We humans

3 lessons about what really matters in life, learned in the pandemic

Sep 10, 2020 /

The last year has been like no other.

Since March 2020, every person on the planet has had their life shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic in some way. In the midst of the hardship and challenges, there’s been the sense among many people that this period has helped us evaluate our lives and focus on what’s truly important.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ve learned something from this moment.

In response to the pandemic, StoryCorps — a nonprofit dedicated to recording the largest collection of human stories and winner of the 2015 TED Prize — created StoryCorps Connect, a new tool to bring together loved ones via video conferencing and record the audio of their conversations.

Below are excerpts from a handful of the thousands of interviews recorded in recent months through StoryCorps Connect.

Lesson #1: The pandemic has helped us find deeper meaning in our work

Two mail carriers see the value in every delivery they make

Before getting a job as a mail carrier in Palm Beach, Florida, Evette Jourdain was going through a hard time — she’d lost her father, her brother and then her home. Finding reliable work helped tremendously, but then came COVID-19.

As Jourdain talked to her coworker, fellow postal worker Craig Boddie, she shared how she was feeling. “My anxiety levels are always on 10,” she says. “I pray on my way to work, I pray on my lunch break, I pray when I’m at the box. What keeps me going is just the fact that I need to keep going.”

Boddie agreed. His wife has autoimmune disease, and as he puts it, “Every day I wake up and wonder, ‘Is this the day that COVID-19 is gonna come home with me?’”

But he also knows that his work is more important than ever, and he thinks about how each package he carries contains something to keep people afloat in some way. “We’re like a lifeline — getting these people their medicines, their supplies.”

A health care provider gains inspiration from a classic novel 

Josh Belser and Sam Dow are good friends who grew up in Tampa, Florida, and who now both work in healthcare 400 miles apart — Belser as a nurse in Syracuse, New York, and Dow as a health technician in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

And with COVID-19, they’ve both found themselves on the frontlines. “My floor was one of the first that was converted to strictly dealing with COVID patients. Our jobs changed like overnight,” says Dow in their StoryCorps conversation. “There was no dress rehearsal — the numbers started to go up and it was show time.”

So how did they get through? Dow tells his friend he found some inspiration in Albert Camus’s classic novel The Plague. “It’s about an epidemic, and the main character was a doctor,” he explains. “And he says the way to get through something like this is to be a decent person. Somebody asks him, ‘What makes a decent person?’ He says, ‘I don’t know but, for me, it’s just doing my job the best way I can.’”

Dow says he’s tried to do exactly that. “Hopefully I made a difference in people’s lives.”

Lesson #2: Family rhythms have shifted, but our ties are as important as ever

A grandmother takes strength from her ancestors

Like so many other people, COVID-19 took Jackie Stockton by surprise. One day, she was at her church in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, celebrating her 90th birthday — and the next thing she knew, she was in the hospital. What’s more, she was part of a community cluster, and five members of the church eventually died from the virus, including Stockton’s best friend as well as her son-in-law.

Stockton spoke to her daughter, Alice Stockton-Rossini, about these losses. She says, “I remember 9/11 as though it just happened, but then it was over. This will never, ever be over.”

As a way to cope, she finds herself thinking of her great-grandmother. “She lost half of her children. She lived through the worst kind of hell,” she recalls. “She was an amazing woman, and so was her husband. They just did the things they needed to do. And they survived.”

The pandemic brings together a mother and daughter

In 2005, attorney Chalana McFarland of Atlanta, Georgia, was convicted of mortgage fraud and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The judge hoped this harsh sentence would deter others from similar crimes, but it had severe consequences for McFarland’s 4-year-old daughter, Nia Cosby.

In 2020, with the onset of COVID-19, McFarland was transferred to home confinement. Upon being released, the first person she saw was her now college-age daughter. In a candid conversation during their first weekend together in 15 years, Nia describes their reunion as “one of the best moments of my life.”

McFarland agrees. “When I left, you were driving a Barbie car, and now you’re flexin’ in the Honda Accord,” she says. “We’ve had a relationship over the years, but it’s like pieces of a puzzle that we’re just now putting together. I can’t wait for you to discover how much alike we really are, because you haven’t really gotten to know who I am. But I see so much of me in you. Out of all the things that I’ve done in my life, you are the absolute one thing that I got right.”

A canceled reunion highlights the power of family stories

The Quander family has a long history in the US. Its matriarch, Nancy Carter, was one of 123 enslaved people owned by George Washington, and she was freed in his will. She later married Charles Quander, and in 1926, their descendents held the first Quander family reunion.

It took place every year since 1926 — until now.

“This one would have been the 95th reunion,” Rohulamin Quander, 76, tells his 18-year-old cousin, Alicia Argrett.

In lieu of gathering in person, Argrett asks him: “What would you like to pass on to me?” His reply: “That you are the keeper of the stories.”

Argrett appreciates his call to take this responsibility seriously. “As we’ve seen this year, you never know when your last [family reunion] could be,” she says. “I think it’s important to capture those opportunities while you still have them in your grasp. And I’m going to do what I can on my end to keep the spirit of the family alive.”

Lesson #3: Small gestures have a huge impact on our well-being

This pandemic led to the best date of her life — a staircase apart

As the director of microbiology at a hospital in Rochester, New York, Roberto Vargas’s job is to diagnose infectious disease. With his lab running constant COVID-19 tests, he needed to isolate himself from his wife, Susan Vargas, and their four children.

Initially, he stayed in a hotel but found it too lonely. So he moved into the family’s basement, stipulating that no one else was to go beyond the top of the stairs. One night, as the Vargases recall in their conversation, a coworker brought them all a home-cooked meal. “You sat at the bottom of the stairs in a rocking chair, and I was at the top. It was the first time we had been able to connect in so long,” says Susan.

This simple moment, she says, helped get her through the months of the pandemic, and it will forever be what she remembers most from this time: “As crazy as it sounds, it’s the best date I’ve ever had with you in my life.”

Mother and son reflect on a special, shared memory

In 2015, nine-year-old William Chambers went to work with his mother. Not to an office, but to a senior center near Boston, Massachusetts, where Ceceley Chambers works as an interfaith chaplain providing spiritual counsel to those with memory loss. Ceceley knew the seniors would enjoy spending time with a young person.

What she didn’t expect was for William to sit down at a table with a woman cradling a baby doll she thought was real, and talk to her as easily as if she were his friend. “You just jumped into her world,” she recalls.

As Ceceley continues her work during the pandemic, both she and William have been thinking about that moment a lot. Although the structure of her days hasn’t changed, she’s seeing much more fear in those she’s counseling. William says he has been working hard to cultivate empathy for whatever mood she comes home with. Thinking of that woman with the doll and the other patients helps him.

He adds, “They made me think you should enjoy life as much as you can, ‘cause it doesn’t happen forever.”

Want to record an interview with a loved one — nearby or far away — about their experiences during the pandemic? Here’s how to get started. You can also explore more StoryCorps stories here.

Watch StoryCorps founder Dave Isay’s TED Prize Talk here: