Ambiguity In the Time of COVID-19 A student learns the piercing pain of uncertainty in a world built on plans.

Ella Faust, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, out on the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, earlier this year. (Image courtesy: Ella Faust)

In the back of my mind leading up to the actual day, I had been expecting the announcement to come. Still, when it arrived in the form of a rapid-fire series of emails in my inbox (due to the time difference, at the unforgiving hour of 2:38 am), I entered a confused state, one where resolution and panic battled each other out into a tired balance. The announcement that came to me, and countless other students, ordered the evacuation of my university’s multiple study abroad programs. Essentially, I was left with just a few days to shove the entire contents of my life in Edinburgh, Scotland into my suitcase, flying back to the States into a completely unknown situation. What followed was a few strange and colorless days of disconnected phones, cancelled flight rumors, winding airport lines and unease of being within six feet of other people, until I touched down back home at the San Francisco airport, a single sentiment spinning throughout my head, this was not part of the plan. I was beating at a wall of denial, convinced that it was beyond the scope of reality that my life’s direction and control could spiral so far out of my hands. My usual response when I decide that any aspect of my life is spiraling out from under my possession is usually the impulse to regain control in whatever way possible. But as I settled into an unfamiliar back room of my parent’s new apartment, months and months of uncertainty stretched out onto the bare white walls around me. I felt any semblance of a “plan” spiral out into a realm that I could no longer grasp.

I was beating at a wall of denial, convinced that it was beyond the scope of reality that my life’s direction and control could spiral so far out of my hands.

Since returning to the States, I have had an excessive amount of time to dwell on the plans I had made for my own life, as well as think about the many other people across the globe whose plans were dashed as mine were. For me, my plan had been set in stone, one of escape. As frivolous as it may sound, I had placed the entity that was my “study abroad experience” at the top of a tall mountain, one I had slowly been dragging myself up the entire semester leading up to my departure to the United Kingdom. The year 2019 had been a culmination of exhaustion, a constant mental storm that I could not seek proper shelter from. But as the dust of the previous year settled onto 2020 and the many open roads it seemed to encompass, I had entirely convinced myself that escaping from school, family, and every other element of my life that I had come to associate with my own inner turmoil, would allow for a reset within my mind and body. I was absolutely terrified to leave the places I found familiar, but as soon as I boarded my overnight flight to Europe I felt a sense of starting over, an electrifying invigoration that I had not felt at home for as long as I could remember. In my head, the next five months away were dedicated to improving my mental state, molding myself into a successful, functioning version of myself. And abroad, as I immersed myself in a never ending pile of new experiences and opportunities, my plan was falling into place. I had spent months convincing myself that I was fated to overhaul my entire self through a life-changing experience and return a highly adapted and improved version of myself, which is why I found myself so extremely pained by the way things played out. As days began to blend together into one long, uncertain slab of time, the feelings I had tried to run away from- anxiety, sadness, confusion, stress, anti-sociality, all began to sneak back into my body until I was overwhelmed by them, and it felt like any mental progress I had managed to make in my few months abroad were a part of some larger, sicker joke. But as I drowned in uncertainty, I was constantly reminded of so many other lives besides mine that were upended, many more severely so. And although this awareness facilitates extreme gratitude, it never makes me feel any better about the state of the world I live in. How could it, knowing that the stagnant mental confusion and fear wracking me is sweeping the rest of the world tenfold? Friends from both my home university and the university in Scotland are confined in ghost town dorms and empty dining halls—international students barred from entering their home countries, or students who do not have homes other than school to return to. Another close friend of mine watches her mother travel each morning from the Bronx into the epicenter of the pandemic, risking her life due to the financial burden that has suddenly burdens her family’s existence. My grandmother quarantined inside her 350 sq. ft. apartment on the first floor of her nursing home.  On her 90th birthday, my aunts and uncles and cousins congregated outside of her window, unable to any closer to her. Millions of jobs and paychecks, millions of healthy people, millions of dreams and ideas and hopes, spiraling out of the grasp of those who never expected to lose control. The sentiment that kept me up nights on my final days in Scotland holds commonality for them all, whether it be a painful inconvenience or a tragic fall into instability—this wasn’t part of the plan, this was not part of any of our plans.

I wrote a note in my phone on one of my last days in Scotland: “I want to teach my kids to be comfortable with complete uncertainty.” The question of plans, and my reliance on their exact execution, is the essence of what I hope to take from my experience with the pandemic.

It has led me to a nihilistic nagging question, after days and days of confinement and confusion. Is there any point in making plans, looking forward to the future, when the future has proven to be so immediately and instantly up-endable? Of course, planning is something we all do to cope and survive. Without it, we would not have jobs, homes, relationships. People rely on their plans, they find comfort in them, emotional and financial security in them. People like to believe that they hold near-complete control of the ways in which their lives play out. But COVID-19 has made many feel as if the efforts they took to plan and stabilize their lives were completely futile. For college students, the plan was their spring semester, graduation, a rightful celebration culminating years of grueling hard work. Others worked tirelessly to secure a new job moments before the pandemic hit, only to have their efforts revoked by unemployment. Millions across America planned desperately around the arrival of a paycheck in March, a paycheck to pay for food and rent, one that would never arrive. The emotional devastation of expecting one thing so strongly, relying on it so urgently, and receiving an insufficient substitute is devastating, something our society will somehow have to recover from, on many different levels of the spectrum. And, back to my question, this new uncertainty has bred for many a hopelessness arising from a lack of control. The pandemic has made me, in many ways, lose a sense of trust in the future that I never really knew I relied on so deeply—I feel like maybe the next big world-destroying tragedy is lurking right around the corner, to pounce as soon as the world collectively begins to recover … it has shocked me with the reality of how truly little control we have over what happens in our lives.

I wrote a note in my phone on one of my last days in Scotland: “I want to teach my kids to be comfortable with complete uncertainty.” The question of plans, and my reliance on their exact execution, is the essence of what I hope to take from my experience with the pandemic. So many people on earth before COVID-19 may have been forced in their life situations to face this frustrating lack of certainty. But for many, like myself, this crisis seems the first time that their illusions of control are irreparably shattered. With any prior issue that I faced in my life, I was able to push my lack of control to the back of my mind, creating new plans for the future as a form of distraction, a way to move forward. However, having my own plan for the future upended, and watching millions around me lose things they felt certain were safe and secure, I am trying to rethink the way that I plan my own life. I have not discovered any profound new moral to life or piece of advice, but I am learning to consider this—how do I plan my life, what exactly am I planning for, and what do I have for myself if my plan completely derails?