Amid all this coronavirus chaos, I’ve been having a bit of deja vu.
This time last year, my husband and I were living in limbo. It wasn’t the collective kind caused by a global pandemic — we were in the immigration in-between.
He’s Jordanian and I’m American. We’d met and married in Jordan while I was a resident there, so we were required to stay put while awaiting the various stages of his U.S. immigrant visa process. Unlike in a pandemic, of course, we were free to leave the house, and the fear of a potentially deadly virus didn’t dictate our every move. But much like the current covid-19 situation, uncertainty saturated our lives, and some days it felt like we might drown under the weight of endless unknowns.
When we looked for our first apartment together, anything with a long-term lease was out. There was no way of knowing whether we’d be in Amman, Jordan’s capital, for a few months or years, so we bounced around between short-term rentals. It’s impossible to fully settle in while wondering when you’ll need to pack up.
Unsure of our eventual departure date and related relocation expenses (and the to-be-determined amount of time it could take to find my husband a job once we did finally arrive in the United States), we had to diligently save, not spend. Every decision was what I referred to as “the frying pan dilemma.” If we needed to buy something as simple as a frying pan, we had to weigh out whether it was responsible to spend money and accumulate more things when we might be moving at any moment, knowing that “any moment” could be just weeks — or maybe months, or even years — away.
We couldn’t RSVP to anything. The inability to schedule ahead wasn’t limited to our social life; it infiltrated my work as a travel writer, too. I was forced to forfeit assignments and professional development opportunities that required an advanced travel commitment of more than a couple of weeks. You can’t book flights when you don’t know whether your home airport will be on one side of the world or the other.
I hunkered down in my home office, isolating for hours on end while I searched for work to replace forgone assignments. When my husband unexpectedly found himself out of work, I completed additional projects to cover lost income. Holidays and milestones came and went. Family gatherings, graduations and weddings we’d hoped to attend carried on without us while we sheltered in place, counting every piastre (Jordanian penny) and promising we’d celebrate All The Things once we got to the other side of all of this.
We weren’t under coronavirus-related lockdown, but the immigration in-between created a mental prison of its own. And though we didn’t realize it then, figuring out how to exist — and even find moments of joy — during that time prepared us for the pandemic we’re living through now.
We embraced an inshallah mind-set — which was, admittedly, much more of a challenge for me than my husband, who grew up immersed in Muslim culture. The phrase translates to “god willing” or “if god wills.” In that saying, according to Saifa T. Hussain, associate chaplain and adviser to the Muslim and interfaith community at Middlebury College, there’s an inherent submission to a greater power, an acceptance that some things are out of your control.
Inshallah is more than just a frequently uttered phrase in Jordan (and many other Arabic-speaking countries and Muslim communities around the world), it’s a way of thinking that inevitably fosters a culture of flexibility. And, as I realized in my initial albeit unintentional resistance to it, the essence of inshallah runs counter to the cultural insistence on self reliance that I was accustomed to. I’d been raised to believe that if I worked hard enough, I could achieve anything I put my mind to. While there is value in determination and a strong work ethic, that approach doesn’t account for the numerous other factors — socioeconomic, environmental and otherwise — that are beyond our control.
The uncertainty of immigration limbo and the inshallah mind-set gave me permission to release my white-knuckled grip and replace the need for control with the acceptance that I actually had very little of it. That was terrifying. It was also a colossal relief. I was suddenly no longer responsible for Every Single Thing. I could focus my energy on doing my best with the things that were within my control, and inshallah, the rest would unfold as it was meant to. (Many spiritual practices incorporate this same belief in some form, but you need not necessarily be a religious person to appreciate the power of it and apply it in your own life.)
It seems the pandemic has similarly exposed the illusion of control on a larger scale. We aren’t living in “uncertain times.” We are just being forced to reckon with the fact that things we assumed were a given are not. And for many people — particularly those who are fortunate to have sufficient income and access to health care, food and clean water — that realization can be alarming.
“We [in America] live in a society that I think really revolves around certainty,” says Hussain. “There are different levels of socioeconomic privileges to that, but for the most part … we have an overabundance of blessings. We turn on our tap and expect to get water. We go to the grocery store and expect to get food.” The pandemic has proved that even these basic things are not guaranteed.
As Amy Cirbus, mental health counselor and director of clinical content at Talkspace, explains, it’s natural that many folks are feeling unsettled and anxious as the result of “losing grasp on things they previously felt sure of.” Humans construct systems and practices that give us a sense of control. “All living things like to have some control of their environment,” she writes via email. “Humans, in particular, like to have an extreme amount of control.”
It’s perfectly normal to crave routines and structure, and to then feel uneasy when we think we’ve lost that. But as my husband and I learned in the immigration in-between, we haven’t actually lost control; we never had it to begin with. Although that can feel overwhelming at first, it’s an opportunity to figure out what things you have the power to change and let go of the rest.
Cirbus suggests making a list of the things you have control over and then incorporating those into a schedule for the day. Whether you create a mental list or write one out, you’ll likely notice that the aspects of your life that are meaningful to you start to surface, and many tasks that filled your pre-pandemic schedule may fade to the back. “Moments of uncertainty give us a chance for clarity,” says career coach Neha O’Rourke. “We can flip the script and prioritize the things that are important in our lives.”
In immigration limbo, my husband and I shifted our focus from what we lacked to what we had. We constantly reminded each other that if we had food on the table and a roof over our heads, we had enough for that day and we’d continue to inch closer to our goals shwai shwai (little by little). The same attitude of gratitude and tempered perseverance that got us through the immigration in-between have provided another cornerstone of sanity in the covid-19 crisis, allowing us to continue to reimagine new possibilities.
“When you lean into uncertainty, a lot of growth can happen,” Hussain, the chaplain, says. She points out that this does not discount the suffering that is also occurring. But all of these emotions and experiences can exist simultaneously.
And as much as uncertainty can be painful, by the very nature of the unknown, there is opportunity in it. It was this exact week last year that my husband and I received the call we’d been waiting for: the embassy had finally reopened immigration interviews and had scheduled ours for the summer. His visa was approved in July and we made the move to America a few months later.
Life in limbo helped me fully understand that when your hands and heart are no longer clinging to a need for control, they’re finally free to hold onto hope.