Putting Community First
When I was in high school, I was selected to represent North Florida at the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership World Leadership Congress in Washington, D.C. More than 400 student ambassadors from around the world gathered there for a week to talk about leadership and service. Being around that many young and highly motivated people made me feel invincible, even when we had learned some of our fellow participants were being quarantined. You see, this was in 2009, the year H1N1, better known as the swine flu, was rampant.
Upon returning home, I soon learned that along with many of my new friends, I had contracted the virus. My situation was even more dire because of my father’s health condition. He was a type 1 diabetic who had been on dialysis for years. His immune system was compromised, so when we found out I had the swine flu, my mother put me under a strict seven-day quarantine in my room. Much like with the current pandemic surrounding COVID-19 with self-quarantine and social distancing, my mom wanted to reduce as much as possible the risk of my father catching this serious illness from me.
Even though I felt better after only three days, I still stayed in my room for the whole week. I was miserable, but I did it. I did it because even though I was not severely affected by the swine flu, the man who I loved most could have been. The mere chance of getting him sick meant I had to sacrifice some of my freedoms until I knew he was in the clear, because I was in the clear.
I realize my experience then lasted only a week, and right now, we don’t know how long our current situation will continue; however, my lessons from it are relevant more than ever today. Being stuck in that room, I held feelings of boredom, anxiety, FOMO, and frustration. I was mad with my mom, my sisters, myself, and even my dad, because my autonomy was taken from me. I think many people might being feeling similarly now. Frustrated by what they have had to give up: spring break trips, graduation ceremonies, time at the gym, dates and hangouts with friends, going home, work or a paycheck— the list is endless. Anxious over how this might affect opportunities or plans down the road. Scared this might go longer than any of us expected.
These are all valid and honest reactions to how we live now with COVID-19 seeping into every aspect of our lives, especially when we know we aren’t necessarily engaging in social distancing or self-quarantining for our own health. Instead, we are doing it for those, who like my dad, could be in far more danger if we didn’t limit our in-person social interactions. Just saying this doesn’t make it so, though. There are still people out there who think they can move about their respective spaces without concern. We will have to shift our perspective from thinking there’s no “I” in “Team” to realizing there is an “I” in “Community,” which reveals the significant interdependence between ourselves and others.
We can and should still hold on to who we are as individuals. There is power and significance to allow people to live authentically as who they are. But when we are in times of collective stress and danger, we must find ways to yield our preferences to the community. We must take it upon ourselves to make sacrifices now to ensure our community will survive and once again thrive.
Those seven days were unbearable, but I also learned how to find the community that was ever present, even in what I thought was my isolation. My god-sisters made it a point to stand or sit outside my door and talk with me. My family made efforts to cook some of my favorite foods, and my sisters still teased me like they always did. And through all of this, I built community with the other participants who were also stuck at home recovering. We had a shared experience which connected us and saw us through the rough spots. I hope we can learn to find and value community during this crisis.
Stay home, yes, but don’t close yourself off from the world still living all around you. Check in on grandparents, aunts and uncles. Call parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. Go on virtual dates. Have video chats with friends. Watch a drag queen perform in her living room. Dance your heart out on one of these online dance parties. Hold a virtual game night. Whatever you do, just remember there is an “I” in community and we have to do our part to ensure our community remains resilient.
— Eric Jones, Experiential Leadership Coordinator