Life posts every Tuesday. You can listen to it, read more about it and sign up here.