“It’s incredible how many crises we’re all living in the same time . . . I do hope that we come out of it better by rethinking how we do things like how we work, how we commute, how we live.”Caroline Roux, PhD
I’ve been thinking a lot about how as terrible as 2020 has been, maybe it’s also a chance to reset. To get our priorities straight, to learn how to live better.
This isn’t just theoretical for me. In August, after months of white-knuckling pandemic life in the Bay Area with three small children and zero full-time jobs, our family launched into a very sudden, unanticipated pandemic Odyssey that took us across the country and called everything into question.
In the original Odyssey, there’s a moment when Odysseus and his men arrive on a land where the people there didn’t sleep so they could work two jobs: one shepherding sheep and one herding cattle.
Being a working parent in this pandemic has felt a bit like that; if only we could do without sleep, we could work and be good parents–or, as the case may be, administrative assistants managing our kids’ Zoom schedules. We tried, but about the only thing we could say for our efforts was that our kids now knew how to search for Kung Fu Panda videos on YouTube, which they did whenever we weren’t hovering over them. We needed help, and there were no easy or obvious solutions.
When our school district announced in that our kids wouldn’t be going back to school in-person, there was a lot of talk in our community about helping each other out. I spent hours on the phone with other parents, most of whom liked the idea of forming a distance learning co-op–but got stuck in the details. Our family had two school-aged kids, an added burden most one-kid families didn’t want to take on. Others were nervous about COVID exposure with our 3-year-old going back to preschool, a decision we’d made out of desperation because our house was small, and distance learning to the backdrop of shrieks and photo bombing was not a great combination. There were concerns about equity and behavioral issues and differences in parenting styles.
We had weathered job loss and cancelled family visits and even watched our plans to take a sabbatical year slip away–all without losing hope. But the prospect of doing distance learning alone brought a creeping panic that was new. Our sense of abundance had dropped away. For the first time in the pandemic, we felt alone.
Caroline Roux and Kelly Goldsmith are some of the world’s leading experts on resource scarcity. Kelly describes their work this way: “I like to tell people I study what happens when everyday people don’t have access to everyday things.”
Like, say, when two working parents who used to send their kids to school are suddenly faced with the challenge of working and caring for their kids–and maybe even teaching them a little. But unlike the mythical men in the Odyssey, they can’t survive without sleep.
I first came across Caroline and Kelly’s research months ago, which illustrated that it’s possible to motivate people in times of scarcity to become more generous.
“That paper kind of starts off in a dark place, that scarcity increases selfishness,” Kelly said. “But then it comes back around to say, “look, it doesn’t always have to be that way.’ It’s those people who have scarcity on their minds that are actually excellent at identifying and responding to these win-win opportunities when you help yourself by helping others.”
I wanted to see if they could help me to find my way back to a feeling of abundance–or if not abundance, at least well-tempered hope.